FRONT PAGE CONTRIBUTOR
Obama On Syria: Don’t Sweat The Process, Look At The Results
treating diplomacy like four dimensional tic-tac-toe
After Barack Obama was humiliatingly rescued by Russian President Vladimir Putin from his tragic and disastrous management of American policy towards Syria, the Obama deification enterprise is launching a new narrative: sure the process was really mucked up but we don’t care about process we care about the results. The charge started this weekend, led by no lesser figure than Barack Obama, himself:
“I think that folks here in Washington like to grade on style. So had we rolled out something that was very smooth and disciplined and linear, they would’ve graded it well even if it was a disastrous policy. We know that because that’s exactly how they graded the Iraq war,” Obama said on ABC’s This Week.“I’m less concerned about style points, I’m much more concerned about getting the policy right.”
The Wall Street Journal tick-tock piece indicates that Obama actually believes this:
Through mixed messages, miscalculations and an 11th-hour break, the U.S. stumbled into an international crisis and then stumbled out of it. A president who made a goal of reducing the U.S.’s role as global cop lurched from the brink of launching strikes to seeking congressional approval to embracing a deal with his biggest international adversary on Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Mr. Obama saw the unintended outcome as better than the alternative: limited strikes that risked pulling the U.S. into a new conflict. It forestalled what could have been a crippling congressional defeat and put the onus on Russia to take responsibility for seeing the deal through. U.S. officials say the deal could diminish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical stockpile more effectively than a strike, though it leaves Mr. Assad and his conventional arsenal in place.
“I’m not interested in style points,” Mr. Obama told his senior staff in a closed-door meeting Friday, according to a participant. “I’m interested in results.”
Not everyone is pleased. Mr. Obama infuriated allies who lined up against Mr. Assad and his regional backers Iran and Hezbollah. French officials, who were more aggressive than the U.S. in urging a strike, feel they have been left out on a limb. And Russia has been reestablished as a significant player on the world stage, potentially at the expense of the U.S.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R., Mich.) joined a chorus of Republican lawmakers critiquing the deal, calling it a “Russian plan for Russian interests” that leaves Mr. Assad in power. “Putin is playing chess, and we’re playing tick-tack-toe,” he told CNN.
Let’s examine this from two perspectives.
Did we get the policy right?
It is hard to tell as no one is really sure what the policy is but to the casual observer it seems that:
- Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons on his enemies.
- Bashar al-Assad thereby crossed a “red line.”
- Bashar al-Assad has suffered neither economic, diplomatic, or military consequences.
- Bashar al-Assad still has his chemical weapons under his control.
So, if the policy was that the use of chemical weapons within the sovereign territory of a nation is its own business, then yes, Obama got the policy right. If the policy was that the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable and you will be punished for using them, then the policy is a freakin failure of the first order.
Is the policy all that matters?
Not really. The correctness of a policy is always going to reside, to a great extent, in the eyes of the beholder. People of good faith can disagree on a policy. The real mark of a professional and a professional organization is the mastery of the process that implements a policy.
In this case, the process was an epic #FAIL from start to end. Even Richard Cohen has come to that conclusion:
Obama must be choking on irony. This is a president, after all, who campaigned against the war in Iraq and has since proclaimed himself the war-ender, not the war-starter. He is the complete anti-Bush — thoughtful, reflective, cautious and never suggesting that he has heard from the Almighty on what to do next.
Still, Obama has so lost control of his foreign policy — if he ever had one — that he must now wait on Assad to go through with a deal the Russians, of all people, made possible. He must continue to threaten force, but the American people, Congress and, most important, the Russians will not permit it and — here’s Bush smirking again — don’t believe him. In the end — and the end could be months down the road — the Syrians may well surrender their stock of chemical weapons, but Assad has literally gotten away with murder. He gassed about 1,400 civilians, including 400 or so children, and did not pay a penalty. So much for “red lines.”
The pity of it is that, had Obama used force early on, Assad would not have dared to gas his own people. The dead and the wounded are as much a victim of U.S. weakness and vacillation as they are of Assad’s brutality — the former made the latter possible. Obama was so fixated on not being Bush, so worried about stepping into a quagmire, that he wound up losing control of the situation. The administration made policy by blurt — first Obama on red lines and then Secretary of State John Kerry on how a military strike could be avoided and then all this silliness about a shot across Assad’s bow and the slap-on-the-wrist nature of any planned military response.
It’s not difficult to pick winners and losers here. Clearly, Russia is a winner — the deal-maker, the guarantor, the U.N. Security Council member packin’ a veto. Israel wins in the short run if Syria actually disposes of its WMDs. The long run, though, is a different story. Israel’s preoccupation is Iran and its presumed effort to make a nuclear weapon. If this happens, that’s another Obama red line — possibly another chance to wobble. But the Syrian people are the sure losers. The United States, the Russians and the Assad regime have a deal. WMDs must go. The killing by other means can continue.
There it is.
Not only was the outcome a tactical rout and strategic defeat for Obama but the policy itself an abject failure. The administration did not speak with one voice. It did not follow through on its threats. It could build neither political nor popular support for a military strike. It empowered Russia as a regional power. It cast doubt in the minds of the leadership in Tehran and Pyongyang as to the determination of the administration to prevent those nations from obtaining nuclear weapons. It removed any doubt in Moscow and Peking and London and Paris about who they are dealing with in Barack Obama.