Barack Obama: The Loneliest Man on the Planet?

The president, isolated internationally and domestically, tries to prevent the global system from ‘unraveling.’ Will Iran take advantage of his plight?

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National Journal
Michael Hirsh
Sept. 6, 2013, 8:52 a.m.

Barack Obama looked like about the most isol­ated man on earth Fri­day. At his clos­ing news con­fer­ence at the G-20 Sum­mit in St. Peters­burg, Rus­sia, an ap­par­ently ex­hausted pres­id­ent lamen­ted that all the world’s good and great — from the U.N. to the pope — were lin­ing up against him, and that it was his lonely lot to pre­vent  in­ter­na­tion­al law from “un­rav­el­ing” over Bashar al-As­sad’s flag­rant use of chem­ic­al weapons.  “When there’s a breach this brazen of a norm this im­port­ant and the in­ter­na­tion­al com­munity is para­lyzed and frozen and doesn’t act, then that norm be­gins to un­ravel,” Obama said. “And if that norm un­ravels, then oth­er norms and pro­hib­i­tions start un­rav­el­ing. And that makes for a more dan­ger­ous world.”

But Obama’s words are find­ing few listen­ers, either abroad or at home. Do­mest­ic­ally it is look­ing more and more that Obama made a po­ten­tially dev­ast­at­ing mis­take in go­ing to a Con­gress that has thwarted so many of his plans in the past. His own Demo­crats, as Obama ac­know­ledged in St. Peters­burg, are prov­ing at least as much trouble in sup­port­ing a res­ol­u­tion to at­tack Syr­ia as the Re­pub­lic­ans. As of this week­end, the pres­id­ent ap­peared to be los­ing the vote tally, at least in the House. If any House vote goes against him and he strikes any way, he could face a re­newed and dis­tract­ing (if ul­ti­mately un­suc­cess­ful) im­peach­ment drive from the hard right. If, on the oth­er hand, Obama backs down from his pledge to at­tack Syr­ia, he could eas­ily lose all cred­ib­il­ity abroad — and with Ir­an threat­en­ing to vi­ol­ate the nuc­le­ar “norm.” “I knew this was go­ing to be a heavy lift,” Obama said Fri­day, again rather wear­ily.

Ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials now real­ize that the biggest obstacle on the Hill is not so much prov­ing what As­sad did it as mak­ing clear what they will do about it without drag­ging a war-weary na­tion in­to yet an­oth­er ex­ten­ded con­flict. They are push­ing all-out to make the case that the pres­id­ent can de­liv­er a lim­ited but ef­fect­ive strike against As­sad.

Per­haps, pick­ing up on the pres­id­ent’s words Fri­day, they would do bet­ter to ex­pand the case dra­mat­ic­ally bey­ond Syr­ia. The is­sue at stake is no longer just wheth­er Bashar al-As­sad will be al­lowed to get away with break­ing an in­ter­na­tion­al “norm.” It is also what mes­sage the world will be send­ing to As­sad’s next-door neigh­bor and ally, Ir­an. If Obama is forced to back down on Syr­ia, Ir­an will get an enorm­ous boost in con­fid­ence that no one will dare thwart its stealthy ef­forts to build a nuc­le­ar bomb.

Des­pite the elec­tion of a sup­posedly mod­er­ate pres­id­ent, the latest In­ter­na­tion­al Atom­ic En­ergy Agency re­port on Ir­an, which the or­gan­iz­a­tion’s board of gov­ernors will take up  in Vi­enna next week, shows that Tehran has con­tin­ued to build up its nuc­le­ar cap­ab­il­it­ies.

Obama’s in this dif­fi­cult fix, of course, only be­cause he is in the un­en­vi­able po­s­i­tion of be­ing forced to en­force mul­ti­lat­er­al­ism uni­lat­er­ally (ex­cept for the French, that is). He is try­ing to shore up the U.S.-led mul­ti­lat­er­al glob­al sys­tem, one that was badly dam­aged by his pre­de­cessor’s uni­lat­er­al thrust in­to Ir­aq and the glob­al fin­an­cial crisis that Wall Street pre­cip­it­ated on George W. Bush’s watch, and which is in a state of near-dis­sol­u­tion now. His­tory sug­gests that without the lead­er­ship of a dom­in­ant power — in this case the U.S., be­cause there is no one else — aut­arky reins. If “norms” for use of WMD use go, the glob­al sys­tem of open trade and peace­ful re­la­tions may fol­low.

Per­haps Obama’s greatest frus­tra­tion was re­vealed in the com­ments he made about the irony of be­ing seen as a war­mon­ger. “I was elec­ted to end wars, not start ‘em,” Obama said. “I spent the last four and a half years to re­duce our re­li­ance on mil­it­ary power.” In­deed, be­fore be­ing con­fron­ted with Syr­ia’s chem­ic­al weapons use, Obama had been lead­ing an ef­fort to ef­fect­ively de-mil­it­ar­ize Amer­ic­an for­eign policy. He stood against some of his seni­or ad­visors in avoid­ing any in­volve­ment in the Syr­i­an civil war, des­pite cries for hu­man­it­ari­an in­ter­ven­tion. In a ma­jor speech in May at the Na­tion­al De­fense Uni­versity, the pres­id­ent even in­dic­ated that he was down­grad­ing anti-ter­ror­ism from a war to a po­lice en­force­ment ac­tion. It’s time to nar­row and de-em­phas­ize the glob­al war against al-Qaida, Obama said, the bet­ter to fo­cus on “na­tion-build­ing at home,” his fa­vor­ite theme. Amer­ic­an de­ploy­ments will go back to the mea­ger pres­ence we had pre-9/11, be­cause, Obama said, “the fu­ture of ter­ror­ism” will be a smal­ler-scale “threat that closely re­sembles the types of at­tacks we faced be­fore 9/11.”

Now even his own mil­it­ary is lin­ing up against him, writes re­tired Maj. Gen. Robert Scales in The Wash­ing­ton Post. “Go back and look at im­ages of our na­tion’s most seni­or sol­dier, Gen. Mar­tin De­mp­sey, and his body lan­guage dur­ing Tues­day’s Sen­ate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee hear­ings on Syr­ia,” Scales wrote in an op-ed Fri­day. “It’s pretty ob­vi­ous that De­mp­sey, chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, doesn’t want this war. As Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry’s thun­der­ing voice and arm-wav­ing re­doun­ded in rage against Bashar al-As­sad’s at­ro­cit­iesDe­mp­sey was largely (and re­spect­fully) si­lent. De­mp­sey’s un­spoken words re­flect the opin­ions of most serving mil­it­ary lead­ers.” 

The lonely pres­id­ent has one more chance to win over his coun­try and the world, in a prime-time speech Tues­day night. To give Obama a little bit of com­pany, the White House re­leased a joint state­ment on Syr­ia signed by 10 al­lies: Aus­tralia, Canada, France, Italy, Ja­pan, South Korea, Saudi Ar­a­bia, Spain, Tur­key and the United King­dom. But the state­ment fell short of en­dors­ing a mil­it­ary strike, call­ing only for “a strong in­ter­na­tion­al re­sponse.”

Some­times, it’s not so good to be the king, or the pres­id­ent.

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