With his missteps on Syria, Obama has alienated just about everyone -- friends and frenemies alike.
- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
It’s not easy to get yourself into the kind of predicament that the president of the United States finds himself in today.
To one substantial group of Americans, he is too hawkish, recklessly pushing America into another Middle East war. To another group, he is too dovish, committing to such limitations on intervention that any military action to come will almost certainly be nothing more than an empty gesture, advancing no vital U.S. interest.
To some, he is acting too rashly, not allowing enough time for international inspectors to make their case, for international partners to align behind the United States, or for diplomacy to work. And still to others, Obama is the Ditherer-in-Chief, having fecklessly wrung his hands while Syria burned, while 100,000 died, while chemical weapons were used repeatedly, and while extremists congregated on the burning battlefields turning that country into the training ground for a new generation of bad guys.
Though some see Obama’s turn to Congress as supporting the spirit of the Constitution, others see his subsequent assertions that he could still act without legislative approval as invalidating, a move that instead reveals the entire gambit to be little more than a political ploy, a feint to win more cover.
At home, the president is even facing strong opposition from the liberal Democrats who once supported him, believing that he would undo the unintended consequences of what they saw as the reckless interventionism of his Republican predecessor and from isolationist right-wing Republicans. Internationally, it is perhaps no surprise that Syria’s supporters, like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, would oppose Obama’s proposed strikes, as would countries like China that regularly seek to check the application of American power, but it must also be chastening for the president that some of America’s strongest allies, like the United Kingdom, are saying, "You’re on your own on this one, old boy."
But the political, national security, and diplomatic no man’s land in which the president now finds himself does not offer the consolation of the past compromises and the difference-splitting approaches he has embraced. His current track doesn’t offer a Goldilocks solution that can be seen as "just right" because it is neither too much nor too little, too fast or too slow. It doesn’t win the centrist seal of approval just because it is discomfiting to those on the far right and the far left. (For a great take on this, see FP‘s own Rosa Brooks’ powerful piece "Obama Can’t Win.")
In fact, centrists, moderates, and the world’s other middle-of-the-roaders are also deeply unhappy with the president’s position. Moderate Arab states feel the signals he’s sent are so confusing that he has done damage to what common causes we do share. Other friends in the Middle East now wonder if, with his new approach to consult with Congress on such measures, he hasn’t boxed himself in to the point that enemies like Iran will be emboldened.
Even those closest to the president (including many of those out there on the hustings now defending his position and arguing powerfully that Congress should support him) are furious with the way this decision was handled. Even as they correctly acknowledge the complexities posed by the situation on the ground in Syria, they observe with palpable concern and disapproval that the president blind-sided his national security team — essentially hanging his own secretary of state and vice president out to dry after asking them to make strong statements supporting immediate action and then privately, without consultation, reversing his position. I’ve heard the complaints from insiders; as one recent alumnus of a top post ruefully pointed out, "You can tell how many people were unhappy by how quickly stories came out about the way the president shocked them in the Oval Office meeting last Friday night, about how the secretary of state wasn’t even there and had to be informed by telephone afterwards."
The internal Democratic critiques run deeper still. One former senior Obama administration official spoke to me of the "shocking breakdown of the process." Another former top Democratic national security official called the president’s assertion that his military leaders said that a delay of several weeks in the timing of the attack would not reduce its effectiveness "the most disingenuous statement I have ever heard." Whether that insupportable and patently ridiculous statement reflected disingenuousness on the part of the president or his top military advisors is unclear. (We do know from its behind-the-scenes grumbling that the military does not much like the idea of the currently planned intervention in Syria either.) On the Hill, the leadership has said to the president, "You’re going to have to do the heavy lifting on this yourself."
Heck, even the president seems to oppose himself on this one. On matters of principle, he is at once reversing past stands against this kind of intervention in the Middle East (see the quote in Rosa’s piece on Iraq) and those for humanitarian activism to avoid problems like the ones we faced in Rwanda. He set the red line on chemical weapons and his team bruited it as policy before he ignored it and then asserted this week that he had not actually set the red line but rather "the world" had.
He is for consulting Congress but reserves the right to ignore it. He is against regime change but is for winning political support for "degradation" of Assad’s capabilities and arming the opposition forces that most certainly have deposing Assad as their goal. He seeks international support and justification under international law, but then suggests that getting the approval of the U.S. Congress would be enough to legitimize acting alone.
The presidency is a famously lonely job. But it takes hard work and some really bad decision-making to alienate nearly everyone along the entire political spectrum worldwide. (Syria’s a very tough problem but earlier action or more thoughtful framing of the "red line" in conjunction with international partners or just a more buttoned-down policy process could have helped avoid this mess.) It would be a mistake to think the president put himself in this predicament thanks to one walk around the South Lawn with Chief of Staff Denis McDonough. Indeed, the events of the past week do not alone threaten to compromise the president’s credibility — there were plenty of red lines crossed, plenty of other signs of hesitation to take decisive and timely action, not just in Syria but in Egypt, in Libya, during the Iranian Green revolution and, as it may yet be seen, Iran’s development of nuclear weapons. Indeed, while it’s absolutely true that a congressional vote against the president’s planned action to strike Syria would be absolutely devastating to America’s international standing, no one is more responsible for that standing being on the line than the president. This move was akin to him holding a gun to the head of Uncle Sam in full view of the world and saying, "Support me or I will shoot."
Do the missteps associated with Obama’s Syria policy amount to a mistake as damaging as Bush’s in Iraq or Clinton’s inaction in Rwanda? No, not yet. Indeed, we may someday look back at the Obama years and say this particular string of errors was dwarfed by the decision to double down in Afghanistan or what might someday be viewed as the failure to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program or the failure to put together a coherent policy in the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring or the failure to actually follow through on the pivot to Asia that was required to counterbalance the growth of Chinese influence in the region. Even now it’s clear any mistakes we make in Syria are unlikely to be as damaging as some of the blows to America’s strength that will surely result from of our failure to address our economic challenges at home. (A failure for which, it can be fairly argued, the GOP on the Hill hold the lion’s share of the blame.) The jury on such judgments is clearly out and will be for a while. And, of course, we can hope that this experience of dealing with this crisis, perhaps in conjunction with others he has faced, will offer the president an epiphany — and it will lead him to clarity, decisiveness, and the strategic vision that is necessary for him to do his job better going forward.
But for now, it is worth seeing the past week’s events for what they have been: one of the really stunning self-inflicted wounds the U.S. presidency has experienced in a couple of decades in which there have been some doozies.