Speaking to the nation Tuesday night about the Syrian conflict, President Obama sought to cloak his rhetorical and strategic incoherence in the cover of American exceptionalism. He said:
“America is not the world’s policeman. Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong. But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional.”
Yet, the rest of his remarks, and his administration’s recent actions, belie his assertion of American exceptionality under his leadership. To wit:
An exceptional country does not draw “red” lines it later obfuscates, or denies altogether, or attempts to pin on the “international community,” whatever that is.
An exceptional country does not call for a dictator’s removal then do nothing about it.
An exceptional country does not take a backseat to the machinations of Vladimir Putin.
An exceptional president does not pass the buck to Congress and hope it backs his plan, all the while knowing that if Congress doesn’t support him, he can hang the failure around Congress’ neck.
An exceptional president does not get boxed in by a bumbling Secretary of State who proposes new policy while wandering off the policy reservation.
An exceptional president does not send his bumbling Secretary of State to proclaim chemical weapons attacks a “moral obscenity” and then kowtow to the nation (Russia) that supports the regime (Syria) that launched those same attacks.
With America’s credibility on the line, Obama has appeared weak, incoherent, indecisive, and inconsequential. In contrast, Vladimir Putin has appeared strong, strategic, and decisive. This is evident in the latest proposal to avert a strike: Syria hands over its chemical weapons to international inspectors and in return apologizes? No. Faces sanctions for gassing its people? No. Welcomes the Syrian opposition into the government? No.
If this “breakthrough” proposal sounds familiar, it’s because it is: think Iraq 2001-2003 or Iran 2009 to the present. The “international community’s” record on weapons inspections gives little reason for optimism.
The folly of this proposal is evident by consideration of the possible outcomes.
Option 1: Syria cooperates completely and turns over all of its chemical weapons. In that scenario, the winners are Assad, who continues his unfettered reign of terror, and Putin, who is the grand diplomatic chess master. The losers are the Syrian opposition, Syrian Christians, any Syrian political “moderates,” and the United States, whose words and threats are shown to mean nothing.
Option 2: Syria feigns cooperation initially but does not turn over its weapons or permit unfettered weapons inspections (a la Hans Blix in North Korea), Russia does nothing to ensure Syria’s compliance and everything to prevent its accountability, and six months from now we are in the same position we are today, only America’s credibility has been tarnished. The winners (again): Assad and Russia. The losers (again): the Syrian opposition, Syrian Christians, Syrian political “moderates,” and the United Sates.
In this scenario, what is Obama’s play six months hence? He can’t go the UN route: Russia would simply veto any resolutions penalizing Syria for an attack the president confidently asserted was committed by the Assad regime. He could hope the world and the mainstream media lose interest and move on, like they did from the Benghazi debacle, to domestic topics: government funding, debt limit increases, Obamacare implementation. This would be a cynical strategy, but this is Barack Obama.
Would Obama then threaten military strikes, so close to the run-up to the 2014 midterms and endanger Democratic chances of retaining the Senate and taking back the House? Not a chance.
Option 3: Syria rejects the proposal and continues to gas its people. And why not? Its initial deployment of WMD invited no punitive sanction, and Putin and Assad know the American people are not convinced a Syrian strike furthers our national security. What does President Obama do then? Draw another red line in the sand to be muddled when the time comes for action?President Obama said America is not the world’s policeman. That is certainly true when its threats are shown to be mere bluffs. A president deeply distrustful about the use of American military power abroad must come to terms with the consequences of his failure to wield that power and enforce his own ultimatums. As he said, inaction harms America’s national security. If that is true, what is he waiting for?