'The United States military doesn't do pinpricks." So said the president and commander in chief in one of the dizzying convolutions of policy on Syria. Alas, the president's conduct throughout this crisis has added up to inflicting a whole series of pinpricks on the American people, seriously deflating confidence in his leadership.
Unraveling the history is like trying to untie a series of thin shoelace knots tightened by different hands. Unravel one and there's another and another. Obama's pinprick warning was made necessary by the knot-tightener in chief, Secretary of State John Kerry. He told a London press conference on Sept. 9 that a punitive strike on Syria for the "obscenity" (his word from an earlier statement) of gassing 1,400 of its own people – including hundreds of children who died foaming at the mouth – would be "unbelievably small." This sounded like a parody of President Theodore Roosevelt's adoption of the African proverb, talk softly but carry a big stick. What this administration has done is the reverse: Talk loudly, but carry a small stick. And when challenged, drop the small stick in favor of small talk. And that's how we now end up with another president in the catbird seat, namely Russia's. Vladimir Putin seized on Kerry's off-the-cuff hypothetical remark that Syrian President Bashar Assad could avoid a missile strike by the U.S. if he turned over his complete arsenal of chemical weapons within the week.
The State Department had swiftly tried to walk it back, saying it was mere rhetoric, not a proposal, and Assad could not be trusted anyway. But Putin showed more dexterity than Obama and Kerry. So now we are asked to put trust in the integrity of two adversaries, backed up by a notoriously irresolute United Nations, where Russia has a veto.
Many American proposals put forth by Obama and his colleagues were replete with contradictions. Limited military strikes were justified by American exceptionalism and the national security authority of the commander in chief, followed weeks later by explanations why such actions were no longer appropriate. In his red-line warning on Aug. 20, 2012, the president told reporters: "We have been very clear to the Assad regime but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus." Now the president gives a militant war speech involving a military response without definition and does it without consulting either Kerry or his Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, whom, as the president put it, he had just informed of his decision.
The president has been casual to the point of recklessness. In his speech to the nation, he first made the case for military action and then he undermined the credibility of this program when he said he would postpone it until a congressional vote would give him the authority to strike. Meanwhile, according to The Wall Street Journal, "Congress's top leaders weren't informed of the switch until just an hour or so before Mr. Obama's Rose Garden announcement and weren't asked whether lawmakers would support it. When the president's Chief of Staff Denis McDonough announced the decision on a conference call with congressional committee leaders, some were so taken aback, they seemed at first to misunderstand it." You can't make this up.
When he changed his mind about going to Congress for the strike, the WSJ reported, his staff gave him "swift and negative responses." National Security Adviser Susan Rice is said to have warned that "he risked undermining his powers as commander in chief." A senior adviser, Dan Pfeiffer, "pegged the chances of Congress balking at 40 percent." His defense secretary was worried, too. The WSJ added, compounding the confusion, that the day the Russian gambit was embraced, the same administration had sent a memo to lawmakers highlighting why Russia shouldn't be trusted on Syria.