Mark your calendar: Aug. 28, 2013. That was the day the roof fell in on President Obama. Our closest ally, Congress, the media and our military demonstrated their utter contempt for him. He has tried to avoid the world and U.S. involvement in it, so, naturally, his sudden call to arms (however weak and unsatisfactory) has provoked waves of skepticism.
In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron was “deserted by rebels in his own Conservative Party [and] lost a parliamentary vote for provisional authorization for military action in Syria.” The White House vowed to go it alone, an ironic outcome for Obama, who berated his predecessor for failing to work with multi-lateral bodies.
President Bush, if you recall, assembled a coalition of the willing for Iraq, involving not only the United States and Britain, but also 47 other countries. Obama apologists can blame Iraq or President Bush all they like for the Parliament’s rejection, but it is Obama who has refused to address the public and continually signaled his lack of concern for the outcome in Syria. This is as much his defeat as it is Cameron’s.
Republicans and Democrats in Congress are pleading with the president to explain his rationale and the extent of his commitment. Again, the irony is hard to miss. The president contends he has all the executive power he needs to act without congressional authorization. John Yoo, the Bush Justice Department lawyer who wrote the controversial memos on enhanced interrogation techniques, tries to explain to grouchy Republicans that the Constitution leaves it to Congress to authorize war but allows the president to act as needed as commander in chief.
In my view, Obama and Yoo are right about the Constitution, but Congress is justified in insisting the president explain himself. Both parties lack understanding of his policy (or whether he even has one) and don’t trust his judgment. He failed to make the case because he did not want to involve the United States in Syria (he ends wars, you see) and does not seem convinced of the strategic importance of Syria.
The media and pundits – right, left and center — are filled with scorn for the president’s incoherent policy. When Donald Rumsfeld and my colleague Ruth Marcus both rail against his failure to explain and lead the country, you know he is in trouble. David Brooks, who often has made Obama’s case more adroitly than Obama himself, now concedes, “It is pretty clear that the recent American strategy of light-footprint withdrawal and nation-building at home has not helped matters. The United States could have left more troops in Iraq and tamped down violence there. We could have intervened in Syria back when there was still something to be done and some reasonable opposition to mold.”
Worst of all is the military. It is disgraceful and misleading for military officers to leak their distaste for combat and suggest that America can’t carry out a defined mission. The Post reports:
“I can’t believe the president is even considering it,” said the officer, who like most officers interviewed for this story agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity because military personnel are reluctant to criticize policymakers while military campaigns are being planned. “We have been fighting the last 10 years a counterinsurgency war. Syria has modern weaponry. We would have to retrain for a conventional war.”
. . . A retired Central Command officer said the administration’s plan would “gravely disappoint our allies and accomplish little other than to be seen as doing something.”
“It will be seen as a half-measure by our allies in the Middle East,” the officer said. “Iran and Syria will portray it as proof that the U.S. is unwilling to defend its interests in the region.”
The leaking this week from all quarters suggests a lack of discipline and a failure to understand that we should not provide solace to the enemy we presumably are about to attack. It also reflects their lack of regard for their secretary and the president.
This fiasco was a long time coming. Obama’s insistence on becoming the un-Bush, his faith in the magic of his own words, his misguided belief that the U.S. could recede from the world, his general disinterest in prioritizing human rights, his high-handed dealings with Congress and his determination to slash the military’s budget have come crashing down on him. He has perceived his party’s aversion to military involvement and the country’s war fatigue as insurmountable. He doesn’t seem to understanding that it is the president’s job to lead on national security, even when it is not popular. (Bush did so with the surge in Iraq.)
Instead of play-acting at the Lincoln Memorial on Wednesday, Obama should have been preparing an address to the nation and making a coherent plan for action. More than four years into his presidency, it is perhaps too little and too late, just as we expect our response to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will be.
The president is now a prisoner of advice served up by Pentagon lackeys trying to cater to his distaste for action. But a more serious and independent analysis of our options from Christopher Harmer, a former Naval aviator with the Institute for the Study of
War, conveyed by the Wall Street Journal editorial board, shows we can accomplish a lot with little risk:
Target those six airfields — their runways, bomb and fuel depots, control tower and radars — and you can essentially shut down the bombing raids that have so harmed the opposition. Going after the aircraft would also be desirable but is unnecessary if the Syrians can’t sustain flight operations. The U.S. might need to attack the airfields again if the Syrians are able to repair and rebuild, but similar sorties could do the job.
Even better, Mr. Harmer says all of this can be done by using standoff weapons like Tomahawk cruise missiles and air-to-surface missiles like the JASSM. No U.S. pilot would be put in harm’s way, since no aircraft would have to enter Syrian air space. The attack also wouldn’t require taking down Syria’s air defenses, which he says in any case are far less capable than advertised.
No doubt the president doesn’t want to hear any of that. The tragedy here is that we could deal a severe blow to Iran, Syria’s junior partner, and Hezbollah by taking out Assad’s army and crippling his regime. Our misfortune, however, is to have a commander in chief who doesn’t command respect or confidence.