Does Obama Have the Right to Change His Mind on Syria?


Damaged buildings during battles between the rebels and the Syrian government forces, in Aleppo, Syria, June 5, 2013.
National Journal
Charlie Cook
Sept. 2, 2013, 8:30 a.m.

“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 Mo­ve­ 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.

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