Tapper: Did Obama’s Syria fumble blow his political capital?
posted at 3:21 pm on September 12, 2013 by Ed Morrissey
The video here is instructive not because of the discussion that ensues, but because of the question Jake Tapper asks. DCCC chair Rep. Steve Israel can be relied upon to carry Barack Obama’s water on this subject and cry about the “politicization” of the debate over whether to authorize strikes on Syria, but the truth is that as many Democrats publicly opposed the rush to military strikes as Republicans did. Worse, Obama’s push forced Democrats like Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi to start making Hitler comparisons and Munich analogies, only to discover that the President had retreated and left them twisting in the wind.
What happens the next time he calls his party to arms, either literally or figuratively?
Political capital does not come cheap in Washington, D.C. After weeks of trying to rally Congress to support him on a fast-changing policy in Syria, President Barack Obama may have broken the bank on what political capital he has left in his second term. ….
But Israel said Obama is not hurting his credibility with Democratic members of the House, adding that after a Democratic caucus briefing, the party is now focused on Russia’s diplomatic proposal to disarm Syria of its stockpile of nuclear weapons.
“Our focus on both sides of the aisle right now, quite honestly, is on ensuring that this is a legitimate, transparent, verifiable proposal,” said Israel.
But much of the Democratic caucus, people Israel helped get elected in the last cycle, are against the president.
Asked if that lack of support stems from a distant relationship with the president, Israel said no, saying it is the shadow of Iraq that is driving Democrats’ doubts on authorizing a strike against Syria.
Not any more, it’s not. It’s the shadow of incompetence combined with hubris, as Obama clearly didn’t bother to consult with the very people he asked to get out in front of the intervention push. What’s the next climbdown that will leave them twisting in the wind after provoking constituents with public support for very unpopular policies? If the DCCC chair thinks that purple-district incumbents aren’t going to worry about that with the midterm cycle approaching, he’s going to be in for an unpleasant surprise.
Speaking of incompetence, the Pee Wee Herman defense (“I meant to do that”) isn’t flying with the media, not even those outlets inclined to be sympathetic to Obama. The New York Times offers a measured analysis that includes the secret-genius argument, but Peter Baker doesn’t sound as though he’s buying it:
Over the last three weeks, the nation has witnessed a highly unusual series of pivots as a president changed course virtually in real time and on live television. Mr. Obama’s handling of his confrontation with Syria over a chemical weapons attack on civilians has been the rare instance of a commander in chief seemingly thinking out loud and changing his mind on the fly.
To aides and allies, Mr. Obama’s willingness to hit the pause button twice on his decision to launch airstrikes to punish Syria for using chemical weapons on its own people reflects a refreshing open-mindedness and a reluctance to use force that they considered all too missing under his predecessor with the Texas swagger. …
But to Mr. Obama’s detractors, including many in his own party, he has shown a certain fecklessness with his decisions first to outsource the decision to lawmakers in the face of bipartisan opposition and then to embrace a Russian diplomatic alternative that even his own advisers consider dubious. Instead of displaying decisive leadership, Mr. Obama, to these critics, has appeared reactive, defensive and profoundly challenged in standing up to a dangerous world. …
But Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former State Department official under Mr. Bush who broke with his old boss and has been supportive of Mr. Obama at times, is highly critical of the way he has handled Syria. “Words like ad hoc and improvised and unsteady come to mind,” Mr. Haass said. “This has been probably the most undisciplined stretch of foreign policy of his presidency.”
Baker quotes one analyst who gets to the heart of the political-capital question:
“Each time he’s done an about-face or a sharp turn, other people who kept marching in the same direction look kind of foolish,” said Peter D. Feaver, a Duke University professor who worked on the National Security Council staff under Mr. Bush and Bill Clinton. “It’s clear he didn’t fully think through the implications of going to Congress and prepare for that.”
Time’s Joe Klein dispenses with the measured approach and calls this episode “one of the more stunning and inexplicable displays of presidential incompetence that I’ve ever witnessed”:
He willingly jumped into a bear trap of his own creation. In the process, he has damaged his presidency and weakened the nation’s standing in the world. It has been one of the more stunning and inexplicable displays of presidential incompetence that I’ve ever witnessed. The failure cuts straight to the heart of a perpetual criticism of the Obama White House: that the President thinks he can do foreign policy all by his lonesome. This has been the most closely held American foreign-policy-making process since Nixon and Kissinger, only there’s no Kissinger. There is no éminence grise—think of someone like Brent Scowcroft—who can say to Obama with real power and credibility, Mr. President, you’re doing the wrong thing here. Let’s consider the consequences if you call the use of chemical weapons a “red line.” Or, Mr. President, how can you talk about this being “the world’s red line” if the world isn’t willing to take action? Perhaps those questions, and many others, fell through the cracks as his first-term national-security staff departed and a new team came in. But Obama has shown a desire to have national-security advisers who were “honest brokers”—people who relayed information to him—rather than global strategists. In this case, his new staff apparently raised the important questions about going to Congress for a vote: Do you really want to do this for a limited strike? What if they say no? But the President ignored them, which probably means that the staff isn’t strong enough.
The public presentation of his policies has been left to the likes of Secretary of State John Kerry, whose statements had to be refuted twice by the President in the Syria speech. Kerry had said there might be a need for “boots on the ground” in Syria. (Obama: No boots.) Kerry had said the military strikes would be “unbelievably small.” (Obama: We don’t do pinpricks.) Worst of all, Kerry bumbled into prematurely mentioning a not-very-convincing Russian “plan” to get rid of the Syrian chemical weapons. This had been under private discussion for months, apparently, the sort of dither that bad guys—Saddam, the Iranians, Assad—always use as a delaying tactic. Kerry, in bellicose mode, seemed to be making fun of the idea—and the Russians called him on it. Kerry’s staff tried to walk back this megagaffe, calling it a “rhetorical exercise.” As it stands, no one will be surprised if the offer is a ruse, but the Administration is now trapped into seeing it through and gambling that it will be easier to get a congressional vote if it fails. …
There are domestic consequences as well. This was supposed to be the month when the nation’s serious fiscal and budgetary problems were hashed out, or not, with the Republicans. There was a chance that a coalition could be built to back a compromise to solve the debt-ceiling problem and the quiet horrors caused by sequestration and to finally achieve a long-term budget compromise. But any deal would have required intense, single-minded negotiation, including political protection, or sweeteners, for those Republicans who crossed the line. Precious time has been wasted. And, after Syria, it will be difficult for any member of Congress to believe that this President will stick to his guns or provide protection.
Slate’s William Dobson laments that Obama doesn’t seem to realize that being rescued from such a trap by an autocrat like Putin isn’t a big confidence-builder:
Give President Obama credit: He has done such a good job of acting unpredictably in the lead-up to his proposed military strikes on Syria that no one knows what he will do next. He has successfully confused ally and enemy alike. Sun Tzu would be proud.
But President Obama cannot take all the credit for sowing confusion. Secretary of State John Kerry also has the unique distinction of becoming the first chief American diplomat whose offhand quip at a press conference launched a last-minute, global diplomatic initiative to disarm a murderous dictator. Kerry never thought that he was making a bold bid to avert military strikes that his president’s party and public had no interest in supporting. He simply suggested that if Bashar al-Assad handed all of his chemical weapons over in a week, that might stave off an impending U.S. attack—and of course, Assad wasn’t going to do that. The State Department rushed forward to clarify that Kerry wasn’t floating an actual proposal—he was just speaking rhetorically. You know, riffing. To say that the Obama administration is freelancing when it comes to foreign policy is an insult to freelancers. …
No one believes that the House of Representatives (and maybe even the Senate) was going to sign off on the authorization of force in Syria. But Putin’s late-breaking gambit has prevented Democrats from having to eviscerate their own president’s foreign policy. Putin is providing President Obama political cover that even his own party wouldn’t supply.
But if your foreign policy has to be rescued by a dictator, you are doing it wrong. That’s where President Obama finds himself today.
Is there anyone who could put any stock in Obama’s competence and commitment at this point? Obama may well be the President who found the quickest way to lame-duck status in second-term history.