The president gave an address on Syria last night that lasted a little over fifteen minutes. I’m now slightly more confused. First, we didn’t want to bomb them. With the chemical weapons attack that occurred last week, we’re going to bomb them. Now, we’re letting diplomacy take priority in solving the Syrian puzzle. This comes after the Russian-brokered deal that sought to put Syria’s chemical weapons under the control of the so-called international community. Then, the Russians backed out of the talks relating to their deal. Granted, it was a UN meeting. At least, Secretary Kerry is still meeting with the Russians in Geneva this Thursday to discuss this matter.
Nevertheless, the Obama administration has rattled the sabers of war in the past few days, but then said he’ll employ a “wait and see” mentality due to the congressional vote – which has now been suspended – and post-address reactions. What is going on here? Obama said:
I have, therefore, asked the leaders of Congress to postpone a vote to authorize the use of force while we pursue this diplomatic path. I’m sending Secretary of State John Kerry to meet his Russian counterpart on Thursday, and I will continue my own discussions with President Putin. I’ve spoken to the leaders of two of our closest allies, France and the United Kingdom, and we will work together in consultation with Russia and China to put forward a resolution at the U.N. Security Council requiring Assad to give up his chemical weapons, and to ultimately destroy them under international control. We’ll also give U.N. inspectors the opportunity to report their findings about what happened on August 21st. And we will continue to rally support from allies from Europe to the Americas — from Asia to the Middle East — who agree on the need for action.
It’s no wonder why the world doesn’t take us seriously abroad. We have a president with no doctrine in this part of the world. If anything, the majority of Obama’s foreign policy is grounded in obscurity, naïveté, and weakness. It seems apparent that he believes his awe-inspiring rhetoric can make dictators bend to his will. Who’s he kidding? The realm is international affairs is anarchic, and not all state actors are rational. The charm offensive isn’t going to work here.
Ron Fournier of the National Journal gave a harsh critique of Obama’s address and rightfully so. The president did say that he didn’t set a red line for Syria, but there’s a history of remarks from the White House suggesting otherwise. Regardless, here’s what Fournier thinks makes the president being an abject failure on Syria.
Naive about the levers of power: Where to start? Obama reversed course on congressional authorization at the last minute, after a private chat with his chief of staff, and to the surprise of his national security team – all in violation of presidential best practices. He then left the country on a quixotic trip to Russia, allowing misgivings to grow in Congress and the public before he could build a case for striking Syria. Boxed in, Obama seized upon a Russian proposal to put Syria’s weapons in the hands of the international community. It’s an impractical solution, a fig leaf. Either Obama trusts Russian President Vladimir Putin (a mistake) or he is a partner in deceit (an outrage). A Democratic strategist who works closely with the White House, and who requested anonymity to avoid political retribution, told me, “This has been one of the most humiliating episodes in presidential history.”
Too cute by half: Obama and his allies are masters of “spin,” packaging partial truths and outright distortions to a malleable public. With Syria, their dark arts are on full display. There is no other way to explain the White House disowning Secretary of State John Kerry’s call for Syria to turn over its stockpiles until the savvy Putin seized on the off-the-cuff remark as a way to protect ally Bashar al-Assad. Suddenly, the White House is touting the Putin plan as their brainchild, an outcome Obama had in mind when he travelled to Russia. Don’t buy it. A broader problem is the Obama White House’s inability to break through the clutter of 21st century media to educate and persuade Americans on policy, a communications conundrum that dates to the 2009 health-care debate.
No friends: No student of the presidency would claim that Obama’s problems with Congress could be solved simply by schmoozing them. There are structural and political problems that no amount of alcohol can solve. But as a matter of history and common sense, Obama could do better for himself and his causes if he got to know Congress better – if he listened and engaged in a way that pushes leaders toward solutions that help both sides. Instead, Obama has what one former top adviser called a “check-the-box” approach to Washington relations. He’ll spend enough time to maintain appearances, nothing more, and lectures people who demand to be heard. And so, as he faced an international and constitutional crisis, Obama and his team were in a familiar state: isolated, insular, and alone.
Concerning George W. Bush, he got congressional approval to use force against Iraq. He got the 20,000-troop surge, and the funding for it after Democrats took Congress in 2006. Ironically, Democrats campaigned on reining in the war that year. Say what you want about the Bush Doctrine, it was tangible, not amorphous, as in Obama’s case. The point is that Bush was able to get Congress to back his war. Obama can’t. He has performance problems.
In some ways, Obama’s foreign policy is more destabilizing than the Bush Doctrine. Regardless, it shows that making good speeches isn’t what makes good foreign policy. It’s still something this president hasn’t learned, which explains his appalling failure in this part of the world.