There is a theme that threads its way through the political life of Barack Obama, and it is the only way to understand Syria, Benghazi, and so much more. Sadly, that theme is not principled opposition to war or even a desire to diminish America’s footprint on the world stage; it is egotism. How can we reconcile the president’s myriad positions on Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Egypt, al Qaeda, and more? The answer is that his opposition/support/outrage/fervor for the use of force in Iraq/Afghanistan/Libya/Syria/Yemen/Pakistan/etc can only make sense if we understand that when Barack Obama thinks it’s ok, it’s ok.
And when he doesn’t, well, it isn’t. Like the old riddle about the two Indians, one of which always tells the truth and the other who always lies, we are left trying to make sense of the president’s many, many contradictory statements. Last night’s speech was no different; the vast mass of his short address to the nation was about the imperative of answering Assad’s use of chemical weapons with military force. The final minutes were about not using that force. Congress should authorize the decision, but shouldn’t vote now. The strike will be limited, but lethal. We’re not the world’s “policeman,” but we can’t turn the other cheek at this challenge to “freedom and dignity for all people.”
Small wonder, then, that neither the American people nor Democrats and Republicans in Congress are willing to follow a man whose sole guiding principle is, “If I want to do it, it’s right.” Especially when the likely corollary is, “And now I don’t want to do it anymore.”
It is fine for a leader to be conflicted, and justifiable to delay military action in the hope of diplomatic solutions. But it is not fine to work out that conflict on American television screens, nor to laud (and indeed, take credit for) solutions that are false on their face. Similarly, it is fine to justify the use of force in Libya on the grounds that, absent intervention, “Qaddafi would commit atrocities against his people. Many thousands could die. A humanitarian crisis would ensue. The entire region could be destabilized, endangering many of our allies and partners.” But it’s not fine to pretend those words were never uttered, precedents not set, and that somehow, dead Syrians are less worthy. Every step the president has taken in facing up to the challenge in Syria – a complex one, no doubt – is to rationalize why his previous utterances don’t apply. The simple problem is that those rationalizations don’t make sense. And there is now such a vast trust deficit that even members of his own party are distancing themselves from Obama.
I have written repeatedly that the United States has an interest in ensuring a stable and Assad-free future for Syria; many of us have written on a variety of occasions about how to work toward that goal. But forget about Syria for a moment. What about Iran? Even the Rand Pauls of this world allow that we are facing the deadly prospect of an Iran with nuclear weapons. On Monday, Susan Rice repeated Obama’s oft-stated line that “we will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon.”
Oh really? Can anyone believe that in Tehran they see the president’s contortions on Syria as a deterrent? His willingness to ignore 13 previous uses of chemical weapons against the Syrian people in violation of his own “red line” as determination? Rather, the president has done little more than assure Iran’s new leaders that Washington is fundamentally unserious when it comes to Iran’s nuclear program, not to speak of its ongoing support for Assad, for Hezbollah, and for terrorists in Gaza.
It is easy to dismiss this latest in a series of foreign policy debacles as nothing more than the flailings of an amateur. But this man is the President of the United States of America. He certainly hasn’t forgotten the title; merely the responsibility he has to uphold the dignity and strength of the office in the service of the best interests of the nation.