September 12, 2013

Kevin Drum has a  great post today, in which he acknowledges that Obama probably blundered into the possibility of a diplomatic solution on Syria, but says the President did the right thing in adapting to it:

If you want to give Obama credit, give him credit for something he deserves: being willing to recognize an opportunity when he sees it. I can guarantee you that George W. Bush wouldn’t have done the same. But Obama was flexible enough to see that he had made mistakes; that congressional approval of air strikes was unlikely; and that the Russian proposal gave him a chance to regroup and try another tack. That’s not normal presidential behavior, and it’s perfectly praiseworthy all on its own.

In the meantime, it’s rock solid certain that Assad isn’t going to launch another gas attack anytime soon, which means that, by hook or by crook, Obama has achieved his goal for now. No, it’s not the way he planned it, but the best war plans seldom survive contact with reality, and the mark of a good commander is recognizing that and figuring out to react. It may not be pretty to watch it unfold in public in real time, but it’s nonetheless the mark of a confident and effective commander-in-chief. It’s about time we had one.

All of you regulars probably know I agree with this.

I continue to be puzzled by an enormous imbalance we’ve seen in much of the commentary — from neutral analysts and Republican lawmakers alike — about Obama’s handling of Syria. On the one hand, the basic take has been that Obama’s handling of the process has shown him to be weak and inconsistent. He changed his mind on whether to go to Congress. But Congress rebuffed him. He changed his mind again on using military force, instead opting to pursue a diplomatic solution when the possibility presented itself. But he’s failed to get what he wanted from Putin. This sends a message of weakness and vacillation abroad that diminishes the credibility of the commander in chief and the United States.

By contrast, few of those making the above arguments have been willing to say whether they agree with the objectives of his decisions. They won’t say whether they think going to Congress and pursuing a diplomatic solution were the right things for the President to do, given the circumstances. This is separate from asking whether Obama’s motives in doing these things were pure. Many have argued Obama only went to Congress for political reasons, to give it partial ownership of the decision to bomb. But still, Members of Congress asked Obama to come to them. Regardless of motive, wasn’t going to Congress the right thing to do, and wasn’t that preferable to him bombing without Congress?

Similarly, many have argued Obama took the diplomatic route merely as an escape hatch, because he knew Congress would vote No to force. Yet many of these critics won’t say whether they think exploring the possibility of a diplomatic solution was the right thing to do given that this possibility arose. This is particularly jarring when it comes from those who also say they can’t support war.

This basic imbalance has led to some very strange analysis. For instance, nonpartisan analyst Stuart Rothenberg rips Obama for his “confused” and “erratic” approach to Syria, accusing him of changing his mind and “passing the buck to Congress.” (Um, what about the Constitution?) But Rothenberg doesn’t say whether he thinks going to Congress was the wrong thing to do in substantive terms.

As I’ve noted before, none of this is to say there isn’t plenty to criticize about Obama’s handling of this whole affair. But adapting to changing circumstances isn’t one of them.

Ultimately what this whole dodge comes down to is that one can’t admit to thinking that going to Congress and pursuing a diplomatic solution are the right goals for Obama to pursue, without undermining one’s ability to criticize Obama for betraying abstract qualities we all know a president is “supposed” to possess. It’s simply presumed to be a positive when a president shows “strength” by “not changing his mind,” and it’s simply presumed to be a negative when he shows “weakness” by changing course in midstream. That’s “indecisive,” and that’s bad, you see. But it’s a lot harder to sustain these “rules” if you admit you agree with the actual goals Obama is pursuing with these changes of mind. After all, if Obama’s changes of mind have now pointed him towards goals you agree with, how was changing course a bad thing?

People should come clean about what they really believe about all this stuff.

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