Romney, Obama and Syria as a ‘Leadership’ Issue

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The latest massacre in Syria, this one featuring the horrific execution of dozens of children, has done little to change American policy toward the brutal regime in Damascus. But it may have escalated Syria as an issue in the presidential campaign, with unpredictable results.

In a statement yesterday, Mitt Romney accused Barack Obama of showing “a lack of leadership [that] has resulted in a policy of paralysis.” Romney said the U.S. should now “increase pressure” on Russia to end its support for Assad, and “work with partners” to arm the Syrian opposition. But Romney stopped short of calling for the direct U.S. military intervention advocated by leading GOP hawks like John McCain and Lindsey Graham. For Romney it’s yes to arms, no to airstrikes. It’s not inconceivable that Romney will eventually change his position. His top foreign policy advisors are a hawkish bunch, many drawn from the George W. Bush national security machine. And Romney’s own instincts seem neocon-ish. He was a strong supporter of the Iraq war, including the surge, displays unusual animosity towards Russia, and has set the improbable goal of militarily defeating the Taliban before leaving Afghanistan. But Romney is surely limited by the knowledge that even many GOP voters are exhausted by ten years of war and wary of expensive foreign adventures.

What’s more, Romney has had a harder time navigating the complexities of the Arab Spring than more familiar issues, like Iraq and Afghanistan, where the partisan lines are clearer. When Egyptians rose up against Hosni Mubarak last year, Romney said the dictator should step down—but also conceded that Obama shouldn’t make it U.S. policy to demand the ouster of a longtime ally. When Obama intervened in Libya, Romney hopped between positions: First, he supported military action to support the Libyan rebels and even suggested that Obama had ruled out ground forces for unseemly political reasons. Later, Romney asserted that he supported only the enforcement of a no-fly zone. Eventually, he complained that Obama’s intent to topple Moammar Gaddafi amounted to “mission creep and mission muddle.” And when Gaddafi did fall, a top Romney aide said the outcome “does not validate the President’s approach to Libya,” which he said had been “unclear.”

Romney has compensated for lack of clarity in his own vision with a clear line of attack on Obama: He’s a weak leader. Yesterday’s statement on Syria was a good example. Before describing his own position, Romney trashed Obama for his “lack of leadership.” Romney elaborated in a Fox News interview, saying that “the world looks to America to lead,” but that Obama is “leading from behind.” On Libya, Romney repeated the lead-from-behind theme, grousing that pressure from France had led Obama to approve action.

In the case of Syria, however, “leadership” isn’t really an apt phrase. Obama isn’t treading carefully because of some timidity or ineffectuality on the world stage. It’s because the White House fears the potential results of an escalation of the conflict. That means not only the myriad risks of direct U.S. military action, but also the prospect of a vicious Lebanon-style sectarian civil war that could destabilize the region and perhaps allow radical Islamists to take power. You can certainly argue with that view: similar fears haven’t materialized in Libya. But Romney doesn’t do that; rather than engage the strategic questions, he depicts Obama as a big wuss.

Romney might respond that leadership does matter—that a stronger President could (as he suggested in yesterday’s statement) persuade Russia to break with Assad and help facilitate a smooth power transition that would stop the killing. That argument dovetails with his view that Obama has been a pushover in dealing with America’s “number-one geopolitical foe.” But it’s not at all clear how Romney proposes that Obama alter Russia’s view of its own self-interest, which rejects Western-led interventions into the politics of far-flung nations. It seems unlikely that Romney, whose rhetoric has already antagonized Russia’s leaders—and who seem quite willing to make policy based on personal pique—would be any more able to win concessions from them at the U.N. Security Council.

But the American political debate over Syria, such as it is, seems to defy coherence and reason. Having cast himself as a high-minded defender of innocents against slaughter in Libya, Barack Obama has made little effort to explain why he doesn’t apply the same standard to Syria. And Romney, who supported U.S. military action in Libya, has yet to explain why the massacre of children warrants arming the rebels but not the direct use of U.S. airpower. And so, the campaign debate again reverts to character attacks that don’t shed much light on the real problem. In this case, at least, that may be because neither candidate has an answer that suits his moral beliefs and strategic vision–while also serving his delicate political interests.