On Syria, Obama shouldn’t text while he’s driving

September 17, 2013

The confusion surrounding the American response to the Syrian government gassing its own people has shocked foreign policy wonks. Here is Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, after the president threw the problem to Congress, then, facing defeat, handed negotiations with Bashar al-Assad to his nemesis Vladimir Putin: “The President has essentially allowed the red line in Syria to be somewhat ignored.” And here is Haass’s final verdict on the president’s dillydallying: “Words like ‘ad-hoc,’ ‘improvised,’ ‘unsteady’ come to mind. This is probably the most undisciplined stretch of foreign policy of his presidency.”

There is little sign the president has yet grasped the cost of contradicting all his top foreign policy advisors. Secretary of State John Kerry, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel were each asked for advice, then ignored. Obama appears oblivious to the fact that his fumbling over Syria has severely diminished his authority, even among close colleagues and his own party. He is under the impression that marching to the top of Capitol Hill and marching down again and backward flipping on decisive action against a despotic perpetrator of dastardly mass murder is simply a matter of “style.”

He seems to think his real enemies are not Assad, Putin, Ali Khamenei, Iran’s top mullah, and Kim Jong-un, the North Korean tyrant, but “folks here in Washington.” “Had we rolled out something that was very smooth and disciplined and linear [the ‘folks in Washington’] would have graded it well, even if it was a disastrous policy,” he told George Stephanopoulos.

The president’s erratic behavior over Syria, the political equivalent of texting while driving, has profoundly undermined his credibility. It may mean he sits out the next three years as a lame duck president, fiddling with designs for his memorial library in Honolulu, instead of steering the country back to prosperity. But the immediate test of his failure to fulfill his threat to punish Syria when it crossed the red line on poison gas will be his next great domestic confrontation with Congress: the impending vote on raising the debt ceiling.

Obama has drawn a red line on the debt ceiling and over the weekend repeated his resolve not to discuss the issue with Republicans. “What I haven’t been willing to negotiate, and I will not negotiate, is on the debt ceiling,” he said. But why should anyone in Congress believe him? If Assad can cross an Obama red line, why not House majority leader John Boehner?

Boehner would probably be satisfied, like the president, if lifting the debt ceiling by October 1 were linked to adjusting some of the sequester’s most destructive cuts to public spending. There is plainly room for maneuver when moderate Republican lawmakers want to halt deep cuts to the military and Democrats want to reinstate some social programs that help the poor and needy.

But, while Boehner enjoys the title House Majority Leader, he is not the leader of the majority in the House, where Tea Party types rule the roost and dictate party policy. The Tea Party people have said they will not raise the debt ceiling, are determined to defund the Affordable Care Act, and do not have the neo-conservatives’ affection for military spending. They are prepared to allow the American government to default on its debts rather than give in on any of these points.

One of the oddest aspects of the recent mayhem in Washington is why the president asked Congress to help him over Syria when he knew a majority in the House are opposed to anything he suggests, irrespective of its merits, because they detest him as much as for how he looks as for what he believes in. As he explained to Stephanopoulos, “We have a faction of the Republican Party, in the House of Representatives in particular, that view ‘compromise’ as a dirty word, and anything that is even remotely associated with me, they feel obliged to oppose.”

In those circumstances, asking Congress to help him out of a hole in Syria was as inept as asking Putin to save him from having to send in the cruises. Yet within the space of two days the president did both.

The Syria debacle has shown that defying the president has its own rewards. Assad was threatened with punitive action if he dared use chemical weapons; he did and will not be punished. The president’s policy used to be to hold Assad’s regime to account for using chemical weapons; now it is merely to help confiscate the weapons so he won’t do it again. And even that depends on the good offices of Russia to ensure that the cornered Assad, facing not just the extinction of his regime but of him and his family, does not gas again. So much for the president’s promise to provide justice for the 1,400 gassed to death.

The lesson for House Republicans is that Obama’s word is not his bond. When push comes to shove he backs off. He lacks their resolve. They live in a universe of specific goals and absolutes and he lives in a world where promises are wishful thinking and final warnings are followed by a wagging finger.

Next week, the president will be preoccupied with the U.N. general assembly and a likely meeting with the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani. The following week the debt ceiling agreement lapses. Two weeks later — or thereabouts — the government runs out of cash and starts closing departments and cutting services. There is little time left to talk.

With the debt deadline looming, will the president blink as he did when Assad ignored his warnings? Will he start negotiating rather than allow further damage to America’s prestige when the nation starts to default on its debts? It would be out of character if the House Republicans did not march over the president’s red line, if only to see what happens.

Nicholas Wapshott is the author of  Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics. Read extracts here.

PHOTO: U.S. President Barack Obama walks from his residence to the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, September 10, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Reed


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The “red line” in Syria was stupid to begin with, Obungle should never have established it. But the fact that he did certainly doesn’t mean the rest of us have to go along with starting another Middle East war just to protect a credibility he doesn’t really even have.

Posted by JRTerrance | Report as abusive

Why “Secretary of State John Kerry, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel were each asked for advice, then ignored.”?

“Vice President Joe Biden confessed this weekend that he advised President Obama not to launch the mission that ultimately killed Osama bin Laden last spring…
When the president asked his top advisers for their final opinion on the mission, all of them were hesitant, except for the former CIA director, now Defense Secretary Leon Panetta…
“Every single person in that room hedged their bet except Leon Panetta. Leon said go. Everyone else said, 49, 51,”Biden said.”
(http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/20 12/01/joe-biden-advised-against-the-osam a-bin-laden-raid/)

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

Did anybody ever guessed that Obama as just a guy named Barak dislike idea of gettin’ USA involved this time, but as PotUS can’t ignore pressure from his supposed “allies” and W,DC movers and shakers? Sometimes it looks that way.

Posted by chyron | Report as abusive

Sure would love to see some opinion stories about who’s handling Syria right. Or about someone who you think has the right idea, keeping in mind that the ‘right idea’ would be one that results in no more deaths from chemical weapons, and the Syrian civil war not spreading beyond its borders.

Posted by jerrydiver | Report as abusive

OR maybe he wanted congress to say “no” to something he didn’t want anyway

Posted by Benny27 | Report as abusive

This goes well beyond “texting while driving”.. This is a full on slow motion train wreck of the Obama’s 2nd term. The fact that he doesn’t even get it is absolutely mind boggling.. No wonder Hillary quit when she did; get as far away from this ‘clown’ as fast as possible…

Posted by willich6 | Report as abusive

The Obama administration was taken by surprise by the vehemence of the reaction against intervention from the American public.

Americans are sick and tired of endless wars to “save” the world from one miscreant or another. They’re right to be: There’s no end to miscreants and the USA is broke.

However, while the fracas in Syria has not been good for Obama, it brings even worse tidings for the GOP. Republicans have always campaigned on a very muscular foreign policy. That conservative campaign staple will go like a lead balloon during the Presidential elections in 2016.

Americans want to stay home and mind the store.

Pretty sensible in my opinion.

Posted by jrpardinas | Report as abusive

Enough with the paternalistic pap “Father Knows Best”, and when he lays down a red line, you better not cross it. The far better question and issue to examine is why Obama’s foreign policy efforts nose-dived when he brought in his new team of advisers who gave him extremely poor advice in relation to the the vast majority of the opinions of US citizens. The timing is suspiciously close to when the adult exited the team, and all of the young things (and one perversely changed gray faced man who become a religious convert to war) are trying to make a name for themselves, as it well known in Washington circles that advocating for war is a career enhancer. So the games have begun until most of us scream, not so fast youngsters who haven’t even pretended to give peace a chance.

Posted by sylvan | Report as abusive

Despite his failure to show convincing proof re Syrian responsibillity for the chemical attack, Obama so far has respected democracy by consulting congress about how to proceed.

But the US hawks remain angry because their Commander in Chief fails to launch a missile.

Its time the US reduced their engagement with international conflicts.
Its people know this and their president is simply responding.

Posted by Malachy | Report as abusive

The President’s first mistake was in referring to a “red line” relevant to Syrian movement or employment of chemical weapons. That backed him into a corner.

And, yes, he has since botched his Syrian policy. Threatening to use military force before knowing he has the backing of the international community (yes, believe it or not, international backing is nice, although certainly not necessary) and the American people.

And, yes, this has tremendously undermined his credibility in the eyes of our citizens and the international community. Not good at a time in which our nation faces so many domestic and foreign challenges.

But, you know what? He had enough sense not to pull the trigger and launch the US into war against Syria. Yes, war. When one nation attacks another, it is an act of war. And not even the alleged/not proven Syrian employment of chemical weapons against Syrian rebels is not worth another US war.

So, for all of you so anxious to strike Syria and punish Assad for his alleged or possibly actual employment of chemical weapons, please be so good as to volunteer for military service, or insist that son(s) or daughter(s) voluteer for military service, or insist that a bother, sistes, nephew, niece, or grandchild volunteer for military service and volunteer to fight in Syria. Get some skin into the game.

Posted by bald1 | Report as abusive

In matters of war surprise and concealment is how you play the game well. Openness and predictability is not the way of the winning warrior. Predictability is the way of the loser in adversarial situations.

Posted by Samrch | Report as abusive

you have got to be kidding me. mccain would have us knee deep in all out war in the region right now. we ended up spending no money and getting the most comprehensive arms deal in the region in decades. i guess you and yours are too old and rich to actually be those boots on the ground you so casually shuffle around like so many checkers pieces, so you can delude yourself into an intellectual justification of this cow pie with worlds like “international prestige.” bush had prestige. what did that get us? death and poverty. obama shirked your notions and what did that get us? both syria and iran have leaned away from the brink.

bastards. this isn’t reporting, it’s sore-loser glamorized rhetoric. for shame.

Posted by pnut1913 | Report as abusive

The history of the O admin is a history of miscalculation. From the “shovel ready projects” of the stimulus, to the “that’s what elections are for” dismissal of opposition to Ocare, these guys have called it wrong. The results are a stalled economy and a divided government. What’s troubling you are the consequences. You have slimed every opponent and critic with tags of racist or fanatic or terrorist, turning every one into an enemy. And chickens are coming home to roost.

Posted by ARJTurgot2 | Report as abusive

Really, everyone calls him weak because he didn’t pound Damascus with stealth bombers and Super Hornets? What good would that do? A real solution was found. A peaceful solution. That’s a success. Not one American died. Not one Syrian died. No, the civil war isn’t over, but that wasn’t the issue here, was it?

I just have to say that I admire the fact that he gave peace a chance, even when the opportunity came from an unexpected direction. Good leadership means you have to sometimes forget about pride and national politics and do the right thing. That’s what Obama did.

Yeah, but I’m Canadian, so what do I know?

Posted by canadianeh65 | Report as abusive