Ever since joining the postmodern conservative blog site, it has been my fondest fantasy to receive one hundred comments on a post. It has so pre-occupied my thoughts that as the number of comments on my last post yesterday crept into the nineties, I could not resist trying to force the day, pleading with passerbys to write and begging my wife to take part. I even pressured some who participate in my own program at the university to write, violating the spirit if not the letter of a responsible director. And of course I did not sleep last night, enduring re-runs of Hannity and the Five, checking and waiting, waiting and checking, for that anticipated moment of seeing three figures appear on the computer screen.
In the end I also learned a good deal from the comments, even from the spirited criticisms of Mr. Balls. There were more comments, many more, that were critical than favorable of the position I took. Even our own editor made sure to register a different view. And I can readily understand why.
In the course of this long nite, I watched an interview by Greta of Henry Kissinger, someone whom I have not seen on TV for a long while. As I recall from my half sleeo the substance, he said–somewhat jarringly—that he did not on the substance recommend direct military intervention in Syria (I will add under this President), but that he would support the authorization of force resolution. That’s a position worth considering.
On the first point, of what to do in Syria, I spent a good deal of time last weekend in Chicago at the American Political Science Association meeting and talking to some smart people about the Obama policy on Syria, mostly before he had taken his step to consult Congress, in other words, at the time when it looked like he was going to go ahead on his own with a “shot across the bow.” From all sides I heard dubious judgments—even from sides within the conservative camp. I had dinner with some of the smartest people I know, let’s call them anti-neo cons, and to a person they argued that we don’t even know whose side we are on in Syria—indeed we cannot know. Assad is the worst of tyrants, allied with Iranians, while the rebels are by now infiltrated with extremists and allies of Al Qaeda. If Assad used his chemicals against his opponents, whose is to say that the rebels, if successful, would not use them against the West? As for the McCain Graham (McGraham) position, that the rebels were under moderate control, this group scoffed at their reassurance. What information did McGraham have that so many others do not? Plus they recalled the McGraham trip a few weeks earlier to Egypt, where they “intervened” against the generals, in the name of “democracy”…. If there is a clear side to be on in Syria, wouldn’t the Israelis have signaled what it is? Yet the Israelis have been silent, in private as well as in public.
I spoke also with a few persons who opposed the strike because it had not strategic objective. The problem, they said, is that it was not designed to overthrow Assad, so it would not alter the strategic environment. It would be an empty gesture, designed to show Obama was keeping his word on the red line and doing something to deter WMD, but that it would not do enough even to accomplish that. He would end up humiliating the US and America as well.
Since these meetings, Obama suddenly decided to ask for congressional authorization. Does anything in this move inspire confidence in the President? When we consider why he took this step—so far as we can look into his motives—it seems that consideration of a constitutional role for Congress was at the bottom of his list, if it figured at all. We know that the President was prepared to strike and was pushing the British for a quick decision, maybe before Cameron was really ready. Cameron’s defeat in parliament brought a reassessment by Obama. Maybe now he feared that going ahead on his own was too risky. Suppose something went wrong: would he then be damaged at the core in his whole presidency, his legitimacy called into question (thanks to Uncle Joe, impeachment would be unlikely). We know how these things work. It is one thing to fail, it is another thing to act in a way that can be called unconstitutional, for that is a neutral or “non-partisan” transgression. Recall that there were some in both parties saying that the president needed congressional authorization before acting. Under these circumstances, Obama shifted ground, undercut his secretary of state, and asked for congressional authorization. That way, if something goes wrong, if there is blame, he will at least be innocent of the fatal non-partisan charge of having acted unconstitutionally. Never mind now that from a military point of view, the added time will allow the Assad regime to hide more of its assets, requiring a large strike to have the same deterrent impact (if it would have had any impact at all). Meanwhile, too, the footage must already be in preparation showing America’s missiles killing women and children; to avoid the suspicion of being faked, there are likely some children being moved into vulnerable areas so that we will have the real show.
And since his switch on the constitutional issue, the president’s behavior merits even less confidence than before. What have we learned? The Secretary of State indicated that the Syrians had violated the WMD ban fourteen times before this last incident. Did the President show any urgency in enforcing his ban at these earlier breaches? Almost none. Even his promise, delivered by a low-level administrative official, to give arms to the moderate rebels had not been carried out. The president was running away from his own “red line” as fast as he could. This picture of irresolution was strengthened yesterday by his comments in Russia, where he claimed that the red line was not really his, anyhow. It was Congress’s and the world community’s, etc. Whatever truth in this statement, it was meant to shift blame and responsibility from him. One of the soberest and best analysts I know of, Pete Whener, has a column today that asks us to wonder about the President’s connection to reality. Having begun as the messiah, believing that his intelligence and inspirational capacity could change the world, it turns out that things don’t work so easily. Imagine how it must feel, being mocked by Assad, scoffed at by Putin, disdained by most of our allies. A more sober leader than President Obama would be able to look in the mirror and shed the illusions and delusions, pick up the pieces, and see what can be done from here on out. So far as one can see, this is not what is going on. Obama’s intelligence and arrogance prevent him from being able to make a mature reassessment of where he stands. Even the little signs of contempt that he will be bound to notice when meeting his peers in Russia are likely to have no impact. He is immune to humility. And who is there among his own advisors who is willing or capable of standing up and speaking the truth: Chuck Hagel? Valerie Jarrett? Perhaps at some point in the future John Kerry, but certainly not yet.
Now a word about some of our friends on the left who are supporting the resolution. Why, they are asking, are so many unwilling to support the President in his attempt to defend international law? No, it has nothing to do with his leadership, nothing to do with the absence of an international coalition, it is because of the “Iraq syndrome.” In other words it is George Bush’s fault. Last week the reason was “war fatigue,” but now it is specifically the “Iraq syndrome.” You will find this argument in the column of the usuals, like E. J., and pushed by the likes of James Carville. In a clever gambit, it is put in the mouths of conservatives and libertarians. Granted many of them have expressed such fatigue, and many do blame Bush for Iraq. But if war fatigue there is, a good part of it is due to Afghanistan, not Iraq. Over the past five years it is in Afghanistan that we have lost the most lives and suffered the greatest casualties. Has everyone forgotten that Afghanistan is Obama’s war every bit as much as it is Bush’s war. Obama once claimed it is the good war, and he was the one who put in the troops for the surge. If there is fatigue, is this not his fault as well? And if there is something to be said for these wars, something that would argue that they have—or could have–accomplished something, has President Obama seriously made the case? He fights the war in Afghanistan and then uses the excuse of war fatigue to undercut his own policy; his intellectual supporters then take the next step and end up blaming the whole thing on Bush. Let us not even go into the possibility that part of the failures of Iraq and Afghanistan are the results of the policies of Obama. Libertarians and some conservatives have their reasons, well-stated, for having opposing Bush and these wars. That’s one thing. But it’s something else when they are trotted out now as cover for Obama.
It is clear that we live in a world where it is often difficult to know what is the best thing to do. Almost all options carry risks, which means that it is easier to criticize most policy decisions than it is to defend them. Much of the criticism of the President is admittedly inconsistent and gratuitous. But all in all, his actions in this case do not inspire much confidence. Furthermore, his ungenerous treatment all along of his opponents is such that few of them feel inclined to help him out. True, they have treated him ungenerously as well, but he is the President, they are only citizens or members of Congress. Part of his job is to act presidentially, something he seems unconstitutionally incapable of doing. Still and all, this is not a time for settling political scores. The nation in the end needs a president who has credibility, who can warn an adversary and have that warning carry some weight. Just begin to think of a world in which, for three years, no one would take seriously the word of the president of the United States. By the president’s own actions, we are already perilously close to being in this dangerous situation. Anything that would take us further down this path would increase dramatically the risks.
And sorry, don’t expect that this president, if he receives his authorization, will refrain from trying to exploit divisions among Republicans on just this point. We should be prepared for that. Continuing recriminations among Republicans will only play into the President’s hands. However this vote turns out, I hope that the commentators who took part in the centennial dialogue can at least agree about that.