Opinion writer

What is President Obama doing with his bob-and-weave Syria policy that seemingly bounces between bombing and diplomacy in the space of 15 minutes? The answer tells us some worrying things about the breakdown of America’s old foreign-policy consensus and Obama’s difficulty creating a new one.

Look behind the White House veil and here’s what you see: The president correctly believes that, in the aftermath of Iraq and Afghanistan, the country is sick of war and mistrustful of politicians. The traditional center ground on which foreign policy is made (“politics stops at the water’s edge”) has disappeared. The left and right are equally suspicious of foreign entanglements.

How does a president who wants to be a liberal internationalist rally the nation to enforce norms against chemical weapons? Obama’s answer has been to conduct a kind of public experiment: Instead of acting unilaterally as commander in chief, he has asked a divided Congress for counsel. Predictably, this has produced a cacophony, and Obama — despite a strong speech Tuesday night — is accused of playing both sides.

Basically, the president is mirroring the public’s split personality. He wants to lead but he wants to listen, too. He wants to end wars but also to intervene militarily. He wants to stay out of the Syrian war and also support the opposition. To resolve this confusion, he proposes an inductive kind of leadership: As he read from people’s letters Tuesday, it sounded almost like government by focus group.

Leadership as we experience it in life is usually more declarative: Leaders take action, and people follow. But Obama’s style is different. As we’ve learned after nearly five years, he’s more cautious and deliberative.

The public focus on Obama’s decision-making has obscured something perhaps more important, which is the breakdown of bipartisan foreign policy. Instead of converging in the center around U.S. leadership, the country seems to be converging at the wings, in a shared left-right rejection of the traditional interventionist role. The public overwhelmingly rejects more “wars of choice” in the Middle East to help nations and people who are seen as feckless and ungrateful.

You can think this new American caution is potentially dangerous (as I do), but there’s no arguing that it’s deeply felt and (given the immense cost and almost nonexistent benefits of war in Iraq and Afghanistan) understandable. The question is what a president should do about it.

Obama has been trying to reconstruct a basis for action. He took a principled and unpopular stand in favor of military intervention in Syria. He then deferred to Congress, sensing that he couldn’t take the country into conflict without more support. Some argue that he should have just rolled the dice and fired the missiles, but that’s not the way our country is supposed to work. And, even after turning to Congress, he still convinced the Russians and Syrians that he was prepared to act.

Obama displays such a peculiar combination of traits as president that I turned this week to an unlikely source for illumination. It’s a new book by Columbia law professor Philip Bobbitt about Machiavelli called “The Garments of Court and Palace.” Bobbitt’s argument is that, for all his supposed ruthlessness and amorality, Machiavelli was proposing rules that would allow a prince to govern in a decisive but sustainable way — with what amounted to constitutional order. This book convinces me that to succeed, Obama must become Bobbitt’s neo-Machiavellian.

Here’s a famous passage that Bobbitt quotes from “The Prince,” which Obama should commit to memory: “Because . . . a prince must sometimes practice the ways of beasts, he should choose from among them the fox and the lion, for while the lion cannot defend himself from traps, the fox cannot protect himself from wolves. It is therefore necessary to be a fox in order to recognize traps, and a lion in order to frighten wolves.”

Obama does the fox thing pretty well. He recognizes traps and generally avoids them. But he needs more lion. This means bold policy — diplomacy backed by the threat of military force. To succeed in reframing U.S. power, Obama will need to frighten the wolves on Capitol Hill and in the Kremlin. Otherwise, they will devour what’s left of his presidency.

Obama’s penchant for avoiding big, risky bets in uncertain situations may also be neo-Machiavellian, in Bobbitt’s terms. The phrase “the end justifies the means” is often attributed incorrectly to Machiavelli. Properly translated, argues Bobbitt, the advice to the prince is: “One must consider the outcome.”

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