I’ll be honest – I didn’t watch Obama’s speech. I might read a transcript when I get the chance, but it’s pretty clear that the speech isn’t going to set the course for our Syria policy – that course has been set, and will now be steered again to the UN Security Council. But I did find the reactions to his recent policy highly interesting – most telling is that we have the chairman of the RNC saying, ““The administration’s handling of the U.S. response to Syria has been so haphazard it’s disappointed even the president’s most ardent supporters.””, we have Peggy Noonan again questioning Obama’s competence, and a general complaint that the president looks ‘weak’. I pointed out a long time ago that Obama’s critics have chosen this as the theme – they mock him for ‘leading from behind’ and skewer his administration for being too weak on foreign policy. Essentially, they are saying ‘man up!’, occasionally in as many words. It is impossible to escape the conclusion that they honestly wish Obama would just set out a military policy and stick to it, regardless of the diplomatic situation.
But is the apparent ‘inconsistency’ of US foreign policy in fact weakness? I would argue no – that the conservative pundits and politicians in the country are in fact expressing a desire for a unilateral, authoritarian administration like they had with Bush II. Their definition of strength is in fact a mere denial of inconvenient facts. While the Obama administration lacks the self-assuredness of the Bush regime, it has been far more successful.
For an example of how what the GOP calls haphazard is in fact responding to facts: Obama took both Libya and Syria to the UN Security Council. On Libya, he got approval and acted. On Syria, he did not, and then watched as the UK also dropped out of the venture. Instead of pushing ahead, as Bush did (and the other Bush, and Reagan would have), Obama sent the question to the congress, delaying any action and thus, in the eyes of the National Standard and Wall Street Journal, appearing weak. But then something remarkable happened – Putin and Assad proposed putting Syria’s chemical weapons essentially out of reach of the Syrian government. And when diplomacy opened up, the administration again delayed the attack and it appears will allow diplomacy to run its course. The parallel with Iraq could not be more striking – even with UN inspectors in the country, the Bush administration insisted on going ahead with an attack.
Obama will again come under harsh criticism from the right for this ‘haphazard’ policy, but the fact is American policy is, for the first time in years, reacting to events on the ground, rather than deciding on a narrative and pretending the facts support it. And time and time again, this more flexible (if less satisfying in a ‘Pass the popcorn! U!S!A! sort of way) approach has yielded results that improve our geopolitical position without costing US lives or outrageous sums of money, in Iraq, Libya, and hopefully now in Syria.