Monday, September 2, 2013

American Leadership, Politics, President Obama and Congress

Syria is on everyone's mind these days. So should be America's role as world leader.

We are coming close to becoming just another feckless and directionless "domestic politics first and foremost" country when it comes to our political leaders saying what they (and therefore we) mean and meaning what they (and therefore we) say. At least that's my take.

Leading From Behind Congress is subtitled 'Obama recklessly gambles with American credibility' and captures my sentiments exactly:

"President Obama's Syrian melodrama went from bad to worse on Saturday with his surprise decision to seek Congressional approval for what he promises will be merely a limited cruise-missile bombing. Mr. Obama will now have someone else to blame if Congress blocks his mission, but in the bargain he has put at risk his credibility and America's standing in the world with more than 40 months left in office.

This will go down as one of the stranger gambles, if not abdications, in Commander in Chief history. For days his aides had been saying the President has the Constitutional power to act alone in response to Syria's use of chemical weapons, and that he planned to do so. On Friday, he rolled out Secretary of State John Kerry to issue a moral and strategic call to arms and declare that a response was urgent.

But on Friday night, according to leaks from this leakiest of Administrations, the President changed his mind. A military strike was not so urgent that it couldn't wait for Congress to finish its August recess and vote the week of its return on September 9. If the point of the bombing is primarily to "send a message," as the President says, well, then, apparently Congress must co-sign the letter and send it via snail mail.

It's hard not to see this as primarily a bid for political cover, a view reinforced when the President's political consigliere David Axelrod taunted on Twitter that "Congress is now the dog that caught the car." Mr. Obama can read the polls, which show that most of the public opposes intervention in Syria. Around the world he has so far mobilized mainly a coalition of the unwilling, with even the British Parliament refusing to follow his lead. By comparison, George W. Bush on Iraq looks like Metternich.

But what does anyone expect given Mr. Obama's foreign-policy leadership? Since he began running for President, Mr. Obama has told Americans that he wants to retreat from the Middle East, that the U.S. has little strategic interest there, that any differences with our enemies can be settled with his personal diplomacy, that our priority must be "nation-building at home," and that "the tide of war is receding." For two-and-a-half years, he has also said the U.S. has no stake in Syria.

President Barack Obama delivers remarks about the ongoing situation in Syria in the Rose Garden of the White House on Aug. 31.

The real political surprise, not to say miracle, is that after all of this so many Americans still support military action in response to Syria's use of chemical weapons—50% in the latest Wall Street Journal-NBC poll. Despite his best efforts, Mr. Obama hasn't turned Americans into isolationists.

A Congressional vote can be useful when it educates the public and rallies more political support. A national consensus is always desirable when the U.S. acts abroad. But the danger in this instance is that Mr. Obama is trying to sell a quarter-hearted intervention with half-hearted conviction.

From the start of the Syrian uprising, these columns have called for Mr. Obama to mobilize a coalition to support the moderate rebels. This would depose an enemy of the U.S. and deal a major blow to Iran's ambition to dominate the region.

The problem with the intervention that Mr. Obama is proposing is that it will do little or nothing to end the civil war or depose Assad. It is a one-off response intended to vindicate Mr. Obama's vow that there would be "consequences" if Assad used chemical weapons. It is a bombing gesture detached from a larger strategy. This is why we have urged a broader campaign to destroy Assad's air force and arm the moderate rebels to help them depose the regime and counter the jihadists who are gaining strength as the war continues.

The very limitations of Mr. Obama's intervention will make it harder for him to win Congress's support. He is already sure to lose the votes of the left and Rand Paul right. But his lack of a strategy risks losing the support of even those like GOP Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham who have long wanted America to back the Syrian rebels.

Yet now that Mr. Obama has tossed the issue to Congress, the stakes are far higher than this single use of arms in Syria or this President's credibility. Mr. Obama has put America's role as a global power on the line.

A defeat in Congress would signal to Bashar Assad and the world's other thugs that the U.S. has retired as the enforcer of any kind of world order. This would be dangerous at any time, but especially with more than three long years left in this Presidency. Unlike the British in 1956, the U.S. can't retreat from east of Suez without grave consequences. The U.S. replaced the British, but there is no one to replace America.

The world's rogues would be further emboldened and look for more weaknesses to exploit. Iran would conclude it can march to a nuclear weapon with impunity. Israel, Japan, the Gulf states and other American friends would have to recalculate their reliance on U.S. power and will.


These are the stakes that Mr. Obama has so recklessly put before Congress. His mishandling of Syria has been so extreme that we can't help but wonder if he really wants to lose this vote. Then he would have an excuse for further cutting defense and withdrawing America even more from world leadership. We will give him the benefit of the doubt, but only because incompetence and narrow political self-interest are more obvious explanations for his behavior.

All of which means that the adults in Congress—and there are some—will have to save the day. The draft language for authorizing force that Mr. Obama has sent to Congress is too narrowly drawn as a response to WMD. Congress should broaden it to give the President more ability to respond to reprisals, support the Syrian opposition and assist our allies if they are attacked.

The reason to do this and authorize the use of force is not to save this President from embarrassment. It is to rescue American credibility and strategic interests from this most feckless of Presidents."

Summing Up

Let's all think carefully about what the above editorial has to say about America's role in the world as the rhetoric heats up in Washington and around the world this week.

In my view, it's sad but true.

And that's my Labor Day take on things.

Thanks. Bob.

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