Obama with the Kuwaiti emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah in the Oval Office two weeks ago. The visit came as Obama was lobbying lawmakers to support military force against Syria.
Obama with the Kuwaiti emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah in the Oval Office two weeks ago. The visit came as Obama was lobbying lawmakers to support military force against Syria. Credit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photos

A low point in Barack Obama’s presidency was reached when both his previous secretaries of defense said he’d bungled Syria. Leon Panetta said it was a mistake to threaten an attack and not follow through: “When the president of the United States draws a red line, the credibility of this country is dependent on him backing up his word.” Robert Gates said it was a mistake to even threaten an attack, because if we did attack, “in the eyes of a lot of people we become the villain instead of [Syrian president Bashar al-]Assad.” Their disapproval of Obama made headlines, but just as telltale was their disagreement with each other.

Panetta professed the old assertive view of American credibility that once answered the painful question Why are we in Vietnam?—and Gates the more voguish notion that when we saddle up to maintain credibility we generally make matters worse.

Panetta’s concern reminded me of something useful the Tribune‘s Steve Chapman had to say about American credibility earlier this month. He noted that the U.S. “spends more on defense than the next 13 countries combined,” can repeatedly be found intervening militarily in the affairs of countries that haven’t attacked us (North Vietnam, Serbia, Libya, and Iraq weren’t the only ones he mentioned), and keeps the world on its toes less through its might than its capriciousness: presidents George Bush I and Clinton put up with Hussein, Bush II decided to take him out; the Reagan White House didn’t object when Hussein used chemical weapons against Iranians, the Obama White House invoked a line drawn in the sand when Assad turned them on Syrians.

If an act of war won’t accomplish much, why not skip it in favor of an equally ineffective act of peace?

Presidents are graded by history according to how they respond to crises. But for the U.S., Syria isn’t a crisis—it’s a quandary. When crises come along, the public demands action that gets results. If a Pew poll last week on Syria is halfway accurate, Americans favor inaction. By a 67 percent to 23 percent margin, the public told Pew that President Obama did the right thing when he revoked his threat of air strikes to let diplomacy work its wonders—even though the public has no faith in diplomacy. Just one American in four thinks this diplomacy will lead to Syria actually giving up its chemical weapons. A mere 8 percent think Syria can be trusted, and about 20 percent think that of our new diplomatic allies, the Russians.

But as Chapman noted in another column, Obama described the attack he was threatening as “a shot across the bow,” while Secretary of State John Kerry said he hoped it would have “downstream impact” on Assad’s military capacity. (A lesson apparently learned from Vietnam—and Afghanistan, and Iraq—is not to overpromise what a show of American muscle can achieve.) If an act of war won’t accomplish much, why not skip it in favor of an equally ineffective act of peace? The Pew report indicates Americans much prefer the next futile gesture in the Middle East to be one that doesn’t blow anybody up.

According to Pew, slightly less than half the country approves of the way Obama has handled Syria: even though the country supports what the president isn’t doing, they don’t like the way he isn’t doing it. Does this mean that even better than a futile gesture would be no gesture at all? Or does it mean that by not leading American into war Obama is doing something so unfamiliar the nation can’t get a handle on it?

Americans hate war; everyone knows that. All we ask of the world is that it let us live in peace. Presidents have had to go on TV and beg before the people reluctantly agreed that one more war might be OK. Sometimes that took all of 15 minutes—in the case of editorial writers maybe ten. But here we have a commander in chief telling his dubious country that a line has been crossed, civilized values have been flouted, and no one can guarantee the future. Yet even though he’s certain that the cause is just and God is on our side, his decision is not to attack Syria.

And it’s pretty apparent Obama never wanted to.

First he stalled by saying he wanted to hear from Congress—putting members of Congress who didn’t want to be heard from in the odd position of insisting an act of war was none of their business. And when it became apparent not just to Americans but the rest of the world that Congress wouldn’t OK an attack, and Putin threw him a lifeline, Obama stalled some more by announcing he’d let the Russian initiative play out.

Chapman called Obama “the luckiest politician on the face of the planet,” a guy who’d just been saved “from looking like an appeaser, a warmonger or an incompetent.” What’s more, said Chapman, Putin’s lifeline was actually a pretty good one, a diplomatic maneuver that “serves the interests of every important party” (except Syria’s rebels, but Chapman reasoned that at least they don’t have to worry about being gassed again).

Yes, but what was Obama now, Putin’s poodle? When Obama told ABC News he wasn’t interested in “style points,” Jill Lawrence wrote a piece for the National Journal saying he’d better be. Lawrence quoted Lou Cannon, a biographer of Ronald Reagan, calling Obama’s performance “appalling”; presidential historian Robert Dallek saying it was “indecisive, almost Hamlet-like”; and Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, saying it showed “serial U.S. ineptitude.” Spackled onto Lawrence’s story in apparent haste (rather than integrated into it) was passing mention of the Pew poll released the day before the story was posted, the one that said two of every three Americans supported Obama’s shift to diplomacy.

Some of Obama’s most reliable critics had no trouble rising to the challenge of slamming him again. Before Vladimir Putin stuck his nose in, Jonah Goldberg wrote in the Tribune: “The Obama administration insists it makes no difference militarily to wait for Congress to debate. That’s not just stupid, it’s an outright lie that will be fact-checked with blood.” And afterward, another syndicated Tribune columnist, Charles Krauthammer, had this to say: “Putin bestrides the world stage, playing dealmaker. . . . And Obama gets to slink away from a Syrian debacle of his own making. Such are the fruits of a diplomacy of epic incompetence.”

But a couple of the president’s most persistent local critics showed him unexpected love. The Sun-Times‘s Steve Huntley wrote, pre-Putin: “Obama has a legitimate case that the use of weapons of mass destruction is so abhorrent that the United States is right to go it alone if necessary to deter their use.”

And post-Putin, Dennis Byrne wrote in the Tribune that, however clumsily it was done, Obama’s threatened attack over chemical weapons “reasserted America’s moral leadership. . . . It’s clear that without Obama’s missile rattling, Assad would have the green light to commit mass murder again.” This kind of mass murder was clearly something to which Byrne had given long and troubled thought. “Have we sunk so low in our collective conscience that we no longer understand the profound difference between conventional weapons and nuclear, chemical and biological weapons?” he marveled? Obama, he wrote, “eloquently stated the case against the amoral isolationists of both the libertarian and far left bent.”

Chapman’s a self-described libertarian, and I suppose Byrne would say, “If the shoe fits . . .” But though Byrne’s language is typically over-the-top, I sympathize this time with the point he’s making. Taboos must remain taboos—the world needs to hang on to every circumscription of war it’s got.

But circumscribing war is what diplomacy was invented for. The blue-chip argument of the credibility-mongers was how Obama’s supposed irresolution would be seen by Iran, a country we’ve threatened to attack if it doesn’t end its nuclear weapons program. Yet this week Iran’s amiable new president, Hassan Rouhani, was on his way to New York to speak at the United Nations. Excitement reigned; hopes were high; rumor had it that Obama might chat him up.

Rouhani even wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post (just as Putin had done for the New York Times) making a plea for “constructive dialogue.” Was anyone sorry we hadn’t given him a little something extra to think about by bombing his friends the Syrians?