A Republican reader writes:
Once again, you have put me in the awkward position of defending the President. Though I wanted to laugh out loud when he said this wasn’t a new policy and “consistent with the policy I have had all along,” I have to say that he came off to me as principled. His principles are not my own. His stated objectives are a winged unicorn. He is for me far too cautious and far too existential about unforeseen ramifications; yes it’s complicated. We have to do it anyway, so says me. Because, in the words of Clarence Darrow “If you want to predict the future, you need to have a hand it its creation.”
But it is just as clear that for him the US to enter into a Sunni war with Shi’ism is not in the US interest. Period. He doesn’t see it as helping allies or not helping them – he is perfectly willing to shore up Jordan for instance – but he’s not going to yoke himself to Qatar-Saudi plowshares. His manner and body language on “another war in the Middle East” was quite telling – it is clearly the last thing he is going to let happen – he is going to fight escalation tooth and nail and is signaling that to his public, his liberal interventionists (Rice, Power,) and his generals exactly that. This is all frankly quite presidential. He is showing his own decided pattern of measured, thoughtful, leadership-from-behind.
Not what I want personally – I voted for Romney – but it’s a perfectly valid and reasoned response, even courageous when seen in the light of what I am sure he’s getting from all sides.
His “for example” on being in the situation room is already being pilloried for its “trust me, I know more than you” thing, and it plays into perceptions of his aloof arrogance – but in reality what he actually said is a very important insight into his thinking: he plays the tape to the end.
He is looking at each option all the way through to its consequences. Which is actually why our policy is so hesitant, because there are no good options and no clear results. Syrian teleology doesn’t exist. But there are times when you have to act to achieve clarity. Sometimes you have to poke the sleeping monster with a stick and see what happens – this is often in the presidential wheelhouse.
This president does not want to go into Syria in any inextricable way. He’s going to consistently resist escalation, and I think in some potentially interesting ways this will give him clout with the generals and European allies as not rushing into something we will most assuredly not control. He will ask questions that a President Bush would not. And his measured response allows a broader view. Indeed, getting bogged down in Syria obscures the real threat to Middle East stability: Iran’s nuclear program.
Right now, with French and British support beforehand, I would crater the runways, destroy every aircraft Assad has, and remove his armor from the earth and do all of it in a single afternoon. This would terrify and likely topple Assad, hobble Russia, and shock the Iranians to the core, perhaps even changing their nuclear calculus. It would impress the Saudis and Qataris – making them more amenable to ceasing support for the al-Qaeda groups. The Syria opposition would coalesce around non-Islamists as the rest are frozen out of aid. It would almost overnight restore American initiative, and put the U.S. military back on a take-the-war-to-the-enemy footing psychologically (where it belongs). Even Morsi and Erdogan would take note and likely fall in line. Our enemies need to be afraid of what we can do – right now the only world leaders afraid of US resolve are our allies.
But I’m not the president and I could be wrong about all of it. Assad could respond with chem/bio against Aleppo, or US targets, or Israel. The Syria opposition collapses. Two million more refugees walk to the Jordanian border, only to be refused entry. Iran could launch hundreds of Fateh 110s and Shehabs and Yakhonts against carrier groups. Egypt, Iraq and Jordan crumble into Islamist-exploited civil disorder. Hezbollah could fire 60,000 rockets at Israel. Latin America Hezbollah units could cross over into Texas and bomb the Galleria in Houston. Russia could announce Syria is under their nuclear umbrella.
President Obama has picked his path through this minefield. It’s not my path and perhaps not yours, but that’s his job. He’s President of the United States and has to decide each day what is the true scope of US interests under his executive administration. I don’t think he’s “caved” to either of us.