When Republicans and Democrats were locked in combat over the debt limit in 2011, President Obama famously warned Rep. Eric Cantor: “Don’t call my bluff.”
Looks like Syrian dictator Bashir al-Assad didn’t get the memo. Bluffing is always risky business but trying to pull that stunt on a mad dog such as Bashir Assad is particularly dangerous. Wanna bet who is going to clean up in this high-stakes poker game?
No doubt when the president issued his original bluff—that use of chemical weapons would constitute a “red line” forcing the U.S. to reconsider our hands-off policy in Syria--he expected Assad to vamoose quicker than you can say Hosni Mubarak. The president seems not to have counted on Assad’s ruthlessness.
One Middle East expert (Lee Smith) has pointed out that the use of poison gas by Assad (or somebody) came almost a year to the day after President Obama’s “red line” boast. During that year, Syria has descended even further into a bloody civil war where there are few, if any good guys. While the US certainly has an interest in what happens in Syria, it is unclear how our involvement at this point would make a good outcome any more likely.
Yet the President’s bluff is out there. Surely this Nobel-peace winning President doesn’t want to have to make good on it. Yet he looks foolish if he ignores his own words. So he’ll likely take a half way measure—another bluff, if you will—which will be good for nothing but his own ego. By the time you read this, President Obama may well have lobbed a Cruise missile or two or three at some remote spot in the Syrian dessert (are there no handy aspirin factories in Syria?) But it is also looking increasingly possible that the President who can’t stop talking will simply keep talking about Syria. Indeed, the President gave Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff of PBS an interview earlier this week, pegged to the commemoration of the March on Washington, in which he spoke extensively about his ongoing Syria deliberations. It took him 478 words to say that he hasn’t made up his mind yet. Here’s some advice: Shut up.
A President’s words are supposed be taken seriously, at home and abroad. Yet with President Obama that’s harder and harder to do. The President had warned that if he didn’t get his way and Sequester were to come to fruition, economic Armageddon would follow. The GOP held its nose and let the Sequester happen anyway. The President and the Administration embarrassingly tried to make good on that bluff by cajoling agencies to make the required cuts as painful and public as possible, but in the end failed. Old west cardsharps could mosey on to another town, but the president can’t. And as the Sequester continues not even the President seriously pretends that it’s the cause of our ongoing economic woes.
The American people have been learning the hard way that this very wordy President’s words cannot be trusted. In selling his massive and jerrybuilt overhaul of the American health care system, he repeatedly said, “If you like your health insurance, you can keep it.” That won’t hold true for the millions who will see their coverage changed or dropped. He promised costs would come down and ObamaCare would usher in new job creation. Yet the American people see day after day the opposite occurring, with warnings of rising premium prices even from the President’s own Health and Human Services Secretary, and the President’s staunchest allies such as the unions publicly seeking waivers to escape ObamaCare’s clutches.
The President sometimes seems to laugh at how gullible we all are for believing his words. The president’s $787 billion spending spree was supposedly for “shovel-ready” projects that could put people to work immediately and lower the high unemployment rate. Yet in 2011, at a meeting of Obama’s Council on Jobs, so called, as the economy still sputtered unconvincingly, President Obama smiled and admitted, “Shovel-ready was not as ... uh .. shovel-ready as we expected." It was the smile that really got me. Nor were his counselors unsmiling. As Fox News reported, “The Council, led by GE's Jeffrey Immelt, erupted in laughter.” A smart riverboat gambler had daringly gotten us to throw hundreds of billions of dollars down a rat hole, and all the amigos could do was laugh appreciatively.
But the bluffing is wearing thin. The President may try to follow through and make good on this bluff with Assad and Syria, using precious American military resources to try and prove that his words mean something, but a meaningless strike is hardly the road to improving America’s credibility. This is the danger of a President endlessly talking and willing to say anything in the moment regardless of the cards he actually is holding. In our dangerous world, Assad, I fear, will not be the last bad actor to call his bluff.