'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.
Throughout this pantomime, the president's sole confidant seems to have been McDonough, known for his political skill rather than his depth of understanding of the national interest. Having dropped his bombshell, the president went out to play golf, either not understanding or caring how that would appear symbolically. Besides golf, his only sport seems to be jumping to conclusions.
Fundamentally, though, we were on the brink of a major military incursion that would risk American lives in order to restore the reputation and credibility of a naïve president after his loose talk on red lines. Such a casus belli was not going to inspire the nation to support a military undertaking.
The confused responses of the Obama administration demonstrate how profoundly challenged our leadership is at standing up to a dangerous world. None of the White House staff has experience in war or understands it. They have given the Iranians even more reason to believe the U.S. will never attack Iran's growing military power, including its capacity to deliver nuclear warheads carried on missiles.
Similarly, our great ally in the region, Israel, now knows that in its old friend the U.S., it has a partner it cannot rely on.
The consequences are dismaying. Russia has a role in the Middle East it has not had since Egypt's President Anwar Sadat threw the Soviets out of Egypt. It can support its proxies, Syria and Iran, while positioning itself as a defender of international law and peace. Our other staunch opponent, Iran, now sees the American administration as a reluctant power, lacking decisive leadership and burdened with timid congressional support and lagging public and media support, and able to be faked out of protecting U.S. interests by transparent and facile arguments. In fact, the president gave the impression that he was looking for every possible way to avoid observing the red line that he himself had drawn.
The diplomatic disaster is manifest in that we couldn't even persuade fellow G-20 countries to join in a statement on Syria. We sent representatives to Europe to test support, and they came back empty-handed.
We had hung out the good elements of the Syrian opposition, left the French out on a limb, wounded those allies who lined up behind us against Assad and his regional backers, Iran and Hezbollah, and given President Putin another opportunity to stick a thumb in Obama's eye while he was still savoring the triumphant snub of having given refuge to NSA leaker Edward Snowden. Putin clearly had an assessment of Obama. He may well have concluded that Obama was never really serious about stopping Iran from getting a nuclear bomb. It would not be surprising if he thought that Obama's only real interest is to exit the Middle East entanglements, get our troops out of the region as fast as possible and do little to try and overthrow or destabilize the regime in Iran.
Putin's prize is not victory in Syria, but the exposure of Obama's deep ambivalence about the use of force to stop Iran. The repercussions are likely to be grave, for strategic issues that go way beyond Syrian opposition. Assad is but a key link in the anti-Western Shiite crescent stretching from Tehran through Damascus to the Mediterranean, where the Russians have their only military base outside the former Soviet Union. We now face a frontal challenge to the Pax-Americana in the Sunni-Arab Middle East that includes Jordan, the Gulf states, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi, already anxious about Iran and the prospect that Russia would supplant the U.S. as the dominant regional Arab leader. President Obama has crucially undermined the key relationships with our former Sunni allies, who have been moaning about this all over the diplomatic world and who are essential to preserving regional stability.
What is left in the debris is uncertainty about our judgments. What Putin is seeking is not victory in Syria – Assad is now winning that. He has become Iran's key ally, and Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states will now conclude that the U.S. is abandoning the Sunni states and leaving Russia to be the great benefactor in the critical region. There are now very few people in the region who believe the U.S. has the guts to block Iran from getting nukes – impossible without the prospect of an American military option.
President Obama has weakened the credibility of his foreign policies, the very thing he needs to preserve. He must "re-establish deterrence" and "must be seen to stand by his threats," as The Economist put it. Otherwise, immense damage to U.S. interests is now a threat over the next three and a half years until the administration is changed and there can be a shift in the momentum on the political battlefields.The chaos of the international arena requires the capacity to enforce laws and treaties, and only America can play that role. If it does not, American interests and its own values will be eroded. As the highly respected House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) put it, "Putin is playing chess and we're playing tic-tac-toe." This is government by public opinion polls and the best example of Mr. Obama at his worst.
- Read Susan Milligan: Obama Got Putin and Syria to the Table, and That’s What Matters
- Read Ellen Bork: Obama Shouldn't Rely on Russia's President Putin for a Syria Solution
- Read Daniel Gallington: Russia's Putin and Syria's Assad Are Getting the Better of Obama