Michael Barone: Obama’s wing-it diplomacy undermines U.S. credibility
By Michael Barone
Here’s how the Obama folks have been starting to spin Syria. The president made a credible threat to use military force in Syria. At the same time, he worked behind the scenes to get Russia’s Vladimir Putin to push Bashir al-Assad to give up chemical weapons.
These two seemingly discordant initiatives, brilliantly coordinated, combined to produce a process to eliminate Assad’s chemical weapons without even a shot being fired across the bow.
Of course, every bit of this is false. Only the most credulous Obama fans are fooled.
Back on Aug. 20, 2012, in response to an intelligent question from NBC’s Chuck Todd, the president said that the use of chemical weapons by Syria would be a “red line” that would “change my calculus.”
That’s a threat to go to war. As the Washington Post’s Walter Pincus points out, once a president declares a red line, he should be prepared to back it up. He should order military contingency plans, consult with members of Congress and seek support from foreign governments.
There is no evidence that Obama did any of these things in a serious or sustained way in the 366 days between his red-line statement and the use of chemical weapons in the suburbs of Damascus — not even after British and French intelligence reported the use of chemical weapons last spring.
Then during the week of Aug. 26-30, leaks poured out from the administration that Obama would order air strikes in Syria, but only little ones. Regime change was off the table.
On Friday night before the Labor Day weekend, Obama suddenly decided, during a walk in the White House grounds, to seek congressional approval.
Were any soundings taken of congressional opinion before that decision? It doesn’t seem likely.
Even the slightest pulse-taking would have suggested that getting majority approval would be difficult in a House of Representatives where most Republicans mistrust the president and most Democrats are congenitally dovish.
Especially when public opinion strongly opposed any military intervention.
Attempts to propitiate Democrats by stressing that air strikes would be only a pinprick inevitably repelled Republicans willing to support only measures that would weaken or dislodge the Assad regime.
After Labor Day, as media vote counts started showing a majority of House members voting or leaning no, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, who accompanied Obama on his Friday night walk, was still predicting that the administration would prevail. That was either insincere or delusional.
The claim that the Russians agreed to push Syria on chemical weapons only because Obama threatened to use force requires a belief they thought he would do so after an adverse congressional vote. Not likely.
Nor is it likely that John Kerry’s statement in his Monday press conference in London that the attack could be avoided if Syria submitted to international inspections was part of a calculated strategy. Kerry’s next words were, “But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be
Kerry was winging it, and so was Obama when he spoke favorably of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s offer to push Syria to give up its poison gas.
So the president’s Wednesday night speech included words supporting military action and other words explaining that it wasn’t necessary.
It can be argued that Obama’s decision to hold off on air strikes and negotiate with the Russians is better for the United States in the short run than the other two alternatives on offer — ineffective air strikes or a landslide repudiation of the commander in chief by Congress.
But in the long run, it’s a terrible setback for America.
Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger muscled the Soviet Union out of Middle East diplomacy back in 1973. In the 40 years since, American presidents have kept the Russians out.
Now they’re back in. A nation with a declining population, a weakened military and an economy propped up only by oil and gas exports has suddenly made itself the key interlocutor in the region.
Obama has allowed this even though it’s obvious that effective disarmament is impossible in a nation riven by civil war and ruled by a regime with every incentive and inclination to lie and conceal.
The negotiations and any fig-leaf inspection process can be dragged out for weeks, months and years, as Saddam Hussein demonstrated.
Obama said he hoped to degrade Syria’s chemical weapons program. Instead he has degraded his own — and America’s — credibility.