ANALYSIS: Syria shows Obama’s unsteadiness in conducting foreign policy
Dwight Eisenhower once declared that the pursuit of peace required unwavering boldness, and the execution to back it up. To proclaim you want peace “is easy,” the war hero turned president said during his second inauguration speech. “To serve it will be hard. And to attain it, we must be ready to pay its full price.”
President Obama and his national security team might want to go back to the textbooks and absorb some of old Ike’s wisdom.
No matter where one stands on the crises in the Middle East, there’s little argument right now on either side of the political aisle that the president’s handling of Syria is no way to conduct American foreign policy. It has defied all the rules, conventions and wisdom accrued on the global stage since the days of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman.
For nearly a century now, American presidents have followed a careful path when the use of military might is at stake. Democrats and Republicans alike have decided with the cameras off what the right thing is to do, crafted a plan with advisers in private to get it done, marshaled overwhelming resources to ensure victory, assembled the political will both at home and abroad to go forward and then declared publicly what they were doing.
When that declaration was made, there was no doubt among friend or foe that America intended to follow through, and imminently.
Not so under Mr. Obama.
He declared with rhetorical flourish a few years back that he wanted to ride the great wave of democratic hope fostered by the Arab Spring. But there was no clear pattern of aid, military advice or diplomatic strategy to ensure the right democratic forces emerged in the Middle East and North Africa.
As a result, two of the world’s most tinderbox regions have become playgrounds for Islamist extremists, engulfing some of America’s most important allies like Israel, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain in a sea of instability with no clear U.S. policy or prerogative.
Two years ago, Mr. Obama declared quite spontaneously that Syrian strongman Bashar Assad had to go. But there was no plan to back it up. No military aid to the rebels, and no consolidating of allied consensus. And in the vacuum of strategy and execution, two terrible things happened.
Hezbollah and its backers in Iran joined the fight on Mr. Assad’s side, with advice from Russia’s best military generals. And the ragtag group of rebels was forced to turn to the likes of al Qaeda and similar Islamist groups for support, supplies and bodies. The ensuing chaos has now left Americans with a civil war battlefield where the good and bad guys are almost indistinguishable.
A year ago, Mr. Obama did it again. He drew a red line in the sand by declaring that the use of any chemical weapons by Mr. Assad’s forces would be punished. But when the first evidence of chemical weapons usage emerged months ago, the administration vacillated, signaling clearly that it did not have the political will or a military plan at the time.
It only emboldened Mr. Assad’s forces, who late last month reportedly used sarin gas shells to kill more than 1,400 men, women and children in a Syrian opposition village. The president and his advisers, led by Secretary of State John F. Kerry, immediately declared the red line had been crossed and military action was imminent.
That was a week ago. The president’s advisers were leaking endlessly, promising a limited military strike was just hours away. The entire battle plan — even with identified Syrian targets — was splashed across the front pages of newspapers, including The Washington Times. British Prime Minister David Cameron rushed to join the operation, but he took the case to Parliament and failed. This was the first time since 1782 that a British ruling party had lost a vote on an issue of war (ironically, that vote effectively acknowledged the U.S. victory in the War of American Independence).
Then nothing happened. Instead, the young president, with his more experienced Vice President Joseph R. Biden in tow, showed up on a sun-splashed Saturday afternoon in the Rose Garden to make the most unusual capitulation seen in U.S. foreign policy in decades.
Mr. Obama said he had decided to order military strikes but was holding the order in abeyance until Congress could come back from summer recess and vote on authorizing the operation. He didn’t even answer what would happen if lawmakers rejected the notion. In other words, the world’s most powerful leader yielded his pilot stick.
The U.S. military — with its cruise missiles hot and spinning — is now left in a holding pattern. The Syrian rebels currently have no confidence they can rely on the administration’s word. Mr. Assad has little to fear at present because Congress doesn’t even come back until Sept. 9, giving his forces and their Russian advisers time to move assets and adjust to protect the already identified targets.
And the entire world is left to wonder what might happen if Mr. Assad uses chemical weapons again during the interim congressional debate.
Mr. Obama’s zigzagging has turned the once great hope of the Arab Spring into the autumn of U.S. influence around the globe. A feeble United Nations — which pulled its inspectors out of Syria over the weekend for fear of a strike — can scoff at last week’s bluff. European allies who don’t want any more war anywhere right now feel like they have leverage against an indecisive U.S. And Russia and Iran see even greater opportunity to come to the rescue of Mr. Assad in an effort to extend the American embarrassment.
None of this is to say Mr. Obama’s values are wrong by American standards. Wanting to embrace democracy in emerging places around the world is as American as apple pie. Seeking to punish a violation of the chemical weapons treaty ratified by most of the world is essential. Coming to the aid of women and children slaughtered by poisonous gas is morally correct. And getting the consensus of Congress and U.S. allies is always preferred.
The problem for Mr. Obama is he has the sequence and execution wrong. He speaks first — often quite eloquently — before the planning and execution and will-building are complete. And the result is a series of hollow declarations that have eroded American supremacy, reputation and standing.
If the ghosts of presidents past could speak, they might tell the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.: “Mr. President, this is no way to conduct foreign policy.”
They’d have a little advice, too. Calvin Coolidge might tell Mr. Obama to speak a little less. Harry Truman might urge the 44th president to plan a little more. And Ronald Reagan might insist on waffling a little less.
The good news is there is still time to fix the damage.
• John Solomon is editor of The Washington Times and has covered Washington for The Associated Press, The Washington Post, Newsweek and The Washington Times for a quarter-century.
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