White House

Syria Tells You Everything You Need to Know About Barack Obama

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)
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Ron Fournier
Sept. 10, 2013, 5:20 p.m.

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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