Syria denouement: An unmitigated disaster for US foreign policy and credibility

Note: This post was written earlier today, before Vladimir Putin issued an ultimatum to the US to stand down on the use of force in Syria as the price for a UN Security Council resolution to take control of Syria’s chemical weapons. As I remarked on Twitter:


This, of course, just underscores what follows.

Barack Obama tried spinning the Vladimir Putin peace plan as his own intentional strategy to defuse the Syria crisis in his suddenly-inconvenient interviews yesterday, in an attempt to restore the US position of leadership on global security that Putin managed to usurp.  Obama told Gwen Ifill that, er, he meant to give Putin that opening:

IFILL: John Kerry talked today about a limited, targeted, unbelievably small effort. And now we’re hearing news that Russia has a plan, a solution, perhaps, which would allow Syria to take all of its weapons and put it under international control. Is that something that you’ve had any conversations at all with President Putin about when you were in St. Petersburg last week?

OBAMA: I did have those conversations. And this is a continuation of conversations I’ve had with President Putin for quite some time. As I said to you the last time we spoke, this chemical weapons ban matters to us, to the United States.

Ahem. As Karl pointed out on Twitter, the Obama administration didn’t bother to bargain at all with Putin last week. It’s possible that this was done in secret, but how likely would that have been while Samantha Power was busy blasting Russia as obstructionist at the UN at almost the same moment?

Nevertheless, it is on these slender reeds that a few die-hard Obama apologists are constructing a case for his brilliance.  The record over the past year proves otherwise.  In my column for The Week, I point out the ad-libbed red line, the series of retreats from it over the past year, and the lack of any preparation at home or abroad to enforce it.  But that’s just the appetizer to the cornucopia of incompetence that took place over the last three weeks:


That was not the end of the disarray; indeed, it was just beginning. Kerry tried to argue that bombing another country didn’t amount to an act of war as long as we didn’t land troops on the ground, which he called “war in the classic sense.” At almost the same time, Kerry suggested that troops on the ground might be an option to engage the Syria hawks who want to impose regime change on Damascus, and then abruptly dismissed the idea when challenged to reconcile the contradiction. Obama then denied he’d set the red line at all, claiming that the world had set it through conventions barring the use of chemical weapons. But those conventions require global diplomatic action and then U.N. enforcement, not American unilateral military action.

As President Obama prepared to make his case on every television network and in a speech directly to the American people this week, the disarray continued. Kerry, in another attempt to argue that bombing Syria wasn’t an act of war, promised an “unbelievably small” attack, which would presumably still deter Assad. In the same press conference in London, Kerry inadvertently suggested a diplomatic solution that would involve having an international force secure Assad’s chemical weapons — a suggestion that the State Department tried desperately to reverse. Instead,Russia agreed to quarterback the effort and Syria announced its support for the proposal, which might have been a diplomatic triumph for the U.S. if (a) we had demanded this a year ago when President Obama set the red line, and (b) the Obama administration had thought to at least try it first before demanding approval for military strikes on Syria. Meanwhile, Obama’s arguments for military strikes were already taped by the networks, and his White House address on the eve of the anniversary of 9/11 and Benghazi remained on the schedule.

If any foreign policy deserved a vote of no confidence, the White House’s handling of the Syrian crisis tops the list. Voters apparently believe so as well. In a CNN poll published on Monday, 59 percent of Americans opposed potential congressional authorization for military strikes, including majorities in every demographic. A Pew poll put that figure at 63 percent.

Obama and the White House argue that the strikes have to take place to maintain American credibility in the Middle East, as a further deterrent to Assad and to the Iranians who support the regime and want to develop nuclear weapons. The disarray displayed by the administration has done more damage to that credibility than a measured approach within the global conventions ever could have done. A congressional rejection of military strikes would prove less humiliating in the long run than anything we’ve seen from the White House over the last year. Based on what has already transpired, who could possibly have any confidence in the Obama administration’s handling of actual military intervention?


Julia Ioffe calls this “amateur hour” at The New Republic, and says, “Obama got played by Putin and Assad”:

While the Russians are already cutting deals and drumming up promises from the Syrians—with whom, as they’ve insisted for years, they have no leverage—and as the world lines up on the off-ramp, the White House was still marshalling its case for a military strike, trotting out National Security Advisor Susan Rice, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and poor Tony Blinken, who was left making the case for two mutually exclusive things: “We’ll talk to the Russians,” he kept repeating even as he hammered on the intelligence and the need to degrade, deter, et cetera, et cetera.

Last night, President Barack Obama, who, just over a week ago, had said he was ready to act, tells the nation’s cable watchers that he’s now discussing this bogus plan with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and that he’s “going to take this very seriously” while also not letting up on the drumbeat of military strikes while. On Tuesday, Syria said it had accepted Russia’s proposal and France said it would seek the UN Security Council’s backing for the proposal.

This, in other words, is no light at the end of the tunnel. This, to borrow a phrase from a Congressional staffer at his wits’ end, “is an unmitigated clusterfuck.” …

There are two clear winners in this slow-motion train wreck, and they are not Obama or Kerry. They are Assad and Putin.  …  Obama, on the other hand, found himself constantly check-mated, either by his own hand, or, this time, by Kerry’s.


The New York Times’ Roger Cohen pronounced himself mystified by Obama’s fumbling on Syria last night, and used another colorful metaphor:

Even the normally friendly Politico called Obama’s performance an “avert-your-gaze” moment and his policy “flaccid,” producing an image of “The United States of weakness”:

Red lines that may or may not be real, retaliatory strikes that may or may not be hours from launch, congressional debates that may or may not be necessary for the president to do what he wants—whatever that happens to be this hour.

Barack Obama’s unsteady handling of the Syria crisis has been an avert-your-gaze moment in the history of the modern presidency — highlighting his unsettled views and unattractive options in a way that has caused his enemies to cackle and supporters to cringe.

Perhaps they’re cringing as they try to make the argument for Barack Obama, super genius, but Ben Smith at BuzzFeed isn’t fooled, either.  Calling it a “rough road to Damascus,” Smith outlines the nine “key blunders” made by Obama in the Syrian crisis.  Number 4 is drawing the red line in the first place, which is also the focus of Eric Ostermeier at Smart Politics.  Eric looks at the history of presidential red lines on military intervention and finds only 13 instances of their use — and 11 of them have been by Barack Obama:

A Smart Politics review of the Public Papers of the Presidents finds that presidents prior to Obama have been extremely gun-shy when it comes to drawing rhetorical ‘red lines’ – particularly within the context of international relations and the threat of military force.

U.S. Presidents have mentioned the phrase ‘red line’ 47 times across 33 speeches or statements over the decades.

However, the term has been used only 13 times by presidents in the realm of international relations, with 11 of these delivered over the last year by Obama.


The other two came from George W. Bush, but they were hardly in the same category.  One applied to North Korea, but the “red line” was on missile testing, and it was for a new round of UN Security Council review, not unilateral military action.  The other was a warning to Taiwan not to declare independence, or risk losing American support.  The “red line” was not only set by Obama alone, he’s the only President to use it to promise a unilateral military response — which seems rather odd coming from a Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Speaking of which, I speculated about the next Nobels last night on Twitter:

Let’s wrap this up with Glenn Reynolds, who wrote this deconstruction of Obama as inadvertent genius before the Putin gambit snatched leadership away from the US:

When I wrote last week on our bumbling Syria diplomacy, it seemed that things couldn’t possibly go further downhill. Boy, was I wrong.

Last week, it seemed our only ally was France. But now the French are having second thoughts. Obama’s efforts to get support at the G20 conference came to nothing. Even the pope is undercutting him.

Meanwhile, at home, polls show Americans are against a strike, and Obama is facing double-digit defections among Democrats in the Senate. The outlook for passage in the House, meanwhile, looks so bad that a resolution to authorize war may not even make it to a vote. If it’s sure to fail, why force members — Republicans and Democrats alike — to go on record? You can bet they don’t appreciate Obama putting them in this position.The Pentagon isn’t happy, and even The Atlantic’Ta-Nehisi Coates, a reliable Obama supporter, calls his policy “dumb.”

Some critics are even comparing the collapse of American influence under Obama to the end of the Soviet Union. Well, that may be an exaggeration — but Obama promised a “fundamental transformation,” after all.


We’ve now made Vladimir Putin the leader of Western diplomacy.  That’s not exactly smart power.

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