WASHINGTON — War is hell. Not going to war is a total mess.
President Obama’s promised break from the foreign policy attitude of his predecessor — exemplified this week by his decision to ratchet down the war rhetoric, ask Congress to weigh in on military action against Syria, and very publicly step back from the brink — has left a bad taste in the mouths of many political observers and foreign policy professionals on both sides of the aisle. While supporters argue the president is fulfilling a campaign promise and returning intellectual heft to foreign policy decisions, Obama and his team are learning that trying to avoid war doesn’t confer the same instant gravitas brought on by a somber speech announcing military operations have begun.
Supporters of the president have proudly told BuzzFeed in recent days there is no “Obama Doctrine” — the president, they say, examines each situation on its own and lets circumstances lead to the solution. This is why Obama backers say Libya, where the president acted quickly and unilaterally to stop an imminent slaughter, and Syria are not dissonant, policy-wise.
But to Obama’s bipartisan critics, the Syria situation has been a series of almost unbelievable blunders from a president who had once drawn their praise for ordering the operation that killed Osama bin Laden. The zigzag path, sometimes toward and sometimes away from an attack on the Assad regime, stands in stark contrast to the steely determination projected by the Bush White House, to whom “dithering” was a four-letter word and national “war weariness” was not to be factored into national security decisions.
Obama has made his share of unforced errors. But on display now, too, is a kind of Obama foreign policy mantra: “Put the mess up front.” By keeping one finger on the “launch” button and another on “abort,” Obama is showing just how politically ugly it can be not to go to war. Stepping to the brink and then hopping back may look like weakness to many, but his supporters argue it’s the sausage-factory-style foreign policy Americans voted for when they made Obama president. If you want to avert a war, the lesson seems to be, you’re going to have to do some embarrassing two-stepping.
Some of Obama’s supporters in Congress note that their colleagues — criticizing the executive from the peanut gallery — are relieved to be spared a vote.
“One of the things people are forgetting here is the president is the one who has said, ‘Let’s strike.’ He’s already done that, but if Congress fails to back him, that’s on Congress,” said Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings. “As far as the president is concerned, he’s shown strength, he means what he says, and says what he means. If you recall before this, you had a lot of folks saying he should go into Syria, and now a lot of those people don’t want to vote. So c’mon.”
Since his arrival on the national scene not as a pacifist but a foe of “dumb wars,” Obama has promised a foreign policy much more nuanced, and messier, than Bush’s. Obama horrified the woman who would become his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, when he said during the Democratic primary campaign that he’d sit down with America’s sworn enemies out of a belief that talking could prevent war. After Clinton left the administration, Obama tapped two Vietnam War veterans known for their skepticism toward war to run the Departments of State and Defense. Obama has wholeheartedly sympathized with the nation’s “war weariness,” and said publicly it has helped shape his approach to Syria — advocating limited airstrikes and promising no boots on the ground.
The president didn’t exactly break new ground when he said the use of chemical weapons would not be tolerated, but he did shift America’s foreign policy in a new direction when he said the American people should have a say in what the country’s response should look like.
And if John Kerry sounded a skeptical note when first discussing the idea of al-Assad turning over his chemical weapons to the international community to avert a strike, as the idea gained some international traction, Obama has embraced it. That’s meant losing face in front of the Russians and giving Assad even more time to dig in. In short, it hasn’t been a pretty process, observers on both sides of the aisle say, but it has made clear to everyone that Obama is willing to skip the war if he can.
If avoiding war, rather than embracing it, is the new paradigm, then so is a kind of foreign policy stance that’s willing to shift with the circumstances. For a president desperate to avoid the type of decade-long conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, some ugly politics up front seems like a price he’s willing to pay.