It is very possible that the president will not obtain a joint authorization to bomb Syria; if he chooses to go ahead and attack anyway, Obama will incite a constitutional crisis—the first time in history that a president has decided to go to war against the declared wishes of Congress. The public and the courts will adjudicate the legality of that act, and it would be contentious.
So the corner that Obama has painted himself into is now inescapable. Defying Congress will put the country into a Watergate/Monicagate mess. Not doing anything will confirm the administration’s impotence and only enhance Russia, Iran, Assad, China, Islamists, and almost anyone else who does not like the U.S. Doing something small, with or without congressional approval, will be looked upon as a cynical waste of human lives to restore Obama’s credibility, the sort of craven, immoral political act that a younger Obama made a career out of mocking. Doing something big will invite public and global outrage if only moderately successful, and doom the Obama presidency if unsuccessful.
How did Obama get himself into this mess? It was bound to happen, given his past habits. All we are seeing now is the melodramatic fulfillment of vero possumus, lowering the rising seas, faux Corinthian columns, hope and change, the bows, the Cairo speech, and the audacity of hope. Hubris does earn Nemesis.
1) His inclination is to damn straw men, blame others for his self-inflicted errors, and spike the ball when he should keep quiet and become modest (cf. the bin Laden raid). So in Syria we heard the same old, same old: A host of bad guys, here and abroad, wants to do nothing. Obama alone has the vision and moral compass to restore global and U.S. credibility through his eloquence; but the world disappointed him and is now at fault for establishing red lines that it won’t enforce: He came into the world to save the world, but the world rejected him.
After five years of this, the world caught on, and sees juvenile and narcissistic petulance in lieu of statesmanship—and unfortunately a sinister Putin takes great delight in reminding 7 billion people of this fact almost daily. In terms of geostrategic clout, Obama has nullified the power of his eleven aircraft-carrier battle groups, Putin through his shrewd insight and ruthless calculation of human nature, has added five where they didn’t exist.
2) Obama thinks in an untrained manner and for all the talk of erudition and education seems bored and distracted—and it shows up in the most critical moments. Had he wished to stop authoritarians, prevent bloodshed and near genocide, and foster true reform in the Middle East, there were plenty of prior, but now blown occasions: a) the “good” war in Afghanistan could have earned his full attention; b) the “bad” Iraq War was won and needed only a residual force to monitor the Maliki government and protect Iraq airspace and ensure quiet; c) the green revolution in Iran was in need of moral support; d) Qaddafi could have been continually pressured for further reform rather than bombed into oblivion; e) postwar Libya needed U.S. leadership to ensure that “lead from behind” did not lead to the present version of Somalia and the disaster in Benghazi; e) long ago, the president could have either kept quiet about Syria or acted on his threats when Assad was tottering and the resistance was less Islamist; f) he could have warned the one vote/one time Muslim Brotherhood early on not to do what everyone in the world knew it would surely do; g) he need not have issued tough serial deadlines to Iran that we have not really enforced and probably have no intention of enforcing.
Instead, Obama relied on his rhetoric and talked loosely, sloppily and inconsistently from crisis to crisis, the only common denominator being that he always took the path of least resistance and thus did nothing concretely to match his cadences. Usually to the degree he made a decision, he made things worse with empty, first-person bombast.
3) Obama cannot attract top talent. Those from prior administrations who are gifted and worked for him or who were promoted by him—Robert Gates, David Petraeus, Paul Volcker, Richard Holbrooke, James Mattis, Stanley McChrystal—either were treated badly, not fully utilized, or ended up regretting their experience. Instead a host of mediocrities are recruited on the basis of either their partisanship, loyalty or demonstrated past lightness—an Eric Holder, Joe Biden, Susan Rice, Timothy Geithner, Chuck Hagel, etc.
Nowhere than in the present crisis is this unfortunate trend more telling: Pro-war John Kerry has opportunistic anti-war baggage, pontificates rather than persuades, and freelances into serial embarrassments; Martin Dempsey, to his credit, cannot square the circle of being an honest man assigned to say things he knows simply cannot be true, and so pleads the military’s version of the Fifth; Chuck Hagel has not recovered from the confirmation hearings, and just wishes Syria would go away; anything that a surprisingly quiet Joe Biden says on the crisis will probably be incoherent and incendiary, and surely contradictory of some past statement; Susan Rice astutely outsourced this crisis; Hillary Clinton whose “what difference does it make?” fingerprints are all over the Syrian and Libyan fiascos wisely got out of town ahead of the posse.
What is now the least bad choice between terrible and even more terrible alternatives? If the congressional vote is yes, the choice is cynically wasting a few American lives for a possible point, or killing lots more people for a more possible point. Not good choices.
If the congressional vote is, as I hope, no, Obama should quietly (i.e., don’t blame Congress, the world, the public, etc.) back out of the bombing mode, more quietly continue the belated work of promoting a pro-Western resistance to Assad, mend fences with allies most quietly, and prepare very carefully (but without the bombast) for a real crisis on the near horizon that will need the public, the Congress, our allies, and the president’s full attention and response. In our new Vienna-summit-to-Cuban-missile-crisis era of danger, I fear our enemies and rivals are digesting the Syrian misadventure and calibrating to what degree they might soon turn our present psychodrama into a real American tragedy.