President Obama has said some scurrilous things in an attempt to rewrite history and conceal his errors, including denying for some time his promise that you could keep your health-care plan if you liked it. But none has been more distasteful, in large part because it involves national security, or more blatantly untrue than this fictionalized account for his failure to act in Syria:
It is, I think, a false notion that somehow we were in a position to, through a few selective strikes, prevent the kind of hardship we’ve seen in Syria. It’s not that it’s not worth it. It’s that after a decade of war, the United States has limits. … Our troops who have been on these rotations and their families and the costs, and the capacity to actually shape in a sustained way an outcome that was viable without us having a further commitment of perhaps another decade, those are things that the United States would have a hard time executing.
This is nothing more than a lame justification for his own foreign policy blunder, which has contributed to our loss of international credibility, further chaos in the Middle East and, ultimately, Vladimir Putin’s brazen invasion of a sovereign neighbor.
To begin with, Obama had a variety of options, including aid for Syria’s rebels, for three years. No one was recommending “boots on the ground.” The president refused to do anything of a sustained and effective nature. Then along came Syria’s use of WMDs. Even then, the most being asked of Obama was selected airstrikes, and there he, not the public, is fully responsible for the catastrophe that followed.
If the public was so war-weary, why did the president draw a “red line” on Syria’s use of WMDs? Why did he have his secretary of state go out to state the case for use of force, or ask Congress to give him that authorization if he believed the United States was so depleted that it could do nothing, not even limited airstrikes? It’s inconceivable that he didn’t know how the public felt. (He is the one who keeps telling us we are war-weary.)
In fact, what happened is that the president blurted out a red line he never intended to keep, then tried to deny it was his red line (it was Congress’s, or the world’s, or something) before losing his nerve and punting to Congress, and finally refused to take any action other than palm off the whole matter onto Putin. His red line. His reversal. His blunder. That entire mess is now widely seen as contributing to Russia’s newfound aggressiveness.
And if the public was so war-weary and this prevented us from acting on an urgent matter of national security, one must ask whether the president has failed to lead public opinion. And, moreover, why does he finds himself so bound by public opinion on this when, for example, he was willing to defy public opinion on his health-care plan?
When Hillary Clinton comes out with her book, it will be interesting to see if she defends the president or herself. The latter would entail a detailed account of her efforts to get the president to act in Syria, the range of options she imaginatively dreamed up, the other officials in the administration who supported her, her own foresight about the implications for U.S. credibility in the region if we let the bloodbath go on and her own understanding for the dangers inherent in allowing WMDs to be used by an ally of Iran or given to Hezbollah forces. On the other hand, she could defend the president and admit that she didn’t understand the seriousness of the conflict, also failed to understand anything meaningful could be done, blithely allowed the mass murder of 150,000 people to unfold and thereby set in motion the collapse of American prestige. Hmm. I wonder which version she will choose.