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Obama on Syria: “Being President is Boring and Hard”

The New York Times has an article out now laying out the White House’s approach to the decision-making process on Syria, and the picture it paints, whether the Times wishes to admit it or not, is not pretty, to put it mildly. It acknowledges that the Obama administration knew it was staring into the depths of what would almost certainly be a quagmire, and yet that still did not stop them from slouching towards involvement:

The administration took more than a year to nominate a replacement for Jeffrey D. Feltman, a veteran Arabic-speaking diplomat who had coordinated the State Department’s Middle East policy and left in June 2012 for a job at the United Nations. Much of the department’s time was now being devoted to what was called the “post-Assad project,” the planning for political transition in Syria. Many State Department officials began to dismiss the project as a useless academic exercise. They believed that its premise — that Mr. Assad’s government was on the verge of collapse — was becoming outdated.

After Mr. Obama’s sweeping re-election victory, some of those officials, and others in the administration, expected a change in the White House’s position on Syria — and an end to what they saw as the stalemate of the previous year. Those expectations, however, were dashed during a meeting in early December. Michael J. Morell, who had taken over at the C.I.A. when Mr. Petraeus resigned after acknowledging an extramarital affair, renewed his predecessor’s pitch to begin arming the rebels. The agency had tinkered with the proposal made by Mr. Petraeus, partly to address directly the president’s skepticism about the plan.

But that alone might not be the most damning part of the piece. That comes later when the authors describe President Obama’s attitude during meetings on Syrian policy:

Even as the debate about arming the rebels took on a new urgency, Mr. Obama rarely voiced strong opinions during senior staff meetings. But current and former officials said his body language was telling: he often appeared impatient or disengaged while listening to the debate, sometimes scrolling through messages on his BlackBerry or slouching and chewing gum.

To make it worse, it appears Obama understands, at least on some level, the gravity of the situation, as the next sentence reads, “In private conversations with aides, Mr. Obama described Syria as one of those hellish problems every president faces, where the risks are endless and all the options are bad.” And you know what? He’s right that it’s difficult–very difficult–to craft an appropriate response to the events in Syria, but it does beg the question: if the situation is so risky, why is the commander-in-chief of the world’s most powerful country diddling with his phone or some gum during these meetings?

What we can also learn from this is that Obama initially favored what is probably the best response to the whole situation: let the rebels and Assad fight it out amongst themselves and maybe they’ll finish each other off. Instead, he was badgered into arming the rebels, a position which he is clearly uncomfortable, by aggressive advisers and foreign powers. The result is a critical policy that has only lukewarm support from the man who is supposed to be undertaking it.

If you want to know why America’s place in the world has become so diminished under the Obama administration, look no further than this article (although if you need a little more of a refresher, this article from The Economist is also good). What the Times appears to to be telling us is, “The Syrian situation is so hard. No president could get it 100% right.” And you know what? They’re probably right. The Syrian question is full of hard choices and high risks, but portrait they give us of the administration and, more specifically, Obama himself’s behavior does nothing to acquit him of the charges of mishandling our foreign policy or overall disinterest in the necessary nuts-and-bolts aspects of being President. What we are seeing here is a confused and rudderless administration, set adrift in a sea of its own incompetence, lacking the moral compass necessary to find its direction.

I’ll let Walter Russell Mead of the American Interest, to whom I am indebted for bringing this article to my attention, have the last word as he describes the Times‘ hypocrisy:

If the story were about a conservative GOP President, one suspects the Times editors would have used stronger language and done much more to bang readers over the head with the clear inference that the man in the Oval Office engineered what the story calls a worst case scenario in Syria (maximum bloodbath, maximum danger of al-Qaeda gains, maximum chance of ugly Assad survival, maximum chance of Iranian victory, maximum danger for Jordan, maximum damage to prestige, interests and alliances of the United States) through a mix of empty and unrestrained rhetoric, awkward flip flops and half measures.

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