Commentary Magazine


Obama, Syria, and the Errors of an Amateur

Barack Obama is once again learning the hard way that governing is harder than campaigning. And America is once again learning that Mr. Obama is much better at campaigning than he is at governing.

The most recent example is Syria. We have a situation in which America has been a virtual non-actor in the conflict–“leading from behind,” in the memorable words of a top Obama adviser–and the results have been catastrophic: upwards of 70,000 Syrians dead, more than a million people displaced, the increasing destabilization of the region (including our close ally Jordan), and opposition to the Assad regime cozying up to Islamist forces after having been denied sufficient aid by America. 

I don’t pretend for a moment that the options we had, and have, in Syria are easy or self-evident. The range of options includes only difficult ones, with each course of action presenting possible downsides. Of course, that’s usually the case when it comes to presidential decision-making. As for Mr. Obama, he is continuing to learn that the world is an untidy place, largely immune to either his words or his wishes, and that there are costs to inaction as well as to action. What is astonishing is that these truisms never seemed to dawn on Obama when he ran for president in 2008. Back then, he convinced himself that the world would bend to his will. He was, after all, a man who declared he would heal our planet and slow the rise of the oceans and repair America’s image in the world.

It turns out it wasn’t quite that easy after all.

And where Mr. Obama has made a terrible, unforced error–the error of an amateur–was in his statement last August that if the Assad regime used chemical weapons it would be crossing a “red line” and it would constitute a “game changer.” To translate from the language of diplomacy to the language of the real world: If Assad used chemical weapons, the United States would retaliate with military force. That is what crossing a “red line” means. The president said what he said because, as an Obama official told the Washington Post last August, “there’s a deterrent effect in making clear how seriously we take the use of chemical weapons or giving them to some proxy force.”

Except that the deterrent effect doesn’t appear to have worked. The British, the French, and the Israelis now say chemical weapons have been used–and the president is backtracking as fast as he can. (Even Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has admitted that the U.S. government believes, “with varying degrees of confidence,” that chemical weapons have been used.)

It appears that the man who said “as president of the United States, I don’t bluff” was, in fact, bluffing. And the entire world–our allies and our adversaries–know it. And each of them, in their own way, will adjust accordingly. Our allies will (rightly) consider Mr. Obama weak and unreliable–and our adversaries will (rightly) consider Mr. Obama weak and irresolute. The former will distance themselves from us while the latter will challenge us down the road. The Iranian regime must be getting a good chuckle out of the president’s claim that he won’t allow them to acquire a nuclear weapon. (If the president does, in fact, respond in a commensurate way to Assad crossing Obama’s “red line,” I’ll be delighted to revise my judgment.)

Even former Clinton administration and Obama administration diplomats are openly criticizing the president for his manifest and multiple failures related to Syria. The words of Anne-Marie Slaughter, who served as Obama’s director of policy planning at the State Department from January 2009 until February 2011, are worth quoting extensively:

even against the reported recommendations of his advisers, Obama has shown little interest in intervention in Syria beyond nonlethal assistance to some opposition forces, diplomatic efforts with Russia and the United Nations, and political maneuvering to try to unify the opposition.

But the White House must recognize that the game has already changed. U.S. credibility is on the line. For all the temptation to hide behind the decision to invade Iraq based on faulty intelligence about weapons of mass destruction, Obama must realize the tremendous damage he will do to the United States and to his legacy if he fails to act. He should understand the deep and lasting damage done when the gap between words and deeds becomes too great to ignore, when those who wield power are exposed as not saying what they mean or meaning what they say… Standing by while Assad gasses his people will guarantee that, whatever else Obama may achieve, he will be remembered as a president who proclaimed a new beginning with the Muslim world but presided over a deadly chapter in the same old story.

The world does not see the complex calculations inside the White House — the difficulty of achieving any positive outcomes in Syria even with intervention, the possible harm to Obama’s domestic agenda if he plunges into the morass of another conflict in the Middle East. The world would see Syrian civilians rolling on the ground, foaming at the mouth, dying by the thousands while the United States stands by.

Mr. President, how many uses of chemical weapons does it take to cross a red line against the use of chemical weapons? That is a question you must be in a position to answer.

Even the White House seems to be aware of the magnitude of the mistake the president has made. “I can tell you there is regret about that red line comment,” NBC’s Chuck Todd told David Gregory. Mr. Todd went on to say, “They didn’t want to go public last week that they had this early evidence [about the use of chemical weapons] yet. They weren’t ready. And yet they knew Congress was going to get this briefing and it was all going to get out, so they decided to go public with it last week because they felt they had no choice, that it was all going to start leaking out … But they’re not ready. There is no good answer.”

“They’re not ready.”

“There is no good answer.”

Welcome to the real world, Mr. Obama.

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