Commentary Magazine


Our Ambivalent Commander in Chief

Has there ever been a more ambivalent and self-doubting commander in chief than Barack Obama? Possibly. But not in recent memory. Obama can be decisive and determined when pushing for something he really believes in–like higher taxes, massive stimulus bills, and universal, subsidized medical coverage. But in the foreign policy arena he is typically wracked by indecision and winds up trying to come up with some halfway solution that satisfies no one. The one exception was the raid that killed Osama bin Laden–his finest hour. But when it comes to making most other major foreign policy decisions, he acts more like a law professor conducting an endless seminar than a commander-in-chief in wartime.

In Afghanistan he ordered a troop surge after a lengthy internal debate, but imposed a timeline that undermined its impact. In Iraq he delayed the troop pullouts he had promised during the 2008 campaign and made a half-hearted attempt to keep a few thousand troops after 2011 but then pulled the plug on the negotiations at the first obstacle. In Libya he agreed to intervene, but did as little as possible–both to topple Muammar Gaddafi and, even more importantly, to impose order after he was gone.

Now add Syria to the list.

Last week, after two years of resisting taking an active role as the civil war spiraled out of country, he finally agreed to provide some arms to the opposition. But he did so with such obvious reluctance that no one in Syria–on either the government or the rebel side–sees the American intervention decisively changing the course of events. As Peter Baker, the ace White House correspondent of the New York Times, noted:

When Mr. Obama agreed this week for the first time to send small arms and ammunition to Syrian rebel forces, he had to be almost dragged into the decision at a time when critics, some advisers and even Bill Clinton were pressing for more action. Coming so late into the conflict, Mr. Obama expressed no confidence it would change the outcome, but privately expressed hope it might buy time to bring about a negotiated settlement.

His ambivalence about the decision seemed evident even in the way it was announced. Mr. Obama left it to a deputy national security adviser, Benjamin J. Rhodes, to declare Thursday evening that the president’s “red line” on chemical weapons had been crossed and that support to the opposition would be increased. At the time, Mr. Obama was addressing a gay pride event in the East Room. On Friday, as Mr. Rhodes was again dispatched to defend the move at a briefing, the president was hosting a Father’s Day luncheon in the State Dining Room.

Clearly Obama is not familiar with that old saying “in for a penny, in for a pound.” He’s in for about a nickel: He wants to aid the rebels, but only a little–not enough to actually enable them to topple Assad but just enough to bring Assad to the negotiating table. Does Obama really imagine that there are circumstances today that would allow the Syrian civil war to end in a negotiated solution that would be acceptable to Assad? It’s hard to see how negotiations could even be conducted since the rebel groups do not truly accept a single leader or command structure.

The rebels are not impressed and neither is Assad. Both sides know that the real game changers would be the provision not of light arms bur rather heavier weapons that would allow the rebels to take out Assad’s armor and air power. Apparently the U.S. isn’t going to provide those, although it might wink if Saudi Arabia or Qatar do so. The most important step the U.S. could take–to impose a no-fly zone over all or part of Syrian territory–does not appear to be in the cards even though this is the action that would be most likely to have a major impact on the ground.

Obama acts as if he is unfamiliar with the lesson learned by such wartime commanders in chief as Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, William Pitt the Younger, Georges Clemenceau, and, on a lesser level, even George W. Bush during his surge in Iraq: that war is primarily a test of wills and victory is impossible without resolution. The president is not showing much resolution on Syria today, and that will make it hard to achieve anything approximating a victory for the West and a defeat for Iran.

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