OFF TO THE RACES

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

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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 Mo­ve­On.org 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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