If the events of the past three weeks shape President Obama’s foreign policy legacy, it likely will be as a painfully reluctant warrior and an accidental diplomat.
Both of the president’s dual approaches on Syria — seeking congressional authorization for a military strike while pursuing a U.N. deal to avoid an attack — carry the risk of weakening his presidency, analysts say.
If the U.N. proposal fails, Mr. Obama will be left with a Congress that appears disinclined to authorize military force against Syria. That brings to mind the assessment of former President Bill Clinton in June of the dilemma facing Mr. Obama if he does nothing:
“You look like a total wuss, and you would be.”
In the near future, indecision on Syria, or a rejection by Congress of the administration’s proposed strikes, could erode the White House’s credibility and have ripple effects for other major policy aims, including immigration reform and fiscal issues, said Lara Brown, director of the political management program at George Washington University.
“That’s really the president’s problem,” she said. “Does he speak for the American people anymore? Can he rouse the Congress to follow his lead? Those are big questions for him.”
How history judges Mr. Obama and his foreign policy will depend largely on what happens to the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad in the coming months and years, Ms. Brown said.
If the Syrian civil war continues and Mr. Assad continues to kill his own people and stir unrest in the broader Middle East, Mr. Obama may look back and wish he had acted more strongly despite opposition from the American people and from Congress.
Mr. Obama hasn’t said whether he would order a missile strike without congressional approval, but the lesson of Rwanda clearly has been on his mind.
In 1994, while Mr. Clinton was president, a genocide took place in the central African nation. Over a period of 100 days, ethnic Hutus slaughtered Tutsis. About 800,000 people were killed.
Samantha Power, Mr. Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations, wrote in 2001 that Mr. Clinton “had shown virtually no interest in stopping the genocide.” Mr. Clinton later said it was among his greatest regrets as president.
Last week, Mr. Obama raised the Rwandan genocide while discussing Syria.
“People who decry international inaction in Rwanda and say, ‘How terrible it is that there are these human rights violations that take place around the world, and why aren’t we doing something about it?’” he said. “And they always look to the United States. ‘Why isn’t the United States doing something about this, the most powerful nation on earth? Why are you allowing these terrible things to happen?’”
Incoherent foreign policy
Rwanda is one of the “moral strings that the administration can pull,” said Brett Schaefer, a foreign policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation. But Mr. Schaefer said the president’s decisions to seek congressional approval and then to pursue a belated course of action at the United Nations are evidence that he has lacked a consistent policy on Syria ever since he said the use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line” requiring tougher U.S. action.
“I am utterly convinced that there is no coherent strategy at all in the administration’s approach to Syria,” Mr. Schaefer said. “The administration felt painted into a corner by the president’s ‘red line’ comments a year ago. They felt that their credibility was on the line and thus they had to do something about it. But ultimately the president did not want to take action, and therefore he kicked the ball over to Congress. And then Secretary Kerry’s impromptu remarks were subsequently seized by the Russians and the Syrians. [They have] taken the initiative completely away from the administration. They’re along for the ride at this point.”
The president and his top aides have said Russia and Syria would not have agreed to discuss a deal without the threat of U.S. military force.
“Does anybody really believe that deploying the same approaches we have tried for the last year will suddenly be effective?” she said.
“It is possible that Assad could give up those weapons and perhaps it could heal some of the rifts that have occurred with Russia lately,” she said. “If we’re all the sudden siding with Russia and this becomes a bridge through which we could work, there’s a possibility it could be in [Obama’s] favor” from a historical point of view.