It was very hard to think about the President's speech last night because a good deal of it was substantive and made a very good case for the reason that the US might act in response to the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons. Let me state at the outset that I am not convinced that we should be involved militarily in Syria. But events may have overtaken coming to a sound conclusion in this area in the world.
Here are some quick thoughts on the President's speech -
#1 - The Appropriate Role of Congress - The President commented that "I believe our democracy is stronger when the President acts with the support of Congress. And I believe that America acts more effectively abroad when we stand together. This is especially true after a decade that put more and more war-making power in the hands of the President, and more and more burdens on the shoulders of our troops, while sidelining the people’s representatives from the critical decisions about when we use force." Obama seemed to imply that the actions in Iraq were not conducted with "the support of Congress" - but Public Law 107-243, which was passed and adopted before any actions were taken in Iraq contradicts that assertion. Just how did more power accrue to the President during the last decade? Well, the best example came in our intervention in Libya where the President (Obama) did not seek any congressional support. What is odd about the President's statement is his complete avoidance of working with Congress. About the only congressional ally he has had in this from the GOP has been Senator McCain.
From my perspective his move of a resolution to Congress was in the belief that the GOP might defeat a resolution and thus he could partially shift the blame. The best presidents understand that working with both sides of congress can be frustrating but rewarding. This president does not get that. He seems to take issues with congress as an up or down vote with no understanding of the long term nature of politics. President Reagan understood that working with congress produces long term benefits. This president does not get that.
A recent post on the Rothenberg report concluded with "In short, if the president had engaged members of Congress from the beginning of his tenure, even behind closed doors, some of his most challenging political moments could have been an easier lift. Democrats might even still be in the majority in the House if the health care and cap-and-trade bills had been handled differently. And that certainly would have an effect on the legacy that Obama leaves behind."
#2 - Moving Public Opinion - Generating public support for any policy needs to include a wide range of figures from both sides of the aisle on an issue as important as this. There is no evidence that the President has sought advice or counsel from anyone outside his narrow band of staff and advisors. I wonder what opinions about this might be had he consulted with people like former Secretaries Rice or Schultz.
#3 - The Role of the UN - Whether the President got backed into his new role or not (and I believe he was backed into this position by his gaffes and Kerry's) he now has to trust that Russia will not work to weaken the resolution against Syria (not likely) and will do everything in its power to encourage expeditious work by the inspectors (the Iraq experience does not offer much promise). Look at the cat and mouse games that were played in Iraq. I expect that between Putin and Assad the old ropa-dopa defense will come back to the fore.
#4 - Can we trust Putin? - The Keystone Cops in the White House have seemed to lurch from one gaffe to another. The President drew a line in the sand and then denied it. Kerry had a series of stumbles. All the time Putin acted as he did in the Snowden affair - attempting to reassert Russia's role in world affairs. The President characterized the developments in the following manner - "over the last few days, we’ve seen some encouraging signs. In part because of the credible threat of U.S. military action, as well as constructive talks that I had with President Putin, the Russian government has indicated a willingness to join with the international community in pushing Assad to give up his chemical weapons. The Assad regime has now admitted that it has these weapons, and even said they’d join the Chemical Weapons Convention, which prohibits their use." The Russians actively tried to delay any vote in the Security Council which would assert the need to follow the Chemical Weapons Ban Treaty's requirements.
#5 - Possibly the least gracious administration in history - The old adage - Success has many fathers, failure is an orphan - seems to apply here. Part of the justification for moving the vote to congress was to possibly shift blame. As it became clear that the vote was not going to affirm the President's position, he asked that the resolution be withdrawn. But then today the White House Press Secretary made the absurd comment in a briefing that Putin now holds some of the responsibility for the success of this issue. The White house seems hell bent in this and in almost every other activity it engages in to look for scapegoats in advance thinking oddly enough that their failures will not be judged if there is another person/entity to blame.
#6 - Possible Outcomes - It is hard to understand how this can come out positively. Assad has been a rogue regime for a long time, he has no significantly greater pressure to change his ways and he has the threat of violence against him significantly reduced. In the near future we will be presented with another rogue regime (Iran) possessing nuclear weapons capability. Is it likely that the Iranian mullahs will respect any American threat when that situation becomes clear. Does North Korea have any encouragement to act more nicely?
This is admittedly a complex situation and American interests may not be served by doing some sort of military action in Syria. If things work out it will be by dumb luck and providence. Regardless, the President's lack of understanding of the bigger pictures of the American political scene and the international stage have cost the country a lot.
The Onion produced a story this morning that sums up the current state of public opinion - It proclaimed that a majority of Americans support sending Congress to Syria. Come to think of it - that is not a bad idea.