COMMENTARY : Obama’s ‘unbelievably small’ presidency

Marc A. Thiessen | The Washington Post – September 16, 2013  – If you have any doubts that President Obama’s handling of Syria is an utter debacle, witness the embarrassing spectacle this morning as his top aides scramble to place blame for it at their boss’s feet.

In today’s Wall Street Journal, senior officials leak how they desperately tried to talk Obama out of his “head-spinning reversal” on airstrikes and his decision to go to Congress. “He received swift — and negative — responses from his staff,” the Journal reports. National security adviser Susan Rice, we learn, warned that “he risked undermining his powers as commander in chief.” Senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel “also raised concerns.” But Obama ignored their advice and “took the gamble anyway.”

Such loyalty.

We’re conducting foreign policy by faux pas. This entire episode has been driven not by deliberate strategy but by slips of the tongue. Obama’s declaration of a “red line” on chemical weapons was a slip of the tongue. So was Secretary of State John Kerry’s offer to have Syria give up its chemical weapons. There is no plan, no coherence to anything this administration is doing on Syria.

More embarrassing still, Obama is actually claiming that the diplomatic “breakthrough” is the result of his administration’s show of strength.

Excuse me?

Was it a show of strength when Obama went to the world’s nations and asked them to join him in enforcing “their” red line — finding only one country (France) ready to do so? Or when the British parliament rejected military action for the first time since the 1700s? Or when a U.S. official told the Los Angeles Times that any U.S. strike would be “just muscular enough not to get mocked”? Or when Kerry declared that any strike would be “unbelievably small” and would not really constitute “war”? Or when Obama used his prime-time, nationally televised address to call on Congress to do . . . nothing?

That’s not a show of strength. That’s an embarrassment.

The idea that this sequence of events led Syria’s Bashar al-Assad to cower and agree to hand over his chemical weapons is laughable. Russia and Syria are playing us. And the administration, which was about to lose a vote in Congress, latched on to this diplomatic “solution” to save face.

It’s supposed to be the president of the United States who gives a dictator a face-saving way out, not the other way around. The sad fact is Obama needed this way out more than Assad.

Apparently even the Obama administration doesn’t believe its own hype. The Journal reports that, on the same day Russia seized Kerry’s unintended offer to have Syria avoid military strikes by disarming, “the administration sent a memo to lawmakers highlighting why Russia shouldn’t be trusted on Syria.” The agreement announced this weekend is a near-total capitulation. Per Russia’s insistence, it includes no military consequences for Syrian non-compliance and fails to mention even who is to blame for the chemical attacks. The administration even agreed to Moscow’s demand that Assad be protected from referral to the International Criminal Court for war crimes. As soon as it was announced, Syrian officials promptly declared it “a victory for Syria, achieved thanks to our Russian friends.”

If Obama wanted to show strength, he could have used his address last week to deliver an ultimatum to Assad. He could have laid out what Syria needed to do to avoid military action, declared that his demands are not subject to negotiation, set a clear deadline for Assad to comply and made clear that failure to do so would result in a devastating military response.

Instead, Russia and Syria were the ones issuing the demands. Russia has elevated its standing on the world stage at America’s expense, with President Vladi­mir Putin lecturing the president in a New York Times op-ed about the dangers of American exceptionalism. France — which risked its prestige to support Obama — has been left high and dry. The Syrian rebels are despondent. One rebel commander told the Times, “Obama has completely lost his credibility.” Brig. Gen. Adnan Selou, the former chief of Assad’s chemical warfare program who defected to the rebels, dismissed the accord and declared, “To hell with America.”

But never mind all that. Good news! The tide of war in Syria is receding. We can get back to nation-building here at home.

So eager were White House officials to put the fiasco behind them that, even before the United States and Russia reached their Potemkin disarmament agreement Saturday, they had already announced a pivot from Syria. Less than 48 hours after Obama’s address to the nation, the Associated Press reported that “President Barack Obama is ordering his Cabinet to focus on domestic issues, despite the unresolved debate over Syria’s chemical weapons.” Forget that Assad called Obama’s bluff, used chemical weapons on his people and got away with it. The president had avoided a crippling defeat in Congress. Crisis averted. Time to move on.

After all, the debt-limit fight is approaching and Obama firmly declared that he will not negotiate.

Yeah, right. Would that he showed the same resolve with Syria.