Washington is abuzz with talk about how much President Obama has damaged America’s credibility with his indecisiveness on Syria. It’s become accepted fact that Obama’s decision-making style resembles that of an academic convening an unruly seminar whose participants he largely disdains. What he is not is a decisive leader with the ability to bring disparate players together behind a common purpose.
This shouldn’t be a surprise. We had inklings of it a long time ago. Back when Barack Obama was running for president in 2008, Hillary Clinton accused him of “taking a pass” on tough issues when he was in the Illinois state senate, a theme later picked up by Republicans. Its basis is the 129 times he voted “present.” On 36 of those occasions, he was the only one to vote present of the 60 senators. One of those occasions was in 1999, when he twice chose not to vote on a bill protecting sexual-assault victims from having the explicit details of their cases made public without “good cause.” Bonnie Grabenhofer, the president of the Illinois National Organization of Women at the time, said she endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2007 in part because “when we needed someone to take a stand, Senator Obama took a pass.”
They may not be easy to bring into line. Recall that just two years ago, 70 House Democrats voted against a bill that would have authorized U.S. military action in Libya. Less than two months ago, a total of 111 House Democrats, a clear majority, voted to cut back on funding for National Security Agency surveillance programs.
Since then, further evidence has piled up that Obama is a dithering, indecisive leader willing to deflect making a decision because of what many see as political calculation. It’s one thing when this happens domestically, like when his administration delayed meaningful action by BP and the state of Louisiana to clear up the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010. It’s another when it happens in foreign policy — especially in the Middle East. Obama stood aloof during the Iranian street protests of 2009. In Libya, he delayed a decision for weeks until choosing “to lead from behind,” in the famous words of one adviser. In Egypt, the administration was caught flat-footed not once, but twice, by uprisings.
An administration that lacks a consistent foreign policy philosophy has nevertheless established a predictable foreign policy pattern. A popular revolt takes place in country X. President Obama is caught by surprise and says little. A few days later an administration spokesman weakly calls for “reform.” A few more days of mounting protests and violence follow. Then, after an internal debate that spills out into the media, the president decides he must do something. But hoping to keep expectations low, his actions are limited in scope. By this point, a strategic opportunity is missed and the protesters in country X feel betrayed.
Sounds just like the Syria story we’re seeing today, with the addition of Obama’s foolish “red line” threat should Syrian dictator Bashar Assad use chemical weapons. The pattern of behavior is a key reason why President Obama now has credibility problems — with both parties — on Capitol Hill.
No one should think the president can’t eventually get his way on Syria. Democrats will be reminded that if they help deliver a humiliating defeat for Obama it will not only hurt U.S. credibility abroad but will damage his domestic agenda and perhaps make his participation in the 2014 elections less valuable.
But Democrats who have watched House Republicans scramble to keep their coalition together and deliver majorities now have their own challenge. As David Drucker, congressional correspondent for the Washington Examiner, reports: “This is a rare case of the shoe being on the other foot. This time, the president and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) have to deliver the votes first — if they want the (Syrian) resolution to clear the chamber.”
And as Democratic leaders try to corral those votes, part of the pushback will not just be questions about the advisability of a strike on Syria, but increasing worries that the president they elected is not ready for prime time when it comes to foreign-policy crises. A Democratic congressman who retired years ago once told me that, while he didn’t vote for Ronald Reagan in 1980, he was “profoundly concerned” about how Jimmy Carter might have continued to mishandle U.S. foreign policy — from Afghanistan to Iran — if he’d won a second term that year.
Many Democrats may soon wake up to the fact they may indeed have reelected a Jimmy Carter — or worse. And he has a long 40 months left in his term.
— John Fund is national-affairs correspondent for NRO.