Does Obama have the right to change his mind on Syria?

Friday night Obama got cold feet and pulled back, deciding to seek Congressional approval after all. To many, Obama’s lurching suggests that he was weak, inconsistent, and indecisive, a pretty bad combination for the person heading up the world’s largest superpower. But perhaps Obama was following the admonition of Shakespeare’s Falstaff in Henry IV that discretion is the better part of valor. Putting aside the substantive policy question of whether we should or should not punish Syria for its apparent use of chemical weapons with a surgical and proportionate attack–and there are plenty of meritorious arguments on both sides of that question–what if he just changed his mind? Are president’s allowed to second-guess themselves and change their minds if they conclude that a previous or tentative decision was made in error? Some might suggest that the country would have been better served had President Lyndon Johnson acted on what we are now learning of his own increasing reservations about the wisdom of the Vietnam War. Should glands trump brains and judgment?

Even if he never should have made the red-line stand last year, does that obligate him to act on it if there is growing evidence that at least half of the public as well as some of our closest allies do not support it? If there is one agreed upon lesson from Vietnam, it is don’t get into a fight that the American people do not support. And was the chance of successfully threading that needle worth the risk of the situation escalating out of control, perhaps with an attack on Israel? Should a president make a statement, no matter how ill-advised it might be, then say, “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” regardless of the circumstances and just to be consistent?

It’s not as if Obama has been a pacifist on all other issues.

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