Obama’s Syria muddle: Speak loudly and carry a small stick

“I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia,” Winston Churchill said in a 1939 radio broadcast, attempting to predict how the inscrutable Communist goliath might respond to German provocations in Eastern Europe. “It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

If Churchill were with us today, he might use the same words to describe President Obama’s approach to Syria — and the Middle East writ large. But rather than being “inscrutable,” the Obama administration’s policy is simply incoherent, reflecting a flaw at the heart of the president’s approach to foreign policy.

Since the civil war flared in Syria more than two years ago, Obama has offered plenty of tough talk without actually doing anything. He declared that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad must “step aside”; he impetuously stated that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would cross a “red line”; and in recent weeks, his team has stepped up the saber rattling with threats of some vaguely defined military action against the regime.

Yet at every turn — and most recently in his sudden call for congressional authorization — the president has hedged his rhetorical threats and declined to follow through. They say talk is cheap, but in this case, the talk comes at a high cost: the sacrifice of U.S. credibility in global affairs. The President is speaking loudly and carrying a small stick — truly the worst of all worlds.

That’s not to say the path is clear on Syria. There are literally no good options before the President — it’s Al Qaeda-backed rebels versus an Iranian-backed dictator. This is a “least worse” situation, and from that standpoint, I sympathize with the difficult decisions the president is facing.

But what’s less forgivable is the indecisiveness that brought us to this point; the President missed his window for action in Syria 18 months ago. Now, if there’s an iron-clad case for intervention, the president has thus far failed to make that case. And by declaring “red lines” and making threats with no follow-through, the president is squandering our nation’s credibility as a force to be feared by our enemies and respected by our allies. At this point, the most cogent case for action is to preserve what credibility we have left in the Middle East, especially as it pertains to showing Tehran we might actually mean business regarding their nuclear ambitions. At best, still a loose case for action.

It would be one thing if the Syria muddle were the first time President Obama had blundered in the global arena. But we’ve also seen the president’s miscalculations on Russia (is this the “flexibility” the President wanted after the election?). We’ve seen how his timeline for withdrawal in Afghanistan merely convinced the Taliban to wait out the American commitment. We’ve seen our embassy attacked, and ambassador killed, in Libya with no consequence. We’ve seen Iraq unravel and hedge toward Iran, because we ended the war rather than win the peace. We’ve seen the gathering storm in Egypt and few good options there. And, all the while, Iran continues to spin their centrifuges in pursuit of a geopolitical game-changer.

Despite these comparisons, the level of incoherence on Syria is still staggering. In interviews, the president downplays our objectives in one sentence while declaring our definitive capabilities in the next. During a PBS interview on August 28, the president said he had made no decision on Syria, but indicated he leans toward a “decisive, but very limited” approach that would serve as “a shot across the bow.” He also sought to reassure the American people that he was not interested in long-term intervention in Syria.

Any reassurance rings hallow when you describe an action as both “decisive” and “very limited.” How can any action do both at the same time? A decisive action is meant to settle an issue, whereas a very limited action — as point of fact — is not going to be decisive. It literally makes no sense.  The metaphor he used — a “shot across the bow” — is also very telling. In naval terms, it signifies a warning shot, which promises serious follow-up action if those on the receiving end of the shot should fail to comply. The president’s pledge to “limit” U.S. involvement appears to signal that there would be no follow-through; as in Afghanistan, Assad will know he need only wait us out.  Or, worse, Assad could seek to make the situation so bad that we’re forced into further action.