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Start With The Attack, Then Work Backwards

Following the massacre in Houla this past Friday, Mitt Romney has briefly shelved his economic message to criticize President Obama’s Syria policy. The New York Times notes that Romney, who wants to arm the Syrian rebels, faces a GOP divided over intervention. But the most interesting comparison isn’t between Romney and other Republicans; it’s (surprise!) between Romney and Romney.

In this case, Romney’s schizophrenia is over our involvement in humanitarian crises. Last spring, as Muammar Qaddafi was promising to slaughter the people of Benghazi, Romney was wildly difficult to pin down on Libya, but eventually he figured out just how to attack the president  what he believed: The mission was imprudent. In late April 2011, Romney wrote a post for National Review Online called “Mission Muddle in Libya,” in which he criticized Obama for escalating the Libya mission in an “under-deliberated and ad hoc” manner. Romney noted that what started as a no-fly zone eventually transformed into a mission to oust Libya’s longtime dictator. “What we are watching in real time,” he warned, “is another example of mission creep and mission muddle.”

It’s tough to reconcile that level of caution with Romney’s relative hawkishness on Syria. As complicated as Libya was, most foreign policy experts think Syria is vastly more so—and so the case for intervention is weaker. (Human Rights Watch, for instance, praised the decision to intervene in Libya, but showed considerably less enthusiasm when expressing worry to the Times about the “complexity and risk in Syria.”)  

It’s pretty clear that the White House’s restraint against Assad is due, in large part, to a fear of the same “mission creep” Romney was so worried about in Libya. Once we’re involved in Syria, it’s going to be awfully hard to back out. (Afghanistan, anyone?) And it’s not clear why prudence and restraint, so important in 2011’s crisis, are suddenly—as Romney puts it—“a policy of paralysis” in 2012. That’s not to say the administration’s approach to humanitarian crises has been perfect—far from it. But Romney could at least try to offer a coherent alternative.