President Barack Obama has just ended a summer shadowed by weakness: A convergence of external events and what even some Democrats are calling self-inflicted setbacks have cast a harsh light on a so-far anemic second term…
The next several weeks offer a chance for Obama to shift the direction of a presidency in which he has been slowly bleeding both personal popularity and, more importantly, the intangible mystique of power — one that flows from a president’s ability to let domestic and foreign rivals alike know they will either bend to his will or pay a severe penalty…
In Washington and around the world, both friends and foes can easily read his doubts about his own Syria policy and witness his agonizing over the use of military force in real time. His decision over the Labor Day weekend to seek congressional approval for a limited military strike on Syria came after administration officials earlier signaled that reprisals for use of chemical weapons by President Bashar Assad’s regime were imminent, perhaps just hours away. On Capitol Hill, the delay is being interpreted in both parties, not as evidence of a principled belief in constitutional authority, but as Obama’s attempt to share ownership if his Syria decisions go awry.
“The events of the past ten days suggest that there was no administration forethought to the possibility of a major chemical incident in Syria,” wrote Hof, currently a fellow at the Atlantic Council, where his former boss is Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. Hof had floated the specter of a chemical attack by the regime months ago.
“The results of this mystifying lack of preparedness have been abysmal,” he wrote, calling Obama’s decision to seek congressional approval for the strikes “constitutionally sound, but strategically appalling” and suggesting the White House find “an objectives-based strategy.”
Hof struck at what, for those who spend their time thinking about grand strategy and not domestic politics, is the heart of the matter. The administration has consistently separated the goals it hopes to achieve with a military strike — punish Assad, send a warning to similar states, restore U.S. credibility — from the objectives it hopes to achieve politically: to reach a negotiated peace in Syria with Assad no longer at the country’s helm. In terms of strategic planning, the separation of the two is almost a rookie error.
Realizing that most Americans and our most trusted allies reject Syrian intervention, President Obama now puts it to the Congress to decide. This provides Obama a backdoor to save face, though it would have been more honest to ask Congress up front, had he truly cared about their opinions.
President Obama backed down and, oddly, is taking refuge behind Congress, when he could have said, “I do not have sufficient support from our allies or from other Americans, and as much as it is right to do this, the UN Security Council, many of our foreign allies, and the people who elected me, have spoken. I am, ultimately, a servant to American citizens. You have spoken. I have listened. There will be no attack at this time.”
Those words would reek of authenticity. Credibility would be bolstered. They are not words of weakness. They would be words of humility, spoken by a President who properly consulted Congress, and who listened to the will of the Republic. They would be the words of a leader.
This latest volte-face by the president is evidence of a man who is completely overmatched by events, weak and confused, and deeply ambivalent about using force. Yet he’s also desperate to get out of the corner he painted himself into by declaring that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would constitute a “red line.” As a result he’s gone all Hamlet on us. Not surprisingly, Obama’s actions are being mocked by America’s enemies and sowing doubt among our allies. (Read this New York Times story for more.)…
The president of the United States is preparing in advance to shift the blame if his strike on Syria proves to be unpopular and ineffective. He’s furious about the box he’s placed himself in, he hates the ridicule he’s (rightly) incurring, but he doesn’t see any way out.
What he does see is a political (and geopolitical) disaster in the making. And so what is emerging is what comes most naturally to Mr. Obama: Blame shifting and blame sharing. Remember: the president doesn’t believe he needs congressional authorization to act. He’s ignored it before. He wants it now. For reasons of political survival. To put it another way: He wants the fingerprints of others on the failure in Syria.
You can pin this on Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Susan Rice, but most of all, the buck stops with the president. Those of us who scoffed a bit at a state senator ascending to the presidency within four years on a wave of media hype and adoration are not quite so shocked by this current mess. We never bought into this notion that getting greater cooperation from our allies, and less hostility from our enemies, was just a matter of giving this crew the wheel and letting them practice, as Hillary Clinton arrogantly declared it, “smart power.” (These people can’t even label a foreign-policy approach without reminding us of how highly they think of themselves.) They looked out at the world at the end of the Bush years, and didn’t see tough decisions, unsolvable problems, unstable institutions, restless populations, technology enabling the impulse to destabilize existing institutions, evil men hungry for more power, and difficult trade-offs. No, our problems and challengers were just a matter of the previous hands running U.S. foreign policy not being smart enough…
This crew, so certain of their charm, persuasiveness, and diplomatic mettle somehow failed to persuade the British government or people that the effort against Assad is worth joining.
When it hits the fan elsewhere in the world, the EU is not going to come running with peacekeepers. There is nobody else but us.
Since then, further evidence has piled up that Obama is a dithering, indecisive leader willing to deflect making a decision because of what many see as political calculation. It’s one thing when this happens domestically, like when his administration delayed meaningful action by BP and the state of Louisiana to clear up the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010. It’s another when it happens in foreign policy — especially in the Middle East. Obama stood aloof during the Iranian street protests of 2009. In Libya, he delayed a decision for weeks until choosing “to lead from behind,” in the famous words of one adviser. In Egypt, the administration was caught flat-footed not once, but twice, by uprisings…
[A]s Democratic leaders try to corral those votes [for war in Syria], part of the pushback will not just be questions about the advisability of a strike on Syria, but increasing worries that the president they elected is not ready for prime time when it comes to foreign-policy crises. A Democratic congressman who retired years ago once told me that, while he didn’t vote for Ronald Reagan in 1980, he was “profoundly concerned” about how Jimmy Carter might have continued to mishandle U.S. foreign policy — from Afghanistan to Iran — if he’d won a second term that year.
Many Democrats may soon wake up to the fact they may indeed have reelected a Jimmy Carter — or worse. And he has a long 40 months left in his term.
The toxic atmosphere of suspicion engendered by the President’s radical liberal governing style has left him no well of trust from which to draw. Sadly, but not without cause, the first unspoken thoughts that arose when the President reversed course were that this was some sort of trick designed to saddle his political opponents with the blame for a policy that was already in tatters. That was a natural consequence of five years of political choices by the Administration – when support is suddenly required, don’t expect to instantly receive it from the people you and your mainstream media pals have spent half a decade demonizing.
The Administration is full of smart people, but what it needs are wise people who understand something about human nature. Scorched earth politics burn away the relationships and trust one will need to lean on after he unilaterally draws a red line and then finds himself needing support from his opponents when the enemy steps across.
But that cannot be helped now – we are where we are, and that is on the brink of yet another war. If the President truly believes this is the right course of action, he must literally step up to the podium and place his credibility behind it. He must personally take on the responsibility for this war.
There can be no voting present.
Given the White House leaks prior to the British Parliament’s vote against war, it’s pretty obvious that Obama was spooked out of making war all on his own. He senses (correctly, I believe) that he lacks the political capital to do anything without Congressional support.
By promising to go to Congress, where the result is anything but clear at this point, he has weakened the presidency — and really, that may be the single greatest and most historic accomplishment of his presidency so far. Obama’s unilateralism on other issues has justly brought upon him accusations of lawlessness. Now, he has created a precedent that will surely bind Republican presidents and perhaps Democratic ones as well.
The president is a spent force, both domestically and internationally. Congress should help by voting to cut our losses; it should resist opening the door to the uncertain consequences of a military campaign conducted, without conviction or clear purpose, by this commander in chief. If Republicans can limit the president’s authority to wander and blunder on the world stage, there is a moral obligation to do so.
Of course Syria should be viciously punished for using chemical weapons, but who trusts this president to do so in such a way that also sends a clear message to Iran? No one does. Why would they? Better to leave Iran with a modicum of doubt than let them witness any more of the tepid uncertainty, lack of conviction or absence of moral clarity from President Obama.
The only thing worse than no response from America is a floundering response, so Congress should stop it while they can. We don’t need to go through the half-hearted lobbying effort in Congress, which will just underscore the incompetence and incapabilities of this administration. Republicans should vote to end this disaster now. A vote of no confidence is in order.
Via the Corner.
DEMPSEY: I can’t answer that, what we’re seeking.