- By Will InbodenWill Inboden is Executive Director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as Associate Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and Distinguished Scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.
The unfolding fiasco of President Barack Obama’s Syria policy shows why professors rarely make good presidents. With Obama having previously been a law professor for many years, some of his most debilitating characteristics come out when he lapses back into professorial mode. (As a professor myself, I recognize these things all too well.) This has been on painful display over the past few weeks, as the president seems to have been arguing with himself over his own Middle East policy, especially on Egypt and Syria. The vacillations, the hand-wringing, the endless second-guessing, the sanctimonious lecturing, the odd detachment from decisions of tremendous consequence — all of these are worthy more of the faculty lounge than the commander in chief. (Note in contrast that one of Obama’s signature successes came when he abandoned professor mode and acted decisively in ordering the bin Laden raid.)
Just in the last two weeks we’ve seen Obama take both sides of multiple issues, including whether the United States will continue staying out of the Syrian conflict or will intervene; whether an attack needs to take place imminently or not; whether an attack needs U.N. Security Council endorsement or not; whether an attack needs the support of allied nations or not; whether an attack needs congressional support or not; whether American credibility is at stake in Syria or not, and so on.
Graduate school seminars are appropriate places to talk endlessly about all sides of an issue while never making and implementing a decision; the Oval Office is not.
Winston Churchill’s theme to the concluding book of his six-volume history of World War II is "How the Great Democracies Triumphed, and So Were Able to Resume the Follies Which Had So Nearly Cost Them Their Life." The stakes in the Middle East today are nowhere near as severe as those of World War II, but Churchill’s warning against democratic follies comes to mind in the midst of the confusions besetting both Washington and London. While Prime Minister David Cameron and Labour Party leader Ed Miliband ultimately bear the most responsibility for the vote debacle in the House of Commons, Obama is not without fault. He could have worked with Cameron to make a case for attacking Syria to the British public before the vote, and he also could have used his considerable political capital with Miliband and the Labour Party to secure the opposition’s support. Ultimately this marks yet another failure of diplomacy by this administration, continuing an unhappy "diplomatic deficit" I have described before.
Meanwhile the public debate on process has obscured the more fundamental problem: The White House’s intended use of force is completely misaligned with its policy goals in Syria. This administration’s stated intention to do limited and circumscribed strikes advertised well in advance is at odds with its stated goal of punishing Bashar al-Assad’s regime for the regime’s chemical weapons use. In fact, the White House’s planned approach will likely do just the opposite: It will embolden Assad and perhaps reassure other tyrants pursuing weapons of mass destruction as well. Waiting a few weeks, announcing to the world that you don’t want to inflict too much pain, and then lobbing a few cruise missiles at empty warehouses in Damascus tells Assad and his ilk that there is little cost to be paid for using weapons of mass destruction against civilian populations. (Daniel Byman lays out in more detail the manifest weaknesses of this approach, as does Peter Wehner, and Peter Feaver points out how it masks the more fundamental problem of no White House strategy whatsoever for the region.)
In Federalist No. 70, Alexander Hamilton described the importance of "Energy in the Executive," particularly "in the conduct of war, in which the energy of the executive is the bulwark of the national security." By this he meant that the president of the United States needs to be able to act with dispatch, clarity, and authority, in contrast to the "feeble Executive" hamstrung by gratuitous constraints and indecision. As the U.S. Congress prepares to take up the Syria debate, I hope legislators will resist the temptation to mimic the follies that Churchill warned against and further enfeeble an already weakened president.
Congressional Republicans in particular have an opportunity to elevate the debate, to put America’s global standing and interests ahead of the chance to score political points. Republicans should not let our disappointment with Obama detract from the need to restore American credibility on the world stage and inflict long-overdue punishment on a brutal dictator and adversary. As a friend of mine suggested, the upcoming Syria debate might also be an opportunity for the GOP to restore the defense spending cut by the sequester — resources that will be needed to maintain robust force projection in the Middle East among other places. On Syria itself, I hope Congress authorizes Obama to impose severe punitive measures that cripple the Assad regime — and urges him to do just that.