Sometimes a president does not have a communications problem. Sometimes a president has a reality problem.
President Obama’s speech to the nation on Syria was premised on the denial of reality. He claimed that the Russian/Syrian initiative resulted from the “credible threat of U.S. military action.” In fact, it filled a vacuum of presidential credibility. Obama had been isolated within the G-20 and abandoned by our closest ally, Britain. Americans overwhelmingly disapproved of a military strike for which the president clearly had no stomach. Obama was on the verge of the most devastating congressional foreign policy repudiation since the Senate voted 49-35 against entering the League of Nations in 1920.
Vladimir Putin offered Obama an escape, which he gratefully took. But there are implicit costs. A U.S. military strike — something Putin thought inevitable just a few weeks ago — is off. Russia’s Syrian client, Bashar al-Assad, stays in power. The Syrian opposition is effectively hung out to dry. Russia gains a position of influence in the Middle East it has not held since Anwar Sadat threw the Soviets out of Egypt. This allows Moscow to supply proxies such as Syria and Iran with weapons while positioning itself as the defender of international law and peace. Iran sees that the United States is a reluctant power, with a timid and polarized legislature, that can easily be deflected from action by transparent maneuvers.
Other than this, ’twas a famous victory.
The speech was left to encompass a contradiction. The president wished to reassert his credibility while engaging in a forced concession. So the beginning and end were an argument for limited military strikes based on an appeal to American exceptionalism. The rest was an explanation of why such action would not be forthcoming — and is no longer likely. A strike Obama could not effectively justify even with videos of gassed children will not be justified by news of a stalled or inconclusive inspection process.
The resulting message was boldly mixed. Assad is a moral monster — who is now our partner in negotiations. The consequences would be terrible “if we fail to act” — which now seems the most likely course. America “doesn’t do pinpricks” — especially when it does not do anything. “The burdens of leadership are often heavy” — unless they are not assumed.
Even the normal fig leaves used to cover retreat were not present. There was no deadline set for Syrian compliance, unlike in Secretary of State John Kerry’s initial, unintended offer. There was no list of conditions for a meaningful diplomatic deal. There was only the promise of a process heavily dependent on the goodwill of Putin and Assad, leveraged by U.S. military threats that have become increasingly hollow.
The administration’s Syrian problem is not just poor implementation; it is poor theory. At least in public, Obama is almost exclusively focused on maintaining norms against chemical weapons because this seems a narrow, achievable and morally unambiguous mission. But its very narrowness raises moral and strategic hazards. Is it coherent to evoke moral outrage at the murder of a thousand civilians with nerve gas while ignoring the murder of tens of thousands of civilians with hit squads, artillery, helicopters, bombers and Scud missiles? The Assad regime has bombed school buildings during school hours. Would this matter more if a video were available?
An exclusive focus on chemical weapons also creates a strategic hazard by obscuring broader challenges. Iran, Syria and Hezbollah — with Russian support — are bidding for dominance in a region essential to U.S. interests. Important allies are at risk of destabilization. The United States must find some way to counter the emergence of jihadist safe havens within Syria. Yet the president prefers to address a single problem he regards as solvable instead of presenting and defending a regional strategy. He wants to improve his prospects by narrowing his focus. Foreign policy challenges can’t be chosen in this way.
I am relieved that President Obama was given a reprieve from a devastating rejection by Congress, which would have wounded the presidency itself. We should hope (against hope) that a negotiation with Putin, Assad and the U.N. Security Council to establish international control of the world’s third-largest chemical weapons stockpile in the middle of a civil war is successful. And Congress should seek ways to strengthen Obama’s hand in negotiations.
But this remains a sad moment for the United States. We have seen a Putin power play, based on a Kerry gaffe, leading to a face-saving presidential retreat — and this was apparently the best of the available options.