Great presidents tend to be under-estimated by their contemporaries. The New York newspapers delighted in calling Abraham Lincoln “Honest Ape” during his time in office, and Ronald Reagan was regularly dismissed by pundits as a bumpkin. So when the airwaves were awash this weekend with complaints about how President Obama’s new plan for Syria makes him look weak, I just smiled to myself. Whatever the factors leading to the Russo-American deal for eliminating Syria’s chemical-weapons arsenal, history will remember it as a deft diplomatic shift by the White House that rescued U.S. policy from a likely defeat.
Look at the hand President Obama was dealt. Having been elected to office on a promise to extricate the U.S. from unpopular wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, he struggled throughout his tenure to deliver on that promise without leaving behind conditions that extremists could exploit. When Libya’s Col. Gaddafi was confronted with popular revolt, Obama gave the Europeans what they needed to assist the revolution without making it America’s war. And Obama stayed out of Syria’s civil war as long as he could, recognizing that the opposition to the Assad regime lacked coherent leadership and there were plenty of ways in which aiding the rebels might go wrong. The U.S. only got involved when Assad made it impossible to ignore his war crimes.
Faced with an egregious violation of global norms concerning the use of chemical weapons, Obama threatened military sanctions while still trying not to take sides. It’s easy to criticize the ambiguity of such a response, but Obama saw that the U.S. public did not want to get involved in the civil war, and neither did the rest of the world. His decision to seek congressional approval for military action was politically sensible, given the dangers associated with an attack on Syrian forces. In doing so he successfully reconciled two principles central to his political philosophy — upholding the rule of law, and preventing the use of weapons of mass destruction.
Acting unilaterally, without any formal expression of support from Congress or an international body, would have put Obama on the opposite side of the jus ad bellum debate from where he has been throughout his political career. And failing to react to Syria’s indiscriminate use of nerve gas against civilians really would have made America look weak. The bottom line on President Obama’s initial response to the Syrian atrocity of August 21 is that he stuck with long-stated principles despite their unpopularity. That doesn’t sound like weakness to me.
Which brings us to the Russian initiative of a week ago pressuring Moscow’s Syrian ally to give up its chemical weapons as a way of averting U.S. military strikes. That opening may have originated in an offhanded comment by Secretary of State John Kerry — Andrew Sullivan called it a gaffe — but it has led to an agreement that might achieve U.S. goals in Syria without the use of military force. President Obama’s embrace of the Russian overture struck me as a smart decision, because he knew that he would be criticized and yet his move offered the best hope of retrieving an effort to change Syrian behavior that Congress looked very unlikely to support. Saying it strengthened Russia’s hand in a country with which it was already allied is beside the point; Obama convinced the Russians to help us peacefully achieve what we thought would take military action.
Syria has even signed on to the terms of the most recent chemical-weapons convention. Does that mean we should now trust Damascus? Of course not. Assad will probably try to squirrel away some of his nerve gas for a rainy day. But it will be a long time before he again contemplates using chemical weapons against civilians, and that result was achieved without the use of U.S. military power. Obama was obviously right in stating that the threat of military force made a diplomatic solution possible. And he also was obviously right to seize on the Russian initiative when it presented itself. If this seems like weakness to his critics, maybe they ought to rethink how they define success in the Middle East, because the President has given us a good outcome without putting U.S. lives at risk — just what the public would have wanted.
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