Commentary Magazine


On “Decisiveness” and Obama’s Credibility

Though there were plenty of cringeworthy comments relating to foreign policy from some 2012 GOP primary candidates, Democrats got a bit too triumphal about ending the Republican Party’s polling advantage on foreign affairs. The right had plenty to figure out, of course, as any party out of power does. But it was always possible they could be helped by miscues in the Obama administration. The Republicans could gain back some of the ground they lost by staying in place if President Obama did something to lose the public’s trust.

According to the new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, the president has done just that with his Syria debacle: “Republicans are now rated higher than Democrats on handling the economy and foreign policy, and the GOP’s lead has strengthened on several other issues, including dealing with the federal deficit and ensuring a strong national defense.” That does not mean the right is out of the woods on foreign policy, but it does illustrate the extent to which Obama has hurt his administration’s credibility with its behavior on Syria.

A good example of why took place yesterday when White House spokesman Jay Carney tried to explain away the Syria reversal. As Roll Call reports:

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney defended his boss Thursday after a blistering few weeks of criticism in Congress and elsewhere over his handling of the Syria crisis.

Carney said the American people “appreciate a president who doesn’t celebrate decisiveness for decisiveness’ sake.” He also said Americans like that Obama is open to “new information” and adjusts his course accordingly.

This illustrates pretty clearly how difficult it is to defend the administration’s waffling on Syria, because this explanation is laughable. Sure, the president shouldn’t be decisive just for the sake of being decisive. But that’s completely irrelevant to the situation in Syria.

Let’s review. The civil war in Syria has been raging for two and a half years, with 100,000-plus casualties. President Obama wasn’t sure quite what to do about it, and didn’t think the U.S. could intervene in such a way as to bring about the desired outcome at a bearable cost. As the years went by, the president did say one thing: it may not be wise to jump into a Syrian civil war when both sides seem to be dominated (at this point, at least) by enemies of the West. However, the president said, there is a line Bashar al-Assad cannot cross: he cannot use chemical weapons.

Whatever one may think of Obama’s plan on Syria, that red line was eminently reasonable. What’s more, he had public support for it. Not only did a 2012 poll show a majority would support military intervention in Syria if Assad used chemical weapons, but an even larger majority approved of military intervention “If the Syrian government lost control of their stockpile of chemical weapons.” The president and the public agreed: the use of those chemical weapons must be prevented, and their whereabouts must be accounted for.

There was no danger of unthinking decisiveness, it seemed, as the war dragged on. The president had plenty of time think about it. Additionally, the red line was not rash or hasty either; it was perfectly logical and in keeping with international standards. The trouble started when it appeared the red line was crossed, and the administration kept a lid on those suspicions. The public could be forgiven for wondering: how red was that line?

Then came the massive gas attack the administration couldn’t ignore and for which they believed strongly that Assad’s forces were responsible. It was time for action. The red line was crossed. The president and his emissaries gave speeches likening the Assad regime to the Nazis. There was no lack of decisiveness, certainly not for its own sake.

But then the president said something strange: he didn’t need congressional approval for the strikes he said were necessary, but he was going to ask Congress for authorization anyway–and if they didn’t approve the strikes he was probably going to bomb Syria without them.

And then John Kerry opened his mouth, garbled the administration’s message, and the whole thing fell apart. The bombing campaign that Obama said would send a message and was absolutely necessary could wait. Maybe we could trust Assad, the man we were supposed to believe was aspiring to be his generation’s Hitler. And maybe we could trust Vladimir Putin, too. Maybe the world’s tyrants just needed Obama to wag his finger at them, and they would repent. ’Tis the season, after all.

The problem, in other words, is not simply indecisiveness. It’s that the president initiates decisive action and his team employs a full-court press to build a sense of urgency that would reflect the administration’s own and justify that decisive action. Then it reverses itself. The president is taking heat in the polls because if you tell the public that someone is Hitler they may believe you–once.

But now the public has reason to believe either that Obama and his advisors were being dishonest and didn’t really believe Syria is like Nazi Germany or that they do think Assad is like Hitler but they don’t think anything needs to be done about that right now. Neither option is likely to convince the public that the Democrats are serious about foreign policy, and it’s not surprising to see that sentiment start showing up in the polls.

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