Putting the President's speech alongside the political science classic by Richard Neustadt, Presidential Power: The Politics of Leadership is the best demonstration yet that Barack Obama has demonstrated the power of the Peter Principle. He should never have moved beyond the Illinois state legislature, and certainly not beyond one term in the US Senate.
Putting the same speech alongside the speech given by Secretary of State John Kerry a day earlier is the best reason for the Secretary of State to resign in embarrassment, assuming that the President does not resign first in shame.
There are some very good reasons for the US not attacking Syria. The country's civil war is messy in the extreme, with outsiders unlikely to select which of many sides is worthy of support. Punishing the use of chemical weapons only after their fourth or twelfth use (depending on one's intelligence estimates), admitting the ugliness of more than a thousand deaths including several hundred children, does not chalk up well as a reason for anger in comparison to the more than 100,000 who died earlier by other means.
The Syrian record shows that describing chemical weapons as "weapons of mass destruction" is a misnomer. It is only nuclear weapons that qualify for the label. Assad and his opponents have killed by artillery, hand-fired missiles, roadside explosives and car bombs, as well as rifles and photographed beatings many times the number of civilians killed by chemicals.
Barack Obama has frittered away his own standing in the world and cheapened the office that he holds by declaring with great bombast, sending his Secretary of State to proclaim moral truths and imperatives, asserting his capacity to act, and then inventing a new device in presidential history in order to share responsibility with Congress.
The limited and now delayed intentions make one wonder about the cheapening of the American military. Reports are that Assad has dispersed his military personnel and moved his missiles into university and school buildings. Will Obama dare send his Tomahawks against sites so important to culture and likely to be filled by students studying for the time being close to munitions? We hear that Assad has sent his military aircraft to safety in Iran. All of which suggests that the US may end up targeting empty buildings, while Assad and his enemies continue killing with artillery, tanks, and other stuff less less dramatic than long range missiles or aircraft.
Commentary is that Vladimir Putin is the winner in this fiasco. A few days after he advised Obama to think carefully about attacking Syria, the President sent the issue to Congress. The Ha'aretz cartoon has Putin and Obama dealing with a shamed Assad, with Putin saying, "Okay. two slaps and that's it."
The lead article on the Ha'aretz
web site is headlined, "The American hesitance is well understood in Israel: The postponement of the attack on Syria and its limited nature if it occurs raises worrying conclusions in Israel as they relate to the challenge of Iran
Op-ed items in Israel Hayom
are headlined, "Obama looks for an excuse not to act," "Weak knees of Obama," Putin wins, Assad celebrates," and "Obama blinks first
." Yedioth Aharonoth
's lead columnist on military affairs wrote, "Decision to delay strike against Syria sends dangerous message to cruel regimes, terrorists everywhere
Asking Congress for approval prior to a limited attack sets a precedent that will weigh on more serious presidents who come after Barack Obama. He does not intend a declaration of war, but a sharing of responsibility.
The speech he made was well tailored, and might win praise if part of a high school or an undergraduate debate tournament. Most likely it came from the best of the White House speech writers.
The words were well crafted, but its lack of wisdom raises grave doubts. It limits the president, whose office was designed by the founders--and enhanced most notably by Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and the two Bushes--to be a force of power not only in the US but in the world.
Congress already has enough authority--via its control over money and other ways--to act against a President who exceeds its desires in his role as Commander-in-Chief. What Obama is doing may produce an assumption that he and others will have to ask Congress for prior authority to act when a president sees a threat against the United States.
Congress can fritter and fuss. It may add conditions to what it authorizes, not only touching Syria but other fronts in the war on terror. Members claiming to be Israel's friends--with or without Israel's encouragement--may seek to force the President's hand with respect to Iran. The process can take long enough, especially if the two parties and the House and Senate are initially divided, for Assad and his enemies to kill additional thousands by one means or another, including many more children than died in the most recent chemical attack.
What will Obama do if only the Senate--controlled by Democrats--approves? Will he invent another precedent to allow an attack--claiming the Senate has special privileges in foreign policy--or sigh deeply and delight in doing nothing? The process may take Obama off the hook he put himself on, then clearly wished he hadn't, but it will set back the presidency for whatever he and his successors have yet to face.
No matter what is thought about the wisdom of attacking Syria, Obama has threatened the presidency and thereby the overall capacity of the United States. Tea Party members and other libertarians may celebrate, but those who look to government to help them through a complex and threatening world should be mourning.
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