Not everybody should be a leader, and it is no shame if you have no talent for it. It is tempting to think that all intelligent, educated, articulate people within a certain range of emotional stability and sanity can learn to be effective leaders, but history and experience tell a different story, and it has many tragic chapters.
I know many readers think that I get great joy out of criticizing President Obama for his lack of leadership skills and instincts, but in truth I find myself consciously avoiding writing about this almost every day, because the problem is on display that regularly*, and this isn’t a Bash Obama blog. I do find it remarkable that such an obviously intelligent man is so immune to leadership instincts, and that he hasn’t resolved to at least try to learn from his more naturally leadership-gifted predecessors. For example, the White House made a point of noting that the President was a great admirer of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals,” which recounts how Abraham Lincoln assembled a Cabinet made up of political enemies, adversaries and rivals whose perspective and abilities he managed and used to great advantage. Yet Obama’s choice of Cabinet members and advisors, as even his supporters have pointed out, is unusually insular, passive and narrow, with the same loyalists being recycled into position after position (Hillary was the exception). True, this may reflect the President’s recognition of his own leadership limitations, for Abraham Lincoln, a once-in-a-century example of a born leader, is a daunting model. This is a pattern, however. When various voices in the Obama-worshiping media, such as did the New York Times last week, lament that Lyndon Johnson would have been able to get gun control measures through Congress, they are commenting on the same phenomenon. LBJ was a natural leader, and Obama, whatever his other virtues, is not.
Yes, I was dubious about Obama’s leadership credentials from his candidacy (Sarah Palin is a more talented leader, goof though she is), because he had literally led nothing, but also hopeful, because other Presidents, not just Lincoln but also JFK and Truman, showed a natural talent for leading once they were in office. Then President Obama began using his predecessor as an excuse for every failure, attacking media figures and outlets by name, injecting himself into local matters and law-enforcement, refusing to hold under-performing or incompetent subordinates accountable for their actions, and eroding his own credibility and likability with gratuitous examples of deceit and dishonesty. Worst of all, he seemed, and seems, incapable of learning from his mistakes, the most damning deficit of all. I am anything but a Bill Clinton admirer (I only know one ethicist who is), but he understood leadership, and with the exception of that one fatal flaw of not being able to restrain his libido, he never made the same mistake twice.
All of which is prelude to pronouncing President Obama’s “red line” fiasco involving Syria’s use of chemical weapons an epic leadership botch that risks deadly and perhaps cataclysmic consequences. A President cannot bluff in foreign affairs. If and when such a bluff is called, a retreat will be taken as proof of weakness, both personal and national. If a President talks tough, he had better be tough. Like the rest of the international community, which the President believes that the U.S. should no longer attempt to lead, the U.S. has stood by as approximately 70,000 Syrians have been killed by their own government while the U.N., true to its nature, has issued various toothless warnings and resolutions. Then, on August 20, Obama said,
“We cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people. We have been very clear to the Assad regime — but also to other players on the ground — that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus; that would change my equation….We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region that that’s a red line for us and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons.”
Now, lawyers and grammarians may argue over what “a red line” means, what constitutes “use” and “a whole bunch,” and what the President considers “enormous consequences.” None of that matters. What matters is what the statement was understood to mean around the world, and it was widely understood to mean this: If chemical weapons are used against the Syrian people by Assad, the United States will act decisively. Last week, reliable evidence indicated that indeed chemical weapons had been used, and that the “red line” had been crossed.
Obama’s response? Double-talk, backtracking and word-parsing:
- The President to reporters Friday with Jordan’s King Abdullah in the Oval Office: “What we have right now is an intelligence assessment. And as I said, knowing that potentially chemical weapons have been used inside of Syria doesn’t tell us when they were used, how they were used. Obtaining confirmation and strong evidence, all of those things we have to make sure that we work on with the international community. And we ourselves are going to be putting a lot of resources into focusing on this. And I think that, in many ways, a line has been crossed when we see tens of thousands of innocent people being killed by a regime. But the use of chemical weapons and the dangers that poses to the international community, to neighbors of Syria, the potential for chemical weapons to get into the hands of terrorists — all of those things add increased urgency to what is already a significant security problem and humanitarian problem in the region. So we’re going to be working with countries like Jordan to try to obtain more direct evidence and confirmation of this potential use. In the meantime, I’ve been very clear publicly, but also privately, that for the Syrian government to utilize chemical weapons on its people crosses a line that will change my calculus and how the United States approaches these issues. So this is not an on or off switch.”
- A White House official to reporters Thursday: “I think what the Assad regime needs to know is that we are watching this incredibly closely. Were he to undertake any additional use [of chemical weapons], he would be doing so under very careful monitoring from us and the international community. There should be no mistaking our determination not just to get to the bottom of these reports, but to send a message … that Bashar al-Assad and his regime will be held accountable for these types of actions. We’re going to be methodical, rigorous and relentless … so we can establish exactly what happened…all options are on the table in terms of our response…If we reach a definitive determination that the red line has been crossed … what we will be doing is consulting closely with out friends and allies … to determine what the best course of action is.”
So those “enormous consequences ” of the “red line” being crossed is that the United States will start consulting with friends and allies? Former Deputy National Security Advisor Elliot Abrams correctly pointed out the danger in such waffling and obfuscation:
“The problem today is not only that this may leave Assad free to use chemical weapons again. A related issue of great consequence is what the administration has said about the use of chemical weapons: that it would be a game changer, that it is a red line, that it is unacceptable, and that all options are on the table for a U.S. response. Sound familiar? The administration has used exactly such language–”unacceptable,” “all options are on the table”– about the Iranian nuclear program. If such terms become synonyms for “we will not act,” the regime in Tehran will soon conclude that there is no danger of an American military attack and therefore no need to negotiate seriously. They may have reached that conclusion already. What is at stake here is not only the future of Syria, but our own government’s credibility.”
Abrams could have added North Korea and Russia to the list of adversaries gauging whether the United States will back up its ultimatums, threats and warnings, as well as Israel and our allies in the Middle East and across the globe. Based on President Obama’s past and current performance, I can’t imagine why enemies of the U.S. would be anything but emboldened, and allies anything but alarmed. Post online columnist Jennifer Rubin was, sadly, on target, if a bit hysterical, when she wrote today:
“If the United States is undependable, even when the president personally gives his assurance, then it is every nation for itself. Unilateral strikes? They’re better than waiting for Obama to act. A regional nuclear arms race? Washington won’t going to be there in a pinch, so any prudent country would want their own. And that is the likely reaction of our allies. Can anyone not employed by the White House or part of his public spin squad truly believe the president would use a military option to prevent Iran from going nuclear? No modern president (not even Jimmy Carter, I think) by word and deed (or lack thereof) has done more to invite aggression by our foes. No president has been so cynical in his willingness to bend the facts and backtrack on his own assurances so as to avoid action. And no president has put in power an entire crew of national security advisers as weak as the one we now have. Responsible Democrats and Republicans should deplore this behavior and urge the administration to live up to the president’s warning. But even that I fear will be too little and too late. Tehran has already figured out that this president does bluff, ineffectively.”
This is not to say that I think the President has an easy call to make in Syria. For better or worse, the previous national ethic that the United States should be the world’s superhero and policeman is in full retreat, and Syria, despite the passionate argument by some that it is the equivalent of Rwanda, a disgraceful human rights abdication, poses many of the same dire risks and uncertainties that Iraq did. I can understand, and agree with, the President’s reluctance to do anything major regarding Syrian intervention unless it is unavoidable; among other reasons, there is that little debt problem we have, and wars are expensive.
If, however, the President was not prepared to follow through on his warning when he drew the “red line,” he shouldn’t have used those words, and it was irresponsible and incompetent to do so—as any of the four other living Presidents he saw last week could have told him.
But then, as a world leader with five years on the job, he should have learned that by now anyway.
* After I posted this, James Taranto devoted his WSJ blog to another example, here.
Graphic: That Poverty Project
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