“Whatever your views on the larger issues, it’s hard not to conclude that the administration’s handling of Syria over the last year has been a case study in how not to do foreign policy.” That one line in a column written over the weekend by CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, one of the most thoughtful journalistic voices on foreign policy matters, is pretty devastating and probably dead on. The last few days specifically, have not been a pretty sight.
Just in case anyone was on an island in the South Pacific over the past couple of weeks, all of this is over whether the United States should attack Syria to punish President Bashar al-Assad and his regime for reportedly using chemical weapons, specifically sarin gas, on his country’s citizens, killing more than 1,400 of them, including hundreds of children. Just over a year ago, in August 2012, President Obama told reporters at the White House, “We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region, that that’s a red line for us, and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front, or the use of chemical weapons. That would change my calculations significantly.” That was a bold and unambiguous statement; it projected strength and leadership. This is the kind of statement that should not be made without having both the will and ability to back it up if necessary. As Zakaria put it, “Now, a pundit can engage in grandiose speech. The president of the United States should make declarations like this only if he has some strategy to actually achieve them. He did not.”
It is very clear that Obama and his administration had every intention of launching an attack late last week, reportedly with ship-launched cruise missiles, possibly followed by manned, stealth bombers. The purpose was to punish the Syrian regime, but not to topple it, as there is reason to believe that some rebel elements are as bad for the United States, if not worse, than Assad is. So there was a certain amount of needle-threading involved here. Hurt Assad enough to make him hurt, regret what he did, ensure that he never does that again, and make a strong point for despots elsewhere and in the future—but not significantly alter the balance in the civil war, at least until there is a viable side that we would actually want to see win and govern Syria. But is there really an eye in that needle? Just enough but not too much?
A U.S. attack seemed inevitable until three things happened. First came NBC News polling showing considerable skepticism and opposition to an attack. Next, the British Parliament’s vote turning down Prime Minister David Cameron’s move for the United Kingdom to participate in a U.S.-led attack to punish Syria. Then a chorus of members of Congress, from both sides of the aisle, started either opposing or, more frequently, calling for congressional approval before any attack. Clearly, Obama was going to come under intense fire no matter what he did. The fact that the U.S. has been at war in Afghanistan and Iraq for just over 12 years, the longest period of sustained war in American history, no doubt is a major factor in the weariness on the part of average citizens and elected leaders and their reluctance to get involved in almost any level with another war. Even if something looked limited in scope, the fear of deeper involvement is huge. As University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato sarcastically tweeted, “Syria is in the Middle East. What could go wrong?”
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 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 presidents 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 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 Obama 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. His decision to order a surge of troops in Afghanistan, whether a good decision or not, wasn’t the action of a committed dove. It certainly antagonized MoveOn.org and the left in his party (though they remained largely quiet about it). The decision to send Seal Team Six into Pakistan in the middle of the night to kill Osama bin Laden was a pretty gutsy call, one that if bungled could well have been the death knell for his reelection, just as the ill-fated attempt to rescue the hostages in Iran contributed to President Jimmy Carter’s reelection loss.
While the Constitution clearly gives Congress the responsibility to declare war, there is plenty of precedent for presidents to order limited kinetic military operations abroad. But as one foreign policy pro who has served in government in both the executive and legislative branches put it, “He has reduced the presidency by declaring a course of action then backing away and hiding behind the worst legislature in modern times. We know he hates them and has no respect for them, and now he’s saying he can’t act on what he’s said is a compelling international risk unless he waits two weeks for people who can’t pass National Peach Week.”
Finally, the question is how this whole episode, however it turns out, will be read in Tehran. How will the president’s actions and, for that matter, what Congress does, be interpreted by Iran as it pushes the nuclear-weapons development envelope there? This is not nearly as clear-cut as the cable pundits on both sides of the issue make it out to be.