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