Obama’s ‘luck’ on Syria leaves him a loser

Marilou Johanek.
Marilou Johanek.

President Obama lucked out. That was the prevailing punditry after the Syrian crisis over chemical weapons cooled down.

Russian President Vladimir Putin gained desired influence as an international broker. Syria’s Bashar Assad won cover shrewdly crafted by his friend.

The Kremlin rode to the rescue of Mr. Obama and Assad. U.S. airstrikes were averted. President Obama was off the hook. The Syrian stalemate was over — for now.

On to the next Washington crisis with government-funding gridlock. Whoa. What just happened?

Without a doubt, Mr. Putin’s prestige was elevated. Without a doubt, Mr. Obama’s credibility was damaged by a self-inflicted wound.

The President took a 180-degree turn on policy to save face. Look what it brought him.

For 2½ years, White House policy regarding Syria drifted while the Syrian civil war death toll climbed above 100,000. A year ago, Mr. Obama brashly tried to influence the deteriorating events in Syria by drawing a line in the sand about the government’s use of chemical weapons.

When the United States accused Syria of using poison gas in an attack last month that killed more than 1,400 people, Mr. Obama had to act or eat his words.

“The President found himself in a difficult position where he had laid out certain demands and certain expectations which were not being followed,” said John Green, director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron. “That just ratcheted up the pressure on the President to respond in some dramatic fashion.”

But part of Mr. Obama’s problem, besides an inconsistent Syrian policy, was that “many important people around the world, among our allies but also the U.S. Congress, were not persuaded that military activity and airstrikes or whatever would really make the situation [in Syria] better,” Mr. Green said. The disconnect between what Mr. Obama had advocated and stood for previously regarding military interventions was pretty dramatic.

“It could very well be that in the President’s mind, this was a different situation. A special threshold had been crossed because of the use of chemical weapons,” he said. “But it’s been a very tough sell for him.”

Still, the political science professor told me, there is historical precedent for a president suddenly reversing course.

“One of the strongest anti-communist presidents we ever had was Richard Nixon, yet he opened up a dialogue with the People’s Republic of China and established diplomatic relations with them,” Mr. Green said.

A less positive example of policy reversal was Jimmy Carter, he added. “We were having some problems with the Soviet Union then and Carter was very conciliatory toward the Soviets,” Mr. Green said. “When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, his views just changed dramatically.

“Part of it was that the world changed dramatically,” he said, “but it did put Carter in an awkward position and he was criticized for being soft on the Russians.”

Now it’s President Obama whose credibility is being questioned at home and abroad.

A few weeks ago, the United States was a major player in resolving the Syrian dilemma. Today, Russia has the advantage. “It is not unreasonable to conclude that the White House was not on top of its game on this particular policy issue,” Mr. Green said.

It appears when President Obama made his bold policy reversal concerning military strikes in Syria, “the proposals hadn’t been fully vetted, he hadn’t checked with his allies and his opponents, and that’s a little surprising,” Mr. Green mused. “Whatever one may think of President Obama and his White House, they tend to be very good on political matters, for the most part thinking things through pretty thoroughly.”

Syria was an exception. If everything does not go swimmingly with the Russia-U.S. deal to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons — the Russians aren’t sincere, Assad balks, the United Nations can’t secure the weapons in the middle of a civil war — Mr. Obama may be back in the corner he put himself in.

A weakened President could give domestic opponents campaign material to exploit in the upcoming 2014 midterm elections. “If Republicans running for the Senate were to successfully make this an issue and maybe win some seats and control of the Senate, that would be very bad for the President,” Mr. Green said.

But Mr. Obama is hostage to events. He is leading from behind. On Syria the President didn’t luck out. He lost.

Marilou Johanek is a columnist for The Blade.

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