In the Arena

Are You Syrious?

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Evan Vucci / AP

President Barack Obama delivers remarks about the ongoing situation in Syria in the Rose Garden of the White House on Aug. 31, 2013 in Washington.

This President has shown a unique ability to make the correct foreign policy judgments in the worst possible way.

Barack Obama has had a very embarrassing time of it over Syria — and the trouble stems from a problem I’ve written about before: he continues to make pronouncements that he doesn’t really intend to carry out. His “Mubarak must go” was the start — and he got lucky there, since Hosni Mubarak went as a result of the Egyptians wanting him to go. He was also lucky with “Gaddafi must go,” achieving the desired result with a maximum of international support and a minimum of U.S. force. “Assad must go” hasn’t worked so well, and chemical weapons as a “redline” has been an absolute disaster for American — read: Obama’s — credibility, compounded by subsequent statements like “a shot across the bow.”

(MORE: Walter Russell Mead: On Syria, Be Clear, Then Hit Hard)

Some lessons from the debacle:

1. In my lifetime, “American credibility” has gotten more people — including American troops — needlessly killed than any other factor. It was why Lyndon Johnson stayed, and then amped up, in Vietnam. It was a good part of what led George W. Bush to jump foolishly into Iraq; and, after pronouncing Afghanistan “the good war,” it was what led Obama to take the wrong course there. So here’s a basic rule: whenever you hear politicians or pundits saying, “American credibility is at stake,” just say no.

2. A Chinese principle: the strongest person in the room says the least. The President of the United States is the strongest person, militarily, in the world. He doesn’t need to broadcast his intentions. He takes action, or not. He does what the Israelis did in taking out the Syrian nuclear reactor: he just does it, without advance bluster, without taking credit if possible — although it would be much harder for the U.S. to remain silent than it was for the Israelis. But it would be nice: silence, or saying very little, after the successful use of force engenders fear and respect. The direct opposite of that is talking and dithering, which the Administration has made a specialty. The wolf doesn’t need to cry wolf. The American eagle should stand for restrained moral power — power that is absolutely lethal and purposeful when it is unleashed … but is never unleashed wantonly or without a precise plan and purpose.

(MORE: Unwilling to Act Alone, Obama Pulls Back From Brink of War)

3. As for congressional action, let me propose a bright line: if you’re going to send an invasion force into another country, you need to get a declaration of war — that’s what the Constitution says — and we need a full-throated debate before we send American troops into harm’s way. If you’re going to make a targeted, onetime response — as Bill Clinton did with Iraq and al-Qaeda during his presidency — you do it quickly, stealthily and sort it out with Congress afterward. But a very huge caveat: those sorts of limited attacks, like the one apparently contemplated by Obama in Syria, are almost always ineffective and often lead to disastrous consequences. As Ryan Crocker, the retired U.S. diplomat with the most knowledge and experience in the region, recently posed: What happens if, after our notional attack on Syria, Bashar Assad decides to send his own message by an even greater use of chemical weapons against, say, Aleppo?

4. The big picture: whenever you look at a map of the region and see straight-line borders, you know the people living in those “countries” didn’t draw them. Europeans did. I know that there is an actual country called “Kurdistan” sitting smack in the middle of the area. I’m also certain that Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel are real places, the latter because it has willed itself into being over the course of the past 60 years. I’m not so sure about Iraq, Jordan, Syria (at least, not in its current borders), Libya or Lebanon. Some of those names may survive and some of those straight lines in the sand may continue as well, by mutual agreement, but we are entering a period of reorganization in the Middle East. Our role has to be limited since we don’t know very much about the intricacies of the region and, after several centuries of brutal colonialism, Westerners really have no moral place in the determination of what countries continue to exist or are reborn in different form.

(MORE: Three Reasons Congress May Not Approve War in Syria)

5. We do have a moral responsibility to provide humanitarian assistance and try to limit the bloodshed through diplomacy. But the only time for us to intervene militarily is when we are threatened immediately and directly. (By the way, an Iranian nuclear weapon is neither a direct or immediate threat to the U.S. — and this was another example of Obama saying too much too soon: Iran’s nuclear arsenal, should it ever come to exist, certainly can be contained.)

6. The President’s decisionmaking in the region has, for the most part, been prudent and sound. He needs to be as prudent with his words as he has been with his actions, lest one of the real powers or troublemakers in the world — say, China — begins to assume weakness and decides to take advantage of it.

MORE: How Presidents Announce Wars: From Reagan to George W. Bush

126 comments
bobthebear
bobthebear

Joe, You owe the President one hell of an apology. Just another talking head...empty.

SpikeLee
SpikeLee

Joe Klein would rather show his devotion to a strong leader who is wrong than deal with nasty facts that he can't triangulate his way to a mealy mouthed conclusion.

(I think that's the point of this piece.  It reads like Joe Klein wrote it while he was drunk and edited it while he was hung over.)

sutjihadi
sutjihadi

@mattduss @evanchill in America JokeLine's model is called "the Magic Negro theory" The idea that the Obama presidency is powered by "luck"

BetweenRichards
BetweenRichards

@davidgregory Forgive me, I've lost track of the objective. Was it a slap on the wrist? A radical Muslim assist? A diversion?

jim_musial
jim_musial

@davidgregory David, the press is not reading what we are telling our congressional representatives, NO! For once get it right.

evesgardenparty
evesgardenparty

@davidgregory when will Democrats be trotted out on the news circuit supporting Syria? Never? Dems are war hawk hypocrites

Benjy_Greenberg
Benjy_Greenberg

@davidgregory the US didn't enter WWII until directly attacked. We should let things play out and wait until vital US interests are in play

g123golf
g123golf

@davidgregory when ever a dictator starts killings his people we as a world! should stand shoulder to shoulder and demand the killing stop!

navyseal6
navyseal6

@davidgregory Nobody gets it it's not Syria, Not Iraiq, Not Talaban, Not Al Q not Hezbella Not Afganistan Not Pakistan--> IT's IRAN

Gonz993
Gonz993

@davidgregory how can the intellectual press not see and questing false flags and motives. So much for intellectuals.

josmndsn
josmndsn

@davidgregory Not without a broad intnl coalition and/or UN mandate or be in violation of UN charter. 1 war crime does not outweigh another.

aonorat
aonorat

@davidgregory If national security clearly at risk-military force last resort. UN/international courts must address crimes against humanity.

BetheaJohn
BetheaJohn

@davidgregory This is a hard decision being ask of our country. Instead of gotta moments try finding unity. I know It hard, but try it!

BetheaJohn
BetheaJohn

@davidgregory Y r u and the media trying 2 get shock and ah news? Life is not 6 or 11 o'clock new cycle. It's deeper then that

Bigred61Danny
Bigred61Danny

@davidgregory i think the answer is simple. Only if America interest or Allies are threaten. Syria fails to meet either.

coachfirst411
coachfirst411

@davidgregory We should intervene only with overwhelming force to remove him from power; otherwise its useless!

bradcooney1
bradcooney1

@davidgregory I would rather the US send cruise missiles into NBC, CNN, MSNBC, FOX, and all the other blow hard agenda driven news sources.

docwhocuts
docwhocuts

obama is an amateur, duh..... already read the book.

jt92677
jt92677

@davidgregory When an American interest is attacked, or an attack on US soil that amounts to an act of war. Not his childish Red line.

chrisbarrettpic
chrisbarrettpic

@davidgregory if they were going to it should have been 8 months ago. Now? Chem attacks overlooked by CIA in 80's in Iraq why not here?

mate16
mate16

@davidgregory find it funny that USA care about ppl being killed in another country..but allow it 2 happen in their own over 9,000 murders

EusebiaAq
EusebiaAq

@davidgregory No one die&made America GODof TheWorld.We have U.S DHS,ICEmassive slaughter of Natives on yourWhiteman borders.INTERVENE THERE

BE10sCoach
BE10sCoach

@davidgregory how many times does the USA need to be kicked in the ass with Middle East quagmires to know , NO MORE, NO MORE!