Never mind. You don’t have read too far between the lines of a series of interviews President Obama has just given to several news networks to understand that what we may be seeing this week is not so much the titanic struggle in Congress about authorizing the use of force against Syria as a slow-motion walk-back of the White House’s intentions to launch air strikes against the Assad regime. It will be impossible for the White House to ask Congress for tough votes in favor of Syrian strikes so long as the president is grasping onto proposals that eliminate the threat of strikes and thus the vote in the Senate is being put off. Which means the arguments we’ve been having about the issue are now unofficially moot. Game, set, and match to Assad, Iran, and Russia and complete defeat for Obama and those who supported the faltering president.
In the interviews the president conveyed not only his trademark ambivalence about the use of force but also a crucial shift in his phrasing about his plans for punishing Syria’s government for using chemical weapons against their own people. By referring to the “threat” of strikes rather than his actual intentions, he made it clear that he wants to slow down the process by which Congress would vote on the proposals that he floated in the last couple of weeks. In part, this reflects the political reality in which the president has failed to rally support—either in the general public or Congress—for a principled stand against Assad’s atrocities. But by grasping on to the foolish proposal put forward by Secretary of State Kerry today to embrace a Russian offer to get Syria to surrender its chemical weapons (authoritatively debunked by our Max Boot), Obama appears to be waving the white flag on the whole controversy. Since this is an idea that has little chance of being effectively implemented, the president is using it as an excuse to weasel his way out of a fight that he wasn’t tough enough to fight or win. If so, it will be a fitting, if disgraceful, end to an episode of almost unprecedented incompetence and cowardice that will put an end to any pretensions Obama might have had about being anything but a lame duck until the end of his term of office.
Since the signals of retreat on Syria coming from the White House today seem to put a period on even the most remote hope that the administration can find the will to act on Syria, it’s time for the second-guessing and recriminations about the president’s staggering incompetence to begin with a vengeance.
There’s little doubt that if the president had matched his predictions of Assad’s fall with even minimal action two years ago when the rebellion began in Syria, the results would have been very different. Assad would probably not have survived, let alone go on to largely win the war against the rebels, as he seems to have now done. Islamist radicals would not have gained a foothold in the country and the apparent victory of the regime would not enhance the power and prestige of Assad’s ally Iran. Nor would we have been treated to the spectacle of the president enunciating a “red line” about chemical weapons and then not enforcing it.
But let’s forget about what might have happened two years ago and just concentrate on the last month. Had the president acted expeditiously and struck quickly without punting the ball to Congress (as he need not have done using the authority granted him by the War Powers Act), there would have been no test of American credibility. By demanding the right to use force and then backing away Obama has trashed his credibility and that of the United States.
While the administration will attempt to spin their embrace of the Russian proposal as some kind of victory, the American people know better. What we have just witnessed is one of the most discreditable displays of presidential leadership in our history. Though I think those who have argued against the use of force against Syria were wrong, I cannot fault those who said President Obama was not to be trusted with the power that he sought. By surrendering even before he began to fight, the president has done more to trash his reputation as a leader in the last two weeks than five years of Republican criticism.