Democrats routinely accused President George W. Bush of “politicizing” national security, meaning that he allegedly would use national security success to bolster his political standing. Not only has President Obama exceeded that by leaps and bounds, by continually boasting about killing Osama bin Laden (and setting al-Qaeda back on its heels), but he has dragged domestic partisanship into national security. That is far more dangerous and inappropriate than anything Bush ever imagined.
Obama’s habit of infusing national security with partisanship can be seen clearly with regard to the meandering Syria policy. After Syria’s widespread use of WMDs, the president made the decision to act militarily. Perhaps he was concerned about saving face or about the real policy implications. (I don’t much care which it is.) But he really couldn’t bring himself to articulate the case, so he deputized his secretary of state, John Kerry, to make the case on Friday. Then he saw the British Parliament vote and the domestic polls. He went with his political chief of staff, Denis McDonough, on a 45-minute walk (who knows if Valerie Jarrett weighed in as well) — not his national security adviser or secretary of state — to figure out how to get out of this. His solution: Throw the ball to Congress. He then informed his national security team after the fact.
His closest political guru, David Axelrod, took delight in observing that the president had turned the tables on Republicans (“the dog that caught the bus”). It was a telling slip.
It is a sorry sight indeed to see the president put his desire to “get” his domestic political opponents above all else. The delay, notwithstanding Kerry’s assurances, means that Syrian assets can be hidden, our operations may become more difficult, more Syrians can be gassed (or killed by conventional means), and jihadists, Syrians and Iranians can crow. Meanwhile, the president’s punt has no doubt unnerved allies. And to what end? To lessen his own risk and rope Congress into his muddled policy.
This isn’t the first time, however, that Obama has put politics above matters of life and death. Recall that he changed the Afghanistan withdrawal schedule to line up nicely with the 2012 election. There was no military justification for that.
He now has put Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in an awful spot. Dempsey, in a letter to Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) stamped July 19, laid out options for Syria, including how a limited strike to prevent the use of WMDs would work. He wrote:
We do this by destroying portions of Syria’s massive stockpile, interdicting its movement and delivery, or by seizing and securing program components. At a minimum, this option would call for a no-fly zone as well as air and missile strikes involving hundreds of aircraft, ships, submarines, and other enablers. Thousands of special operations forces and other ground forces would be needed to assault and secure critical sites. Costs could also average well over one billion dollars per month. The impact would be the control of some, but not all chemical weapons. It would also help prevent their further proliferation into the hands of extremist groups. Our inability to fully control Syria’s storage and delivery systems could allow extremists to gain better access. Risks are similar to the no-fly zone with the added risk of U.S. boots on the ground.
Flash-forward to Saturday. Dempsey has an opinion, the president said, that the timeframe for strikes doesn’t matter, and there will be no “boots on the ground.” What happened to the risk of dispersing assets? What happened to the necessity of using ground forces? Obama has greatly diminished the credibility of his own chairman of the joint chiefs by his bobbing and weaving.
Kerry has every right to be angry. He was undercut by the president after two strong statements about our need to respond militarily. In the end, a decision was made outside his purview. He and other security advisers have reason to suspect their meetings are a farce; the real decision-making takes place without them.
Turning to Congress, I regret that members on both sides of the aisle will allow partisanship, rather than policy, to guide them in the congressional debate. The chance to blast the ball right back at Obama with a “no” vote and thereby weaken him is appealing in some GOP quarters. On the left, no one relishes taking an unpopular vote as Joe Biden, John Kerry and Hillary Clinton did when voting with Bush on the Iraq war. If a GOP president was in the White House, many more Republicans would likely vote with him and many more Democrats against him.
This is precisely why a president and not the legislative branch has primary responsibility for foreign policy and directing our military. Once complex military plans with all sorts of geopolitical ramifications hit the “people’s representatives,” their politics drive the debate. Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) charged the president with abdicating his responsibility. He’s right in large part.
But ironically, Obama has further weakened his standing and handed Congress an enormous amount of power at a time when he is asserting he can go around Congress and act on domestic matters usually within Congress’s domain. The reaction when I touched base with GOP offices over the weekend was two-fold. First, they have no idea how the vote will come out. And two, asked to characterize the president’s move, the overwhelming response to the flip-flopping and dithering was “weak.” That’s not a viewpoint that will be confined to national security for the remainder of Obama’s term.
The lesson here: Obama should have followed Bush’s lead. That president lined up support first and then made the tough call to send troops into harm’s way. Obama is acting like he’d like someone else to be commander in chief. Alas, he’s the only one we have.