Few traits are less becoming in an American president than vacillation, yet in his approach to the Syrian chemical weapons attack, President Obama has given a textbook illustration of what it means to waver between differing courses of action. At first, Obama took after Teddy Roosevelt at San Juan Hill, promising to move unilaterally to strike hard at Syrian dictator Bassar al Assad. But neither the U.N. Security Council nor the Arab League endorsed military action, American public opinion opposed it, and the Congress was lukewarm at best.
Then Prime Minister David Cameron’s proposal for joint American-British action against Assad lost on a close vote in the House of Commons, giving Obama a political escape hatch. A president known for circumventing Congress by regulation and fiat suddenly declared his support for a full debate in Congress. His reversal was instantly taken as weakness by Assad, his chief backers in Tehran and Moscow, and terrorist outfits like al Qaeda.
But what else should be expected of a chief executive whose foreign policy cornerstone was laid with the Cairo apology lecture in 2009 and that has since been defended by his apologists as “leading from behind” in an effort to redefine the U.S. from superpower to “smart power?” The only surprise was that Obama seemed to be preparing -- for a week, anyway -- to take decisive military action against anybody, much less against the most important client-state of Iran and Russia.
Seeking a congressional imprimatur was an astute political move. By doing so, Obama deftly spreads the blame for whatever happens. If Congress refuses to give its assent, then Obama can say he wanted to stave off future humanitarian atrocities but was thwarted by the lawmakers. If Congress approves and Obama’s subsequent actions prove fruitless or make things worse, then Congress must shoulder an equal share of the responsibility.
Regardless of the outcome in Congress, however, Obama has strengthened the appearance to America’s friends and enemies that United State is no longer certain of its role or confident of its ability to bring about desired outcomes. For better or worse, world peace since World War II has depended first of all on the assumption that, in Reagan’s words, America was “freedom’s beacon” and was willing, in JFK’s memorable phrase, “to pay any price, bear any burden” to remain so. The world simply is a far more dangerous place when America is unsure of itself.
Obama may also choose to act on his own if rebuffed by Congress, or delay action even if Congress approves it. Note that Obama couldn’t resist including in his statement of deference to Congress an aside that he believes he retains the authority as commander-in-chief to act unilaterally. Then there is Secretary of State John Kerry’s observation Sunday that “we have the right to strike at any time if Assad is foolish enough to engage in yet another attack …” Having fumbled the preparation for a strike this time around, Obama may think he can have it both ways – congressionally sanctioned action now, or unilateral action later when Assad again violates the norms of human decency.