Obama’s Syria punt: Not presidential at all

John Wohlstetter Author, “Sleepwalking with the Bomb”
Font Size:

Recall the president’s August 20, 2012, comments drawing a “red line” on Syria’s use of chemical weapons:

“In a situation this volatile, I wouldn’t say that I am absolutely confident. What I’m saying is we’re monitoring that situation very carefully. We have put together a range of contingency plans. We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region that that’s a red line for us and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons. That would change my calculations significantly.” (Emphasis added.)

And here is The One’s “I don’t bluff”” moment, March 2, 2012, at the White House with Israeli PM Netanyahu, regarding possible U.S. military action against Iran: “I think that the Israeli government recognizes that, as president of the United States, I don’t bluff.”

Grant that a president can always change his mind as to whether to unleash America’s military might. Grant that a president can always decide it best to go to Congress, even if in similar situations prior he did not do so. Grant that a president can decide to follow the military advice of his Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, that there is no rush to act militarily, even if other military authorities disagree.

What a president must not do, however, is what President Obama just did on Syria: Tell the world the U.S. has set red lines regarding Syria moving, let alone using, chemical weapons – lines that must not be crossed – and when challenged, say the red lines were set by others; issue a series of stern warnings to Bashar Assad not to use WMD against his own people, or against anyone else; proclaim “I don’t bluff,” and then blink when his bluff is called; send his top diplomat out to reinforce – twice – his warning that punishment will be harsh for crossing established red lines; declare that the tyrant must go, and then state that regime change is not our policy; and then…

Punt to Congress to consider at leisure, and then hit the links.

While the president golfs and members of Congress attend picnics and barbecues, hold town hall meetings, march in parades and chill out with family and friends, Syrian men, women and children are dying. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, will die as our president takes his time to decide an issue that has been front-burner for two years, for which detailed military plans are already set, merely to be fine-tuned, and which Congress has followed closely as well.

To quote Macbeth, “If it were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well it were done quickly.”

Not to act quickly to answer what are recognized by the civilized world as crimes against humanity, or to execute a pinprick strike, is worse than silence and inaction. Telling congress to bail him out of markers impetuously lain down, and shifting responsibility for them to Congress, is even worse than that.

President Obama’s delay is not merely unpresidential. It is not being president at all. Our commander-in-chief has gone AWOL. And he has earned the contempt of allies, neutrals and, worst of all, our enemies, who will thus be emboldened.

As for Israel, its leaders and public now know the value of President Obama’s promise that he has Israel’s back and will act if necessary to stop Iran from going nuclear.

President Eisenhower famously loved playing golf. He even had a putting green installed on the White House grounds.

But Ike, a true commander-in-chief, never, ever, went AWOL.

John C. Wohlstetter is author of “Sleepwalking With the Bomb,” and founder of the issues blog Letter From the Capitol.