Obama’s Hamlet Act
The president's public dithering on Syria is drawing jeers from friend and foe alike.
As recently as two days ago, it looked as if strikes would commence this weekend. Yesterday, though, the president announced that he would seek permission from Congress, which won’t be back in town for more than a week.
This Hamlet act is drawing jeers from friend and foe alike.
David Sanger, chief Washington correspondent for the NYT, says the president is “tripping on his own red line.”
Mr. Obama’s own caution about foreign interventions put him in this box. Horrific as the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack was, it was no more horrific than the conventional attacks that caused the deaths of 100,000 Syrians. Those prompted only a minimal American response — international condemnations, some sporadic arms shipments for a ragtag group of rebels, and an understandable reluctance by an American president to get on the same side of the civil war as Al Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.
Now the crossing of the red line has forced Mr. Obama’s hand. He says he is intervening to stop the use of a specific weapon whose use in World War I shocked the world. But he is not intervening to stop the mass killing, or to remove the man behind those attacks. “This is not like the Bush decision in 2003,” Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, said on Thursday. “That intervention was aimed at regime change. This is designed to restore an international norm” against the use of poison gases.
It is a major difference. But the limitation on the use of force may also prove a paralyzing one, undercutting the long-term success of the application of American firepower. That has been the chief critique of those who argue that the only thing worse than getting America entangled in another Arab uprising whose inner dynamics we barely understand is to get involved in one and make no difference.
Trudy Rubin, columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, is frustrated by the “dithering.”
Obama’s public dithering is confusing both his allies and his foes. “He seems unable to make difficult decisions,” says Hisham Melhem, the veteran Washington bureau chief of Al Arabiya news channel. “This will embolden Assad and the opposition jihadis and demoralize the secular, moderate Syrian opposition. Obama is gambling with his reputation at home and abroad.”
Why Obama is seeking congressional cover this late in the day is perplexing. He didn’t ask Congress for permission when he backed the NATO operation in Libya in 2011, but he may be feeling lonely after British lawmakers rebuffed their government’s plan to cooperate in the strike.
Now with U.S. ships at the ready in the Mediterranean, there will be days more of debate over should-we, shouldn’t we. If Congress votes no – which is entirely possible – Obama will be humiliated at home and abroad.
What’s so depressing about this whole mess is that the real rationale for any strike on Syria was to rescue Obama’s credibility – especially with Tehran. The use of chemical weapons does violate a hard-won international taboo, and the president has said repeatedly over the past year that Syrian use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line.” Last month’s hideous gas attack came after several previous small ones had gone unpunished; this time the president had to react with more than rhetoric.
The NYT’s Mark Landler offers these insights into Obama’s about face:
President Obama’s aides were stunned at what their boss had to say when he summoned them to the Oval Office on Friday at 7 p.m., on the eve of what they believed could be a weekend when American missiles streaked again across the Middle East.
In a two-hour meeting of passionate, sharp debate in the Oval Office, he told them that after a frantic week in which he seemed to be rushing toward a military attack on Syria, he wanted to pull back and seek Congressional approval first.
He had several reasons, he told them, including a sense of isolation after the terrible setback in the British Parliament. But the most compelling one may have been that acting alone would undercut him if in the next three years he needed Congressional authority for his next military confrontation in the Middle East, perhaps with Iran.
If he made the decision to strike Syria without Congress now, he said, would he get Congress when he really needed it?
“He can’t make these decisions divorced from the American public and from Congress,” said a senior aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the deliberations. “Who knows what we’re going to face in the next three and a half years in the Middle East?”
The Oval Office meeting ended one of the strangest weeks of the Obama administration, in which a president who had drawn a “red line” against the use of chemical weapons, and watched Syrian military forces breach it with horrific consequences, found himself compelled to act by his own statements. But Mr. Obama, who has been reluctant for the past two years to get entangled in Syria, had qualms from the start.
Even as he steeled himself for an attack this past week, two advisers said, he nurtured doubts about the political and legal justification for action, given that the United Nations Security Council had refused to bless a military strike that he had not put before Congress. A drumbeat of lawmakers demanding a vote added to the sense that he could be out on a limb.
Presumably, Obama didn’t expect the British parliament to reject intervention, removing America’s historical ally on the outside of the coalition. That could have been a game changer for two reasons. First, it was a serious blow to the cloak of international legitimacy to an operation lacking the imprimatur of either the UN Security Council or NATO. Second, it might reasonably thrown a splash of cold water into the “we must do something” groupthink. If even the Brits think this is a bad idea, maybe it is.
Additionally, outside experts have had a chance to weigh in on the risks involved. CFR’s Steven A. Cook, who urged serious consideration of intervention in January 2012, argues that the situation on the ground has now deteriorated to the point where an intervention would destroy Syria.
Assad would remain defiant in the face of an attack. It is not as if he is constrained now, but he would probably step up the violence both to exert control within his country and to demonstrate that the United States and its allies cannot intimidate him. At the same time, the regime’s Iranian patrons and Hezbollah supporters would increase their investment in the conflict, meaning more weapons and more fighters pouring into Syria — resulting in more atrocities. And on the other side, Syrian opposition groups would welcome a steady stream of foreign fighters who care more about killing Alawites and Shiites than the fate of the country. This environment would heighten Syria’s substantial sectarian, ethnic and political divisions, pulling the country apart.
The formidable U.S. armed forces could certainly damage Assad’s considerably less potent military. But in an astonishing irony that only the conflict in Syria could produce, American and allied cruise missiles would be degrading the capability of the regime’s military units to the benefit of the al-Qaeda-linked militants fighting Assad — the same militants whom U.S. drones are attacking regularly in places such as Yemen. Military strikes would also complicate Washington’s longer-term desire to bring stability to a country that borders Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Israel.
Unlike Yugoslavia, which ripped itself apart in the 1990s, Syria has no obvious successor states, meaning there would be violence and instability in the heart of the Middle East for many years to come.
Further, as Sanger observes,
[T]he sharply limited goals Mr. Obama has described in explaining his rationale for taking military action now — “a shot across the bow” to halt future chemical attacks, he told PBS — pose risks of their own. If President Bashar al-Assad emerges from a few days of Tomahawk missile barrages relatively unscathed, he will be able to claim that he faced down not only his domestic opponents but the United States, which he has charged is the secret hand behind the uprising.
In the words of one recently departed senior adviser to Mr. Obama, “the worst outcome would be making Assad look stronger.”
Of course, backing out of military strikes that the administration spent days broadcasting to enforce a “red line” that Obama himself drew and has told us has been crossed repeatedly also makes Assad look stronger. Certainly, it makes Obama look weaker. But when all available options are bad, there’s no way to choose a good one. And it’s quite possible that the fallout from backing out of a boldly declared bad policy will be less than carrying out the bad policy. Then again, it’s conceivable that the president will ultimately carry out said policy, anyway, and also look weak and foolish for having hemmed and hawed so publicly.
There’s a guy in Syria who shares your preference for a more decisive American president. From the New York Times, quoting Abu Bassam, a resident of Homs:
“Man, I wish Bush was the president,” he said. “He would have reacted right away. He may have invaded Cyprus or Jordan instead of Syria by mistake, but you know he would have done something at least.”
It’s also conceivable that the President could get the backing of Congress, rally more international support, and carry out a successful campaign to deter Assad from further chemical attacks. This could happen too.
Given that carrying out a bad policy of strikes into Syria would end up killing more people, won’t significantly degrade Assad’s strength and may actually aid a side that wants to go after us, I think this makes worries about political backlash seem insignificant.
Only in an echo chamber fairyland, which admittedly is where politics lives and which created a mindset that got us into a war with the wrong country last time, would someone believe that backing down from a bad decision can make you ‘look weak’ instead of intelligent.
Last week I saw Wolf Blitzer interview Hans Blix. Wolf never responded to Blix’s reasoning, but just used the opportunity to play clips of other people concern trolling and clutching their pearls about something needing to be done right now! It was pure emotional hysterics against reasoned consideration about what intervention and going it alone would likely accomplish, and Wolf was having none of the latter on his show. With a few exceptions, the US television press has certainly been complicit (again) in promoting the proposed military action. Perhaps the new agencies are protecting their bottom line — New wars let then grab a lot of eyeballs.
Last time I watched in horror as the past administration turned its PR machine on to drive us into a stupid war in Iraq with the press mindlessly followed along. And I thought it was happening again with Syria. Today, I’m a little more hopeful (though still largely disgusted by the press).
@Stan: I’ve seen that one going around this morning. It’s mildly clever, I suppose, even if it makes no sense.
Bush was decisive to a fault, taking too long to back away from decisions once the evidence showed they were wrong. Obama has the opposite fault, publicly weighing his options and seeming to have no strategy. They’re both bad. If one had to choose between the two faults, though, I’d certainly choose the latter.
Indeed, while backhandedly, I’m praising the president for stepping back from what I believe an unwise course of action. He looks bad in the doing but, given where we are, it’s nonetheless better than other available options.
Again we see Mr. Obama clearly much stronger than his predecessor – it takes strength and wisdom to reconsider one’s views and seek counsel.
If only he could summon the strength to close Guantanamo, speak out against NSA surveillance and illegal wiretaps and the poverty gap. Should he actually deliver on more of his campaign promises from 2008 – he might repair his legacy after all.
Heck, Bush didn’t just back away from bad decisions after they were proven wrong. He made bad decisions *despite* knowing they were wrong at the start. There was no way to claim that Iraq ever was a danger, let alone an imminent threat. His policies were driven by dogma. Any ‘justification’ was simply post hoc. His ‘reasoning’ was more like religious apologetics than anything reality-based or accessible empirically.
I get the idea aides paying attention to the blogs and the polls noticed that most were against the strike for one reason or another, and that it seemed to be another run-around on Congress like Libya.
Autocracy is hard to pull off when it violates social norms. The British Parliament shooting its own prime minister down was probably just the last straw on the camel’s back.
@James Joyner: Put in the best light, Bush was committed to seeing things through. Perseverance like that is admirable when you’ve got the wisdom to pursue the correct course at the beginning, and deplorable otherwise.
He looks like he is dithering and is indecisive but if he is going to intervene in Syria I would prefer he take it to congress and get approval-although he runs the risk of having them say no or tying his hands but if congress says yes he at least has a firm footing to stand on.
@Just Me: Sure. But the man was a Constitutional law professor and a United States Senator, it’s not as if the notion that it would be swell if Congress approved our wars should have just occurred to him.
I’m going to perhaps revise history a little bit. Let’s reconsider Obama’s red line comment. I believe he said “red line” more than once, but here’s one of the actual quotes:
This doesn’t actually say what would be done. It suggests the possibility of military action increases. It actually somewhat fits with what he’s offering now: we weren’t really intervening before, but now we’re going to ask Congress if we should. It has indeed changed his equation.
So I’m not that concerned with him supposedly painting himself into a corner with the red line. It’s more about the apparent indecisiveness in the past week, but I think we’ve known for some time that Obama takes time to make decisions. That’s just the way he is, even if it seems unnatural to us.
By the way, did I miss news about what the U.N. report said?
@James Joyner: I posted the quote from the Times to contrast President Obama’s decision making process with President Bush’s. I happen to feel that President Obama is right to use military force to reinstate a norm against the use of chemical weapons, but I realize that public opinion is divided. Under these circumstances the President made a prudent decision in getting Congress to weigh in.
If I may digress, Obama’s policy of letting Congress write the Affordable Care Act was wisdom itself. So was his decision to cut the pharmaceutical and health insurance industries in on the profits. Compare this with Bill Clinton’s maladroit handling of his health care plan back in the 90’s.
I realize you disagree, but I think Obama is one of our most significant modern presidents, even apart from his race. And his handling of the Syrian problem proves it.
Throwing it to congress was brilliant. The president complicated the enemy plans and not coincidentally, complicated Assad’s plans too. I wouldn’t be surprised if the enemy spins itself apart destructively in the next week and a half while Assad’s people become yet more fatigued and offer plenty of signals to listen to for target planning.
This is how a master works.
You didn’t miss anything. The inspectors pulled out on Saturday after four days of inspections. A final report could take up to two weeks.
I don’t think the president is acting. I think he’s genuinely conflicted.
Something about Obama that everyone should know is that he enjoys making the office of the president a laughing, disgusting, joke. Yes, Obama has a bad spirit which works through him.
Think about all the times he has bowed to foreign leaders. (bow bow bow yipi yo yipi yeah)
Think about all the times he has boldly lied to the American people and others.
Obama is a buffoon. The buffoon wants everyone to be into him whether they like him or not, just as long as everyone’s attention is into him. Why? Because he knows and hates the fact that:
“Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” (John 14:6)
God loves you all.
It’s a screw-up. Not much point trying to argue that fact. You don’t light a fuse, then put it out and then look for support on re-lighting it.
Jason Linkins is in great form today. He must live for news cycles like this with his review of Sunday political talk shows.
@Tony W: Maybe he can do something about food prices.
I am spending a greater percentage of income on food, taking into account wages have been flat for the past six or seven years.
@Tyrell: You of the marginal tax rate discussion on the other thread? No credibility sir.
So everyone has been moaning for days how this is an imperial presidency and he is ignoring the law by not consulting with congress and now, for whatever reason, he agrees to consult congress he is weak and dithering? That is pretty messed up…
Is there any reason to think that any of the military steps the President is likely considering will reinstate the norm? It doesn’t appear likely that the persons who actually used the chemical weapons will be killed or punished, but it does seem likely that more innocent Syrians will be killed than would otherwise be the case.
If the purpose of the strikes is not to end the civil war, but to deter the use of chemical strikes, it seems like we’re embarking on a plan to kill (or enable the killing of) innocents so that they won’t later killed by chemical weapons.
With respect to the “norm” against the use of chemical weapons, I suspect there may not be a lot of sympathy in the ME for the idea that the U.S. and its western allies get to decide for the entire world what weapons can be used in war and when. Some of those folks, no doubt, are perplexed by U.S. actions now in light of past U.S. support of Saddam’s chemical weapons attacks against Iran as well as Assad’s father’s much wider use of chemical weapons against his own people. Other people will be perplexed by all of this in light of the widespread acceptance of U.S. drone killings.
“Dithering” has been how the Right characterizes Obama whenever he isn’t rash in his decision making. I’m guessing that the record shows that he did not “dither” when he supported a coalition to oust Qaddafi?
I see that the previous intervention we ordered for you did not work out.
Not possible. Bush left it the laughing stock of the world. Remember the old comedic skit of some small country declaring war on the US and then surrendering in a few weeks? And then suing for war reparations? Sounds very familiar to Iraq and Afghanistan. Look at all the money Bush poured into Iraq and Afghanistan. What did we get for it? Less than nothing. The Iraqi’s and Afghans happily took all the bribe money knowing we would have to leave sooner or later. The joke was on us then, not now.
Problem with people like you is you have no sense of humor. Or Irony.
@c.red: Welcome to Republicanville.
@James Joyner: Yeah, I missed your backhanded praise there James.
Did he dither when he sent the SEALS after Bin Laden? This is ridiculous. Yes, I wish he could keep more of his decision making behind closed doors, but c’mon, it’s Washington, with players aplenty asserting their turf and pushing and pulling and leaks from left and right….
Does he appear to be weak? Let me put the shoe on the other foot: Do all those asserting weakness on the President’s part appear stupid?
@Stonetools: “It’s also conceivable that the President could get the backing of Congress, rally more international support, and carry out a successful campaign to deter Assad from further chemical attacks. This could happen too. ”
It could. And in 2003, the Iraq War *could* have turned out much shorter and better.
@James Joyner: “Obama has the opposite fault, publicly weighing his options and seeming to have no strategy. ”
Note that Bush had no strategy, in any sense anchored to the real world.
@Tillman: “Put in the best light, Bush was committed to seeing things through. Perseverance like that is admirable when you’ve got the wisdom to pursue the correct course at the beginning, and deplorable otherwise. ”
No, he wasn’t committed to ‘seeing things through’; that implies actually trying to correct the course, fix mistakes, etc. He was just a guy who kept going in the same old wrong way, figuring that other people would suffer.
@michael reynolds: “It’s a screw-up. Not much point trying to argue that fact. You don’t light a fuse, then put it out and then look for support on re-lighting it. ”
OTOH, stopping the count-down to disaster because ‘we need consensus’ is a very smart move.
This looks terrible. Obama doesn’t appear wise or prudent by doing this, he looks indecisive and vacillating. He pitched a grenade and now he’s trying to get Congress to help him pick it up and put the pin back in.
Of course, I understand he has little choice if he has come to realize striking Syria is a bad idea, but sometimes I wonder if he really understands, even now, how the rest of the world receives the pronouncements of America’s President.
His decision to consult Congress is morally consistent with his promise as a candidate and brilliant as a political maneuver. I don’t think he’s worried about how he appears in headlines today–I think he’s much more concerned about (1) what’s good for the United States and the world community, and (2) his historical legacy.. There can be no doubt that ignoring the use of chemical weapons is a dangerous step for humanity. If congressional leaders, say “No,” then his record show that he wanted to deter the use of WMD. He also realizes, however, that our country is so polarized politically that he can only intervene with congressional support. He kept his ace of spades (executive power) to intervene militarily if the use of WMD continues, but if that occurs, I think history will be on his side, despite the costs to our country and to him personally.
@Mikey: I wonder if any on this thread have any idea how the rest of the world perceives the actions of the US military. Here’s a clue: they don’t give a crap how “resolute” Americans appear and instead tend to ask whose commercial interests are being served.
Americans always make everything about them.
Again, having the willingness to look “foolish and weak” in the short-term, in an effort to arrive at a possibly better long-term outcome is exactly why I voted for President Obama.
Back in the build up to the Iraq war, I was totally on-board with the threats we were making against Saddam, and even all of the troop movements into the theater. Where they lost me, was when it became obvious that there was no way we weren’t going in .. no matter what happened with the inspectors.
Strength does not come from mere words. It’s actions and results. And let’s be honest, over the past 4 1/2 years President Obama has some credibility when he says that our military is going to get somebody .. say what you will about drones and cruise missiles, but I can’t imagine that any of our targets can ever feel truly safe anytime they’re above ground.
I think we can afford to wait for Congress. And even if the House should vote to disapprove military action, I don’t think Assad will rest any easier at night. The threat will still be credible.
If I’m correctly reading these criticisms, they’re along the lines of: “Obama is a reckless imperialist, and I can’t believe he’s dithering like this in asking Congress for permission.”
Did you watch the news conference yesterday? … or just read what others said about it?
I can definitely see how people could disagree with the President’s decisions. But to say that he doesn’t understand what he’s doing almost requires believing the worst caricatures put forth by his political enemies, rather than simply listening to the man himself.
For god’s sake, make up your minds. First you were all so certain that Obama was going to be an Imperial President and not ask Congress for permission and now that he’s done so, you accuse him of “dithering.”.
Have you thought that he might have felt with the UK and other countries behind him he wouldn’t need to go to that clown car called Congress, but now that it doesn’t look like anyone else is behind him from the international side Congress is the other source of authority.
My point is he should never have had to choose to look “foolish and weak.” He should never have drawn the red line in the first place if he wasn’t entirely willing to take action when it was crossed.
As the saying goes, “don’t let your mouth write checks your ass can’t cash.”
Refer to the quote that @Franklin found up above:
Perhaps even the “red-line” wasn’t as clear-cut as some of our punditocracy have led us to believe?
Also, as I said in one of the comment threads yesterday, even if we view this “red-line” pronouncement as a mistake, it’s only in hindsight. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to imagine that there would have been legitimate criticism of the President at the time, had he not said something about the potential use of chemical weapons in Syria.
@Todd: Good points. I’m sympathetic to the President to the extent he’s in a “damned if I do, damned if I don’t” position a great deal of the time, and my criticisms are probably harsher than they should be in that context.
What makes you think that this President is not entirely willing to take action? Again referring to the press conference yesterday, he said we’re ready to strike, “today, tomorrow, next week or next month”. The credible threat is still not off the table. And if by chance congress votes against military action, I think there’s a strong case that it’s them who are making us look “foolish and weak”, not the President.
There was a protest last night in the college town where I live. I happened to pass by it – the signs looked like they had been dusted off from 10 years ago, jackwads who think they’re being edgy by wearing the Guy Fawkes masks, etc. It was depressing.
I imagine the preparations went something like this:
“Does Syria have any oil?”
“No, not really.”
“Oh.” (Sets down the NO BLOOD FOR OIL sign.)
I’ve often wondered why any sane, rational person would actually want to be President in this day and age. I’m not ashamed to admit that there’s no way I could imagine myself making these sort of decisions day-in and day-out for 4 or 8 years.
NBC News: Obama will bomb Syria no matter what Congress votes
That was David Gregory reporting, no less, one of the most well-connected reporters in the business.
It’s a screw-up, as I said above. But it’s not a disaster or even a major screw-up. It’s a minor screw-up. Those will happen from time to time.
Honestly, the rhetoric surrounding this whole issue is so over-heated, so over-dramatic I wonder if it’s just a case of people having nothing better to obsess over.
1) Us: Big, giant superpower.
2) Syria: 20 million people, GDP of Delaware, surrounded by our allies in Turkey, Israel and Jordan.
3) Russia: Interested, involved, willing to veto a UN Security Council resolution? Sure. More than that? Please. They backed down in 1973 when there was an actual war, an actual cold war, they were an actual superpower and NIxon was on the ropes.
4) War? Good grief. We already had this identical hysteria over Libya. Obama is not George W. Bush.
5) Our national prestige, credibility, etc…? Pure b.s. We have the money, we have the diplomatic heft, we have all the allies worth having, we own the oceans, we own the sky, we own space (up to the neutral zone) and we have the only military on planet Earth capable of reaching out its mighty hand and smacking anyone, anywhere.
6) Obama’s personal credibility? Said he’d get Osama, got Osama. Said he’d go hard with drones, went hard with drones. Said Gaddafi had to go, Gaddafi went. Said he’d get out of Iraq, we’re out of Iraq. Said he’d get out of Afghanistan, happening right now.
” He was just a guy who kept going in the same old wrong way, figuring that other people would suffer.”
Not really true. James has written about this many times. His first 5 or 6 years were pretty bad. He outsourced his foreign policy. However, after the 2006 elections he ditched Rumsfeld and started ignoring Cheney/Addington. Wolfowitz and co were gone. Iraq got better. He should get some credit for that since it was a major change. (Needless to say, he just ignore the domestic economy.)
If a whiny GOP says it’s unreasonable for Obama to set, entering negotiations, such unreasonable conditions, Imma laugh and laugh and laugh.
(Grrrr, I wish we had an edit function that lasted more than 5 minutes. That unreasonable/unreasonable echo will have my teeth on edge for the rest of the weekend.)
@James Joyner: That’s a fair criticism, JJ. Here’s one for you: I am sick and tired of pundits encouraging knee jerk violence as a panacea to all the world’ problems managing to 1) exacerbate the problem (how’s that libya action worked out for us–did we intend to turn it into the arms bazaar of N Africa?While 2) simultaneously eroding constitutional protections (do you and your journalist pals think there won’t be a problem 10 days from now? Got terror? Get Drones!!! In the dark? Let the NSA assume all Americans are potential threats! Looking for that bin Laden PR bonanza? Violate the sovereignty of allies (but be enraged if anyone does it to us)
And now…there is a dithering crisis. God forbid you should reconsider any decision, entertain the idea you might be wrong, or consult another branch of government. Per Joyner and Pals apparently NeverIS better than late.
Of course nobody knows what the strategic objectives are; nobody can assure anything like a positive outcome BUT YOU’RE DITHERING! BARRY!! WHERE ARE THE BOMB! BOMB! BOMBS! OBAMA.? It will surely, months from now prove fruitless and damaging to our long term interests– but WTF’! You seemed decisive! You didnt trip over your own red line (clever line that–no doubt he hugged himself for it)
You and your pundit pals may rattle the saber one more time in the name of a strong exec. I have had enough. I am tired of sending our military on another futile mission. People in the world hate each other and do horrible things to each other. Wish it wasn’t true, but it is. Show me what essential American interest is compromised by Assad remaining in power and I’m there. Otherwise, you and Sanger and Ländler can piss off. I’m all for dithering. Wish we did more of it.
@Laurence Bachmann: the hilarious thing is the same people complaining about “dithering” were also complaining two days ago that Obama was wrong to think about taking action against Syria in the first place. And before that they were complaining about drawing a “red line.” The only consistent thing about them is that they complain.
Wouldn’t a lobbing a few cruise missiles at the Syrians and then getting kneecapped by the Republicans in congress have appeared weaker? That would have given the clear message that you can use chemical weapons and suffer no lasting consequences.
This way, if congress acts, Obama will have the authority to lob a few cruise missiles, and then respond to future use of chemical weapons with enough force to actually make Assad stop and consider whether it is worth it. Or it will send the message that we are concerned, but not enough to act … yet.
And, when there isn’t an immediate need to respond, shouldn’t the president get congressional approval?
It is really odd that so many people who woke up last Monday believing that Congress should declare wars have found a way to “blame” Obama for that course by the weekend.
I think Tyler Cowen calls it mood affiliation.
The only thing consistent about many Republicans, and almost all Conservatives is that they’re reflexively against whatever President Obama does … even if it happens to be something they were advocating as recently as a few days ago. But that was the past, this is today, and today he’s always wrong. 🙂
@Laurence Bachmann: I’m not sure what you’re on about.
I’ve been against intervention in Syria and pretty much everywhere else. I argue in this post that, while the optics are terrible, reconsidering a bad strategy is better than executing it. Better still is not announcing the bad strategy to begin with.
@john personna: The only people I see making that argument are those who are hell bent on military action in Syria who are seeing the football pulled away.
@James Joyner: As I said initially, it is more than fair to criticize a professor of constitutional law for JUST realizing it might be wise to consult Congress. And yes the optics are bad. But a focus on optics rather than policy is one of the reasons, time after time, we make these bad decisions. As the hue and cry to stop dithering grows, sure as shit the president has done/will do something half baked in the name of being decisive.
I am THRILLED to be wrong about your attitude toward Syria and gladly apologize for being so. I continue to think that punditry does contribute to these policy disasters by a focus on “optics” “dithering” or presidents who “get tripped up by their own red line”. For whatever reason, and I thing bad ones, Cameron and Obama miscalculated the public support for another futile intervention. Cameron got burned; Obama is back pedaling in an attempt to not be burned by something he doesn’t seem to have had a lot of heart for anyway.
That’s the story and hopefully a better policy will come of it. The dithering, weak, optics driven angles are bullshit, IMHO.
Still much better than going into an expensive failure just to prove you always back your word. I wish Bush had been willing to lose face instead of continuing into Iraq.
@Steve V: I actually give him high marks for pulling the plug at the last minute–if that pisses off his advisors they can resign in principle a la Vance during the Carter administration. Otherwise STFU and get onboard.
I do think the “consult Congress” angle is an excuse, but so what? The optics of GWB’s “mission accomplished” were pitch perfect. Everything else sucked.
@Laurence Bachmann: At the margins, at least, perceptions on these things matter. This is a self-inflicted wound but only a flesh wound.
I sympathize with the president here, as this is genuinely a difficult problem. Is there a vital US interest here worth going to war? But there’s a genuine humanitarian crisis underway here and the pressure on The World’s Sole Remaining Superpower to Do Something about it is damned strong. And, frankly, if there were relatively low risk military options with a reasonable probability of success, I might be persuaded that they’re worth it given the epic slaughter underway. But, alas, there are no such options.
The thing about the “red line” is that I think the president thought issuing it would both keep Assad from taking the risk of crossing it and also set the bar high enough for US response that we’d never have to respond. Having crossed the line multiple times, the most recent time very blatantly with perhaps as many as 1000 dead, Assad has put Obama in a really awful bind. So much so that he was apparently going to launch a token military strike just to show that he means business. He has apparently thought the better of it or, at least, decided he wants Congress to shoulder part of the burden.
Heck, anything that delays, or better yet, prevents American intervention in wars that do not threaten our borders is a welcome development.
That we spend a ton of money we don’t have on arms we don’t need, does not justify then using that capability to ‘save the world from tyranny’ – a fools errand if there ever was one.
@James Joyner: Well, Congress’s SHOULD assume at least part of the burden, considering they’ve been wringing their hands and wailing about how they’re never consulted about anything. Sound exactly like a bunch of teenagers bitching how they never get to drive the family car but never step up and volunteer to pay for the extra insurance or buy their own.
Yeah, that’s the unknown right now. He’d go to Biden and Kerry to work the Hill. Kerry is pretty clearly ready to go. If we see a lot of VPOTUS making phone calls and driving up Pennsylvania Avenue, then we’ll know.
@James Joyner: A professor of constitutional law who expands drone attacks, NSA surveillance and disregards the territory of sovereign nations deserves every flesh would he gets–self inflicted or otherwise.
GeorgePacker in last week’s New Yorker wrote about the emotional desire to DO something has to be resisted. It is very powerful–acknowledging the tug of emotion but insisting those feelings be tempered. As you say there are no viable options that would matter from a humanitarian perspective. What infuriates me–andset me off on a rant (sorry)–is there seems to be little or no real interest among commentators to question and demand a list of objectives or achievable goals. Apparently bombing despots shows “we care” so that’s our policy. Dr Strangelove for the 21st century.
I am just starting to read some of your previous commentary on Syria and civil liberties so I see I was way off the mark in my assumptions. Also, I think Obama deserves a real dressing down for ANY of the reasons listed in the first paragraph. But not for this. Stepping back from yet another poorly planned, ill-conceived military boondoggle is always right, for whatever the reason. If the last five years are any barometer, Obama will make plenty of civil liberties and military decisions to despise. This isn’t, I think, one to deride.
That’s awfully facile. I don’t think this is about showing we care, I think it’s about dis-incentivizing not just this one thuggish government, but dozens of others. And not just today, but for the future. We have placed chemical weapons beyond the pale. Whether or not they rate that treatment, it’s a hell of a thing to glibly dismiss their use and future use as a real problem, and as a problem that we are uniquely able to address.
I’m not a fan of this intervention, but let’s not ignore the fact that doing nothing is doing something. It’s lighting a big green traffic signal over chemical weapons.
Certainly cruise missile and other air strikes are low risk.
If Obama can get congress to back strikes now and in the event of future chemical weapons use, then, assuming Assad is at all a rational player, we should be able to find some limited ‘success’. Success in this case being that it will significantly reduce the use of chemical weapons in this conflict. I would think that with missile and other air strikes we could do more damage to his military effort than using chemical weapons could gain him. I think that difference could be significant, given the limited utility of chemical weapons that you and others have pointed out. That does of course rely on Assad being on some level a rational player.
@michael reynolds: Spare me the horseshit about dis-incentivizing thuggery. Assad, and men like him (Adolph Hitler comes to mind) do not now, and never have (see Assad pere) given a damn whether we approve of their behavior. He is in a fight for survival; and like psychotics before him, and those after, he is “bunkering down”. He will, like Hitler allow his countryto be bombed into the stone age before he surrenders. If that is how you plan to help, i am glad I’m not Syrian.
Further, your remark that “we have placed chemical weapons beyond the pale” is truly hilarious. You have a genuine gift for sanctimonious homilies. Call Hallmark. They would love to hear from you. FYI,chemical weapons have been, by treaty “beyond the pale” since the end of the Great War. Doesn’t seem to have deterred the Francos, Ceaucescus , Milosovics’ and Assads of the planet. In fact our own president seems pretty adept at ignoring a treaty when it suits him–not sure how we are going to get to the moral high ground on this one. No doubt you have a chilling platitude or two to fling their way.
So at the risk of being facile twice in one day i feel comfortable saying the Syrian people don’t need yours and Obama’s “this makes me feel better but doesn’t do you any good ” week or so of bombing. Provide them as much military materiel as possible, as well as humanitarian aide. After that, it is their struggle.
I love the liberals around here. Events get memory-holed in a split second. Come on people. It was last week! Obama was absolutely ready to order a strike on Syria without any consultation with Congress. They went so far as to announce that the strikes would begin on Thursday. The only reason it didn’t happen is because the Brits bailed. Now, suddenly his redline didn’t really mean military action. Incredible!
This entire chain of events is perfectly understandable if you start off with one simple assumption: That Obama doesn’t quite know what the hell he’s doing, that he doesn’t grasp some of the fundamentals of global politics, that he doesn’t understand how people can actually disagree with his plans and pronouncements and make that disagreement stick.
Step 1: Obama makes his “red line” pronouncement. He makes his threat, assuming that he will be taken seriously and his words will be enough to quell the waters.
Step 2: Assad unexpectedly not only doesn’t comply, but instead flips Obama the bird and openly defies and mocks Obama.
Step 3: Obama turns to his previous allies, France and England, whom he had done such a solid over Libya, and expects them to back up his threat.
Step 4: France and England unexpectedly decide that nah, they aren’t interested in waging war on Syria after all.
Step 5: Obama turns to his base, expecting them to back him up, no (or few) questions asked, as he plans to smack around Syria to some vague goal that is NOT aimed at regime change or any other defined goal.
Step 6: Obama’s base unexpectedly remembers that it made such a stink out of being anti-war under Bush, and they feel like sticking with it.
Step 7: Obama, out of other options, needs to find some way to walk back his ultimatums (ultimata?), suddenly remembers that despite his Libyan adventure, the law and the Constitution actually requires that he get Congress involved before he takes the nation to war. Knowing full well that there isn’t the support in Congress to back his stupid threat of a year ago, he now says that he actually will go to Congress before waging war on Syria. So, knowing that he will almost certainly be defeated, he goes to Congress.
Step 8: Congress refuses to give authorization for waging war on Syria, and Obama can say he tried his darndest, but the obstructionist Republicans won’t let him… well, do whatever the hell we was going to do in Syria. (The details of his actual goals were never actually clear, just that he was going to blow some things up for some undefined goal.)
Great plan? Hell, no. Good plan, even? Nope. But the best he can salvage at this point.
Actually, Hitler rejected the use of chem weapons though he had them, which makes that a particularly inapt example. And of course it has nothing to do with us “approving” or not approving. It has to do with the equation of risk. If you can kill your population with HE and not risk retaliation, while chems get your stuff blown up by the Americans, that changes the math. That dis-incentivizes you. Right?
Or are you arguing that no amount of damage could possibly dis-incentivize any behavior? Let’s jump ahead and say you realize that you can’t make that argument stick. That leaves you arguing either that we cannot inflict sufficient destruction (asinine) or that we would not inflict sufficient damage, which is a guess on your part since you have no way of knowing just how Assad and his generals would run the numbers.
Don’t heap scorn when you’re going to be that dumb, dude.
I was not aware that Ceaucescu or Milosevic had used deadly chemical agents. Do you have some basis for that? I was aware that Saddam did, which would have been the better example, but I suppose didn’t come to mind. But the fact that a norm is not observed in 100% of cases does not argue that the norm must be abandoned. Otherwise we’re in a hell of a fix with the murder laws, eh?
I just love it when guys who don’t know what the hell they’re talking about try to condescend to me. Again, as I said earlier, the purpose is not solely to deter Assad, or to save the “Syrian people”some of whom I imagine might be somewhat distressed at your suggestion that we should arm the people who intend to kill them.
You seem unable to make much headway without making unsupported assumptions – first about James, now me. And just a hint: the whole lordly voice thing? It doesn’t work when you’re clueless.
Jenos’s 8 point plan to prove there’s a black man in the White House. Don’t anyone tell him that the French are actually on board, not opposing.
@michael reynolds: Hitler did use chemical weapons — he just didn’t use them on the battlefield. And it wasn’t any sense of morality that constrained him, it was the sure knowledge that the Allies would retaliate.
As far as your boilerplate non sequitur accusation of racism… blow it out your ass. Unless you are arguing that “inexperience” and “incompetence” and “arrogance” are synonymous with black, in which case you have the problem, not me.
The pundits and some comments remind us that backseat driving is easy, and uncomplicated.
Jenos would prefer to see experienced foreign policy experts like Cheney, Rumsfeld and Condolleezza Rice running the show, obviously. They sure knew what they were doing!
That said, he’s right at least that Obama seems to be changing his mind or reevaluating what to do. Horrifying.
Right. Children might die, gassed, but we should focus on the real tragedy – that Obama “draws jeers” from bored and self-satisfied Americans.
Wow, all those responses to what I didn’t say, to the exclusion of what I did… how sadly typical.
Here’s the lesson that Obama needs to learn, and a lot of us knew well before he did: Presidents can’t afford to bluff. And this shows precisely why.
@john personna: Assad killed a lot more children by other means before he gassed them. Your outrage is remarkably shallow.
It looks like we’ve finally answered the big question of 2012:
What’s the difference between Romney and Obama?
About 8 months.
Have been quiet here about Syria and having bad dreams. Always happens when a war is in the offing. Gulf War I almost drove me crazy. But do have a thought about the issue of seeking Congressional approval. In some ways it’s obvious that a President should do that. In other ways, it leads to abuse. Think of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Think of the Authorization for the Use of Military Force that followed 9/11. Congress is easily fooled and often WANTS to be fooled.
@Jenos Idanian #13:
Stop and think about what you just said. You claimed that I (and generally we) don’t care about children dying in Syria … and so to be consistent, we should not care any more about children dying in Syria.
You that the audacity to claim that the reverse, taking note at some threshold, and caring, was “shallow.” That is pretty amazing.
FWIW, I think you might be on a vibe with James though. His primary motivation seems to be that he advised against red lines, Obama ignored his criticism, and here we are. As if red lines caused, rather than hindered, the gassing of children.
Wait … Jenos, are you full-on the McCain team?
Are YOU calling for regime change?
@Jenos Idanian #13:
I doubt that. From what I’ve read of the history of WW1, its more likely that his generals told him that chemical weapons wouldn’t be effective on the battlefield – the accepted conclusion was that the more the weapons were used in that conflict, the less effective they became. Armies very quickly learned to prepare for chemical attacks.
@john personna: I don’t know where the hell you got that idea. I’ve said all along that Assad is a rotter, but the alternatives look to be just as bad — or even worse. So I say we stay the hell out.
I’m still trying to figure out Obama’s policy. He wants to bomb Assad, but not enough to remove him from power, just enough to prove that Obama should be taken seriously.
I swear, it’s like his foreign policy is based on the Fredo Corleone model. “It ain’t the way I wanted it! I can handle things! I’m smart! Not like everybody says… like dumb… I’m smart and I want respect!”
@Jenos Idanian #13:
It’s rather silly to think we’re at the point we are now because of the President’s “red line” statements. Do you seriously believe that, absent Obama’s red line statements, Assad could have used chemical weapons in the way that he has and there wouldn’t be a push for a response from the same quarters that are pushing for it now? The people who support a military response do so not because Obama made statements about a red line, but because they believe chem weapons deserve a military response.
@Jenos Idanian #13:
Then you’ve trapped yourself in another conundrum. You say Syria is bad, and we should stay out, and so it can’t be all Obama’s fault. And yet all you want to talk about is how it is all Obama’s fault.
Those children are nothing to you, and your argument.
(I guess it is entirely human to take your frustration out, because Syria is bad, and you don’t think we can or should fix it … to blame Obama because he’d rather like to improve the situation, just a bit, at the margin.)
Help the children? … I blame Obama!
@Jenos Idanian #13: Let me help you about Obama’s policy. I think he wants to
1) induce Assad to stop using chemical weapons;
2) win friends in the Sunni community.
Regarding the first point, I may be naive but I think idealism is underrated as a motivating factor in political decisions. You might try reading The Iron Heel, by Jack London. Despite being a left winger himself, London emphasized that the capitalist dictatorship that ruled the US in his novel was motivated as much by ethical concerns as its socialist opposition. I feel that the same is true of the Tea Party, even though I hate its ideology. You’d do well to consider the possibility that Obama and other liberals have ideals just as you do.
On the second point, anybody who reads the excellent blog by Juan Cole knows that the Moslem world is caught up in a struggle between Sunnis and Shiites, and that for the most part the Sunnis are opposed to the Assad regime and the Shiites back it. I think Obama anticipates a confrontation with Iran when it’s on the verge of getting the bomb, and that he’s trying to shore up his support in the Sunni world as much as possible in advance. Attacking Assad is one comparatively low cost way of doing so.
So now I’ve given you two reasons for Obama’s policy. I’m sure you’ll thank me for my help.
Did you guys see the January 2013 Daily Mail article about the leaked email reveling the U.S. plan to gas Syrians and then blame it on Assad? The archived article is here:
Don’t listen to Obama.
God loves you all.
@Stan: Let me help you about Obama’s policy. I think he wants to
1) induce Assad to stop using chemical weapons;
2) win friends in the Sunni community.
OK, that’s a fair explanation. But it’s really stupid. Here’s a simple way for Assad to counter the bombing: as soon as the bombs drop, pop off a few more chemical weapons. Then say that they were released by the US bombs.
We’re dealing with a culture where truth really doesn’t matter. These are people who simultaneously argue that 1) the Holocaust never happened, and 2) the Jews totally had it coming anyway. Or 1) Bin Laden is a great hero, and 2) 9/11 was done by Jews. To blame the US for the release of chemical weapons? It’ll go over like gangbusters.
As for your second point… when has the Muslim world ever shown any gratitude? How long did the appreciation of the US last after we liberated Kuwait? And how many sided with Saddam?
Assad can learn from the example of Saddam in the first Gulf War. Once he’s attackedf, pop off a few missiles at Israel. As soon as he’s seen as the main guy standing up to the Zionists, he’ll have plenty of support in the Muslim world.
@Raider: Your article’s source is InfoWars, noted conspiracy lunatic Alex Jones’ web site. If that’s the only source, then I have absolutely no problem saying it’s a total crock.
Thanks for your opinion, but do you have anything of substance which can prove whether the article is true or false? I’m interested in finding the truth of the matter.
@Raider: Here’s a little hint: if the only source is Alex Jones, you’r safe betting it’s bogus. If another source suggests it, it might — MIGHT — have some credibility.
Here’s a bit from Wikipedia:
And you wanna give him any credibility?
@ Jenos Adanian
In other words, in regard to the question I asked you, you have nothing to add. So be it.
@Jenos Idanian #13: Never get into a pissing match with a skunk. Good advice I should have remembered.
(It’s a pretty weird discussion when Jenos ends up making sense.)..um, yeah, if Alex Jones is your only source, you can toss the so-called “news” in the trash can. Given what he’s claimed as being Truth in the past, anything he states should be treated with a soupçon of salt, roughly one solar mass…
@Raider: In other words, in regard to the question I asked you, you have nothing to add. So be it.
Absolutely right. It’s a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying… nothing.
When someone says “Alex Jones says THIS!!!!! Do you have any comment?!!!?!??!!”, the only appropriate response is derisive laughter.
And to make it clearer, “someone” in this case is you, and the short version of my response is this.
1. I am in favor of consulting Congress. Both for proceedural reasons (I think it’s right thing to do) and because I’m hoping this derails whatever miltitary action was on the table.
2. The original mistake was the “Red Line” business.
3. The second mistake was not immediately weaseling out of the Red Line box right away.
4. If the President really is conflicted about the best course, I can sympathize with that.
5. I don’t think he’s sending this thing to Congress in the hope that Congress will kill it. I think he will keep pushing for strikes.
6. For those hoping for derailment, a potential failsafe is the UN. Russia will veto any sort of action. The line here is that we’d be enforcing a ban on chemical weapons. It would be smart of anti-intervention congresscritters to argue (as their secondary argument) that the appropriate vehicle for enforcement is the UN, and if the UN won’t do it, neither should we.
7. I don’t think #6 will happen. But it would be nice.