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.