Syria Tells You Everything You Need to Know About Barack Obama

.photo.right{display:none;} This security crisis put the president’s best and worst attributes on display for the whole world to judge.

President Barack Obama addresses the nation in a live televised speech from the East Room of the White House, Sept. 10, 2013. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, Pool)
National Journal
Ron Fournier
Sept. 10, 2013, 5:20 p.m.

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The good news is we’re not at war. The bad news is “¦ al­most everything else about Pres­id­ent Obama’s hand­ling of Syr­ia—the fum­bling and flip-flop­ping and marble-mouth­ing—un­der­cut his cred­ib­il­ity, and pos­sibly with it his abil­ity to lead the na­tion and world.

Re­lated Stor­ies

“¢ Obama’s Full Speech to the Na­tion

“¢ How to Sell In­ter­ven­tion to a Skep­tic­al Pub­lic

“¢ Biggest Re­ac­tions to the Pres­id­ent’s Ad­dress

“¢ Obama’s For­eign Policy by Faux Pas

As he ad­dressed a glob­al audi­ence Tues­day night, lib­er­al elites blindly ac­cep­ted White House fic­tion that Rus­si­an in­ter­ven­tion this week was some­how part of Obama’s mas­ter plan. Their con­ser­vat­ive coun­ter­parts prac­tic­ally rooted against a dip­lo­mat­ic break­through, pre­fer­ring an Obama black eye over peace.

Obama won! Obama lost! The fact is, it’s too soon to keep score. In the long view of this past week, I sus­pect the Syr­ia stan­doff will stand as an ex­ample of the best and worst of Obama’s lead­er­ship. Gran­ted, in the heat of the mo­ment, it’s far easi­er to cata­log the worst.


Open-minded: The man elec­ted in part as re­pu­di­ation of Pres­id­ent George W. Bush’s nar­row ap­proach to de­cision-mak­ing nev­er closed off his op­tions. He is pay­ing a price for waff­ling (more on that later), but the pres­id­ent de­serves cred­it for re­think­ing his plan to wage war without con­gres­sion­al ap­prov­al. For any­body un­will­ing to cut Obama some slack, ask your­self: What would Bush and Dick Cheney have done?

Un­flap­pable: From all pub­lic ap­pear­ances, this was the “no drama Obama” his aides brag about. Cer­tainly, he was af­fected by pub­lic cri­ti­cism and even swayed by polling, but the pres­id­ent kept search­ing for a way out of a com­plic­ated situ­ation. He may have stumbled in­to peace but that’s bet­ter than rush­ing in­to war.

Prin­ciples: He de­serves cred­it for try­ing to do something about the slaughter of in­no­cents. The “red line” that looks laugh­ably opaque today will look bet­ter in time if (and this is a big if) Syr­i­an chem­ic­al at­tacks stop. In his ad­dress from the White House, Obama made a com­pel­ling mor­al ar­gu­ment to re­spond to last month’s chem­ic­al at­tack in Syr­ia. “The world saw in grue­some de­tail the ter­rible nature of chem­ic­al weapons,” the pres­id­ent said. 


Na­ive about the levers of power: Where to start? Obama re­versed course on con­gres­sion­al au­thor­iz­a­tion at the last minute, after a private chat with his chief of staff, and to the sur­prise of his na­tion­al se­cur­ity team—all in vi­ol­a­tion of pres­id­en­tial best prac­tices. He then left the coun­try on a quix­ot­ic trip to Rus­sia, al­low­ing mis­giv­ings to grow in Con­gress and the pub­lic be­fore he could build a case for strik­ing Syr­ia. Boxed in, Obama seized upon a Rus­si­an pro­pos­al to put Syr­ia’s weapons in the hands of the in­ter­na­tion­al com­munity. It’s an im­prac­tic­al solu­tion, a fig leaf. Either Obama trusts Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Vladi­mir Putin (a mis­take) or he is a part­ner in de­ceit (an out­rage). A Demo­crat­ic strategist who works closely with the White House, and who re­ques­ted an­onym­ity to avoid polit­ic­al re­tri­bu­tion, told me, “This has been one of the most hu­mi­li­at­ing epis­odes in pres­id­en­tial his­tory.”

Too cute by half: Obama and his al­lies are mas­ters of “spin,” pack­aging par­tial truths and out­right dis­tor­tions to a mal­le­able pub­lic. With Syr­ia, their dark arts are on full dis­play. There is no oth­er way to ex­plain the White House dis­own­ing Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry’s call for Syr­ia to turn over its stock­piles un­til the savvy Putin seized on the off-the-cuff re­mark as a way to pro­tect ally Bashar al-As­sad. Sud­denly, the White House is tout­ing the Putin plan as their brainchild, an out­come Obama had in mind when he trav­elled to Rus­sia. Don’t buy it. A broad­er prob­lem is the Obama White House’s in­ab­il­ity to break through the clut­ter of 21st cen­tury me­dia to edu­cate and per­suade Amer­ic­ans on policy, a com­mu­nic­a­tions conun­drum that dates to the 2009 health care de­bate.

No friends: No stu­dent of the pres­id­ency would claim that Obama’s prob­lems with Con­gress could be solved simply by schmooz­ing them. There are struc­tur­al and polit­ic­al prob­lems that no amount of al­co­hol can solve. But as a mat­ter of his­tory and com­mon sense, Obama could do bet­ter for him­self and his causes if he got to know Con­gress bet­ter—if he listened and en­gaged in a way that pushes lead­ers to­ward solu­tions that help both sides. In­stead, Obama has what one former top ad­viser called a “check-the-box” ap­proach to Wash­ing­ton re­la­tions. He’ll spend enough time to main­tain ap­pear­ances, noth­ing more, and lec­tures people who de­mand to be heard. And so, as he faced an in­ter­na­tion­al and con­sti­tu­tion­al crisis, Obama and his team were in a fa­mil­i­ar state: isol­ated, in­su­lar, and alone.

Whenev­er his lead­er­ship is ques­tioned, Obama and his al­lies ac­cuse the crit­ics of over­stat­ing the powers of the pres­id­ency and un­der­stat­ing the in­transigence of the op­pos­i­tion. Their ar­gu­ment has some mer­it. At home, the pres­id­ency has ceded power to Con­gress in re­cent years and the Re­pub­lic­an Party is un­usu­ally ob­stin­ate. Abroad, Putin, As­sad, and oth­er ne­far­i­ous world lead­ers can­not be swayed by reas­on alone. But Obama bears more re­spons­ib­il­ity than he is will­ing to ad­mit, and polls show a grow­ing num­ber of voters are ques­tion­ing his lead­er­ship.

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