September 11, 2013

It’s plainly obvious President Obama has made many mistakes on Syria. For many, the decision to go to war itself — on which I’m conflicted and probably leaning against — was the cardinal error. Beyond that the White House has failed to focus directly enough on making a detailed case for why and how strikes will deter further chemical attacks.

But Obama’s appearance of being conflicted over various aspects of the Syria crisis — and changing course midstream as circumstances changed — is not one of the things about all this that deserves criticism. Indeed, it’s a good thing.

The press this morning is filled with tough analysis of Obama’s speech that notes the contradictions and internal conflicts it displayed about his handling of the crisis. Ron Fournier has a relatively fair take here; John Harris has an overly snark-laded one here. The common thread is Obama is making a case for an unpopular military adventure while simultaneously looking for an escape hatch in a diplomatic solution.

Obama’s speech leaned heavily on making a moral case for intervention by vividly evoking Assad’s horrors. Given that the public and lawmakers are already convinced of his guilt, the speech didn’t speak directly enough to their concerns about whether strikes will have any meaningful impact. As Michael Cohen points out, it’s still unclear why strikes would deter other nihilistic actors from using chemical weapons, and the claim that acting now to protect American troops later strains credulity in a big way.

But the internal contradictions in Obama’s speech actually reflect the fact that he spoke to the moral and political complexities of a difficult situation in an unvarnished way. First, he argued he has the authority to strike alone but that going to Congress will ultimately make American stronger. Second, he argued strikes were a moral necessity to deter further action while simultaneously acknowledging public wariness of acting as “the world’s policeman.” Third, he made the case for war while simultaneously arguing a diplomatic solution would be preferable.

It’s hard to see why these contradictions and conflicts, in and of themselves, are problematic. First, whatever the motive, going to Congress was the right thing to do. If being “conflicted” on this led to the right outcome, that’s a good thing. If it results in a “defeat,” I don’t care what airhead pundits say about it showing “weakness.” If Obama heeds Congress, the public will applaud it as a show of what’s known as democracy. Second, the question of what role America should play in such situations is a difficult one, and the public itself is conflicted over it. As Stephanie Gaskill points out, offering a black-and-white answer to this question — as opposed to acknowledging its case-by-case complexity — is not something Americans would accept. Other lawmakers don’t have an easy answer either. As Gaskill notes, it’s a question that can’t be ducked, as America defines its role amid winding down the foreign entanglements of the Bush era.

Third, if the goal of getting involved in Syria in the first place was to halt the use of chemical weapons — and the possibility of a diplomatic solution that could realize that goal has arisen — why shouldn’t Obama adapt as he goes along and try to make that happen? Some will argue Obama wouldn’t be doing this if Congress were willing to authorize force, but I don’t buy it. What’s more, the unstated premise underlying the idea that this is an unacceptable or mock-worthy contradiction is that Obama should declare his intention to use force and stick to it no matter what changing circumstances dictate. Why would that be seen as a good thing? Have folks already forgotten what happened the last time a president approached foreign policy that way?

* DIPLOMACY ON SYRIA RUNS INTO TROUBLE: The latest:

Western and Russian diplomats clashed over whether the United Nations would authorize military action to degrade Syria’s chemical weapons programs if a diplomatic agreement were violated. Western diplomats insisted that the threat of strikes was a critical ingredient that would ensure Syrian compliance. But Russian officials said that a diplomatic route would work only if the United States and its allies renounced the use of force.

As Obama’s former WMD coordinator told me yesterday, this is the central sticking point that could make a diplomatic solution fundamentally impossible, but there is still an outside chance at a solution rooted in the idea that the U.S. and Russia both have a common interest in seeing no strikes.

* DID OBAMA MOVE OPINION ON SYRIA? A CNN snap poll just after the speech found 61 percent approved of the approach to Syria Obama spelled out, though Americans still narrowly tilt against military action, 50-47. That — combined with the 67 percent who think a diplomatic solution is very or somewhat likely (12 and 53) — suggest support not for intervening but for the general idea of keeping up pressure until such a solution is reached.

Beware snap polls. But it’s fair to ask whether public views of Obama’s handling of Syria will turn around in the event of a diplomatic solution.

* TWEET OF THE DAY, SYRIA EDITION: Courtesy of Glenn Thrush:

Perspective on Obama’s many screw-ups on Syria: they are NOTHING compared to Bush-Iraq, Reagan-Lebanon, Carter-Iran, LBJ-Nam

Yes. I don’t defend Obama’s handling of Syria, but on top of what Thrush says, we could still see a relatively positive resolution to the situation.

* OBAMA STRATEGY COULD STILL PAY OFF: Pay close attention to John Dickerson’s conclusion here:

The best new argument the president has for his Syria policy is that the threat appears to be working. The outlines of the Syrian offer to give up chemical weapons will become clear soon enough and we’ll all learn whether this pause was a bluff or a genuine breakthrough. If it’s the latter, then what looked like a confusing speech in the middle of a fishtailing policy will mark the moment when Obama’s hard line started to pay off.

 * GOP PRIMARY COULD IMPERIL TAKE-BACK OF SENATE: Politico takes a look at the emerging GOP civil war in Alaska, and how it could imperil the party’s efforts to oust vulnerable Dem incumbent Senator Mark Begich. The re-emergence of Tea Party figure-of-fun Joe Miller, is a reminder that the Tea Party is still in a position to set back the GOP by saddling it with unelectable general election candidates.

Remember, Republicans will need to defeat three Dem incumbents — or four, if Dems can win in Georgia or Kentucky — to take back the Senate.

* THE “GUN RIGHTS” BRIGADE WINS IN COLORADO: Two Colorado politicians were successfully recalled in Colorado yesterday over their support for a sweeping gun reform package. Steve Benen says what needs to be said:

[State Senate president John] Morse said last night, “We made Colorado safer from gun violence. If it cost me my political career, that’s a small price to pay.”

Let’s pause for a moment to ponder how remarkable it is that a respected lawmaker’s career had to end because he approved legal measures intended to prevent gun deaths.

* A BIG PROGRESSIVE VICTORY IN NEW YORK: A big moment for progressives nationwide: Bill de Blasio cruised to victory in last night’s Democratic mayoral primary, and may avoid a runoff before heading into the general election. If he wins, we may see a genuine effort to combat inequality put in motion in Bloomberg’s New York, with important ramifications for the prominence of progressive economics within the future Democratic agenda.

Also: Don’t miss Michael Barbaro’s excellent look inside de Blasio’s campaign strategy, and how it was about making progressivism concrete.

* AND THE LATEST MEME ON THE RIGHT CENTERS ON (SHOCKER) BENGHAZI! Mother Jones digs into the latest: Obama can’t be trusted on Syria because Benghazi. And he can’t be trusted on Obamacare because IRS scandal. And he can’t be trusted on immigration because Obamacare. And he can’t be trusted on anything because Kenyan Muslim Marxist.

What else?

What else?

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.