Yesterday’s U.S. missile attack on Syria prompted by Assad’s use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians clarifies just how inept and feckless President Obama’s handling of foreign policy was.
In an article today in the reliably progressive and Democratic Party-boosting The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg writes,
“President Obama’s foreign policy doctrine, like many foreign policy doctrines, was contradictory at times, and it sometimes lacked coherence.”
1. At times?
2. Sometimes lacked coherence?
3. Notice the obligatory “like many foreign policy doctrines” to cushion the blow. Journalists are in permanent denial over just how epically awful the first black President’s administration was.
Goldberg eventually gets around to Obama’s “decision, in 2013, to go back on his promise to punish the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons on civilians. Early in the Syrian civil war, Obama publicly drew a red line concerning Assad’s behavior, but later decided to forgo military strikes, even after being presented with near-definitive proof that Assad had crossed the red line in grotesque fashion. “ This inadequate description intentionally leaves out the dispiriting details of that fiasco. Here is what Obama said in August of 2013 when the first “red line” appeared:
“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?
Well, yes, in a word.
Later, Obama denied that he had drawn such a line, then, upon being embarrassed by critics, he had John Kerry announce that the administration would ask Congress for authorization to launch a “pin-prick,” “incredibly small” attack on Syria to show the “red line” wasn’t a bluff. The move—what exactly is the point of a missile strike that you say in advance won’t do much harm?— met with widespread ridicule, and deservedly so. The pin-prick strategy was abandoned when Russia’s Putin saw an opportunity to seize world influence and good will at US expense. In exchange for the U.S. dropping its threatened, sort of, military action on Syria, the Russians would convince Assad to give up his chemical weapons stockpiles. Chemical agents were shipped out of Syria for destruction, and Putin triumphantly announced that he had persuaded Assad to get rid of his nerve gas. Somehow, the news media allowed Obama to spin this—the US looks weak, Putin is a peacemaker— into a foreign policy triumph.*
Obama was widely criticized at home and abroad—particularly by the leaders of many U.S.-allied nations—for behavior interpreted as feckless and weak, but he later told me, in one of the interviews I conducted with him for a 2016 article on his worldview, that he was “very proud of this moment.”
“The perception was that my credibility was at stake, that America’s credibility was at stake,” Obama explained. “And so for me to press the pause button at that moment, I knew, would cost me politically. And the fact that I was able to pull back from the immediate pressures and think through in my own mind what was in America’s interest, not only with respect to Syria but also with respect to our democracy, was as tough a decision as I’ve made—and I believe ultimately it was the right decision to make.”
That’s right: Barack Obama put the credibility of the United States on the line, a red line, did not follow through on his words, allowed Russia to crow about its diplomatic skill, and was proud of it. After all, there were no more chemical weapons in Syria, right?
“We struck a deal where we got 100 percent of the chemical weapons out,” Secretary of State John Kerry said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in July 2014. Obama National Security Advisor Susan Rice told NPR the same thing in January of this year, and you know how trustworthy SHE is. PolitiFact “fact-checked” Kerry and decided that he spoketh the truth.
Funny that with all those chemical weapons were gone, Assad still managed to kill so many people with nerve gas anyway. Amazing, really. Today PolitiFact had to register an official “Oops!” and retracted it’s “Mostly True” rating of Kerry’s 100% declaration:
We don’t know key details about the reported chemical attack in Syria on April 4, 2017, but it raises two clear possibilities: Either Syria never fully complied with its 2013 promise to reveal all of its chemical weapons; or it did, but then converted otherwise non-lethal chemicals to military uses.
One way or another, subsequent events have proved Kerry wrong. In fact, international investigators concluded last year that the Syrian government had gamed the system.
Gee, what a surprise. But I bet Obama is still proud. Concludes The Atlantic:
“The events of the past week, culminating in the decision by President Obama’s successor to launch a punitive strike on a Syrian air base in retaliation for Assad’s continued use of chemical weapons against civilians, prove a number of points, some that reflect well on Obama, and some that do not. The first is that the 2013 Obama-Putin deal to disarm Assad of his chemical weapons was a failure. It was not a complete failure, in that stockpiles were indeed removed, but Assad kept enough of these weapons to allow him to continue murdering civilians with sarin gas. The argument that Obama achieved comprehensive WMD disarmament without going to war is no longer, as they say in Washington, operative.”
Wait, did I miss something? What part of this history reflects well on Obama? Journalists really do say the damnedest things to try to cover for Obama. “It was not a complete failure, in that stockpiles were indeed removed, but Assad kept enough of these weapons to allow him to continue murdering civilians with sarin gas.” What??? What difference does it make that some stockpiles were removed if the remaining stockpiles were used to gas children? Can we agree that the loved ones of the 86 civilians killed by sarin have good reason to think that Obama’s masterstroke was a miserable and predictable failure?
* Incredibly, just a few months later, Obama had the gall to draw another imaginary line regarding the Ukraine.
19 thoughts on “Incompetent Elected Official Of The Month: President Barack Obama”
This is another reason Trump was elected. Then again, the alternative reaction (bomb an aspirin factory to distract from domestic problems) is better, but not much.
I think I am on record as either doing the job, or not doing anything. We destroyed an airbase, and (as I have been told) the optics look good. But if we want to make a change, we should count the cost, gear up and do it
Another interesting take just before yesterday’s missile strike…Hillary’s….she called on the U.S. to carry out airstrikes on Syrian airfields in order to prevent more chemical attacks on its citizens.
“I really believe we should have and still should take out his air fields and prevent him from being able to use them to bomb innocent people and drop sarin gas on them,” Clinton made the comment during an interview with New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof at a women’s summit yesterday.
Ah. So now they can say that all Trump was doing was taking Legitimate President Hillary’s advice!
What a miserable failure Obama was with his plastic saber rattling regarding Syria and Ukraine! Now Trump has to deal with his calculated lack of action. So far Trump has done the right thing in targeting the airfield the sarin gas attacks came from. Let’s hope that this thing doesn’t turn into a major confrontation with Russia.
Just curious Jack, why you feel so confident? I have had a concern about this since 2013. We’ve got US and Russian warplanes flying around bombing the opposite sides of a war. I could see how that could escalate in a very bad way over a simple accident.
I’ve long thought that we should have gone to the bargaining table with Putin and negotiated what would work for both sides. Russia wants a naval base and an airfield on the Mediterranean. Assad gives them both. If we ensure the new government will give Russia both, Putin would be much more receptive to not assisting Assad.
I’m reasonably confident, at least where actors like Russia are concerned, for the same reason I was reasonably confident during the Cold War: the U.s. is more powerful than they are, and Russia has been ruled by autocrats and sociopaths but as yet, no madman. This does not apply, of course, to North Korea or Iran. Nonetheless, the US projecting strength makes me a lot less nervous than Obama’s cringing, weak messaging that the US could be attacked, embarrassed and rolled without fear or consequence.
Wow, the justifications of the Atlantic are disgusting. This entire event has me fuming, for years people have begged for decisive western action on Syria. Trump for all his flaws acquiesces to this desire and for the first time shows himself a man of his word. Yet because he is Trump the critics who were days before blasting him for accepting “political” realities now blast him for diving into the Syrian quagmire ( if firing missiles from a ship miles from the target can be considered diving into anything).
It makes me wonder how timid we have become. That a loudmouth scumbag was what it took to punish Asad for his clear disregard for his citizens. I truly wonder were there any true negative consequences to Trumps action. The only true danger is Russia, yet Putin is so pragmatic and such an experienced hand at politic, I believe all he will do is posture, to do anything else would be foolish. Trump is as unpredictable as Putin himself and until the world has his true measure. The main takeaway from his Syrian strike has shown the world that for all Trumps talk, America is still the policeman of the world and maybe NATO is in a safer place than we thought.
until the world has his true measure friendly caution is the procedure of the day*
Well said, Sam…fair, and it should be obvious.
Thanks, Jack like many of the people who comment on this blog, I find it increasingly hard to talk to my friends and colleagues about these matters. It seems this blog is not just a place for you to vent haha.
Today is a big day for Trump, kicking ass when Obama licked it and seating Justice Gorsuch. Obama was, without a doubt, the worst foreign policy president since World War II, with the possible exception of Carter. Truman stopped the Russians from freezing Berlin and taking Greece, and didn’t hesitate to rush to the rescue in Korea. Eisenhower fought the North Koreans to a standstill, but, perhaps wisely,stopped the Suez crisis from exploding. JFK stared the Soviets down over Cuba. LBJ at least tried to stop Vietnam from getting swallowed by the bear. Nixon went to China. Ford…not so sure. Carter watched as our embassy was overrun and Gaddaffi called us “a pitiful, helpless giant.” Reagan won the Cold War. Bush the elder tossed Noriega out of Panama and Saddam out of Kuwait. Even Clinton achieved SOMETHING in the Balkans, although Rwanda turned into a world wide embarrassment and his dealings with North Korea were a fail. Bush the younger took down the Taliban and Saddam, although his plans for afterward were nonexistent.
Except for Carter, there’s at least some kind of victory you can point to for all these men. Obama I would almost describe as a reverse King Midas when it came to foreign policy. Everything he touched turned to shit. He withdrew from Iraq – which promptly fell apart. He made a deal with Iran – which achieved precisely nothing. He drew a red line in Syria – which meant nothing. He opened relations with Cuba – in exchange for absolutely nothing. He led from behind in Libya – with no plan for afterward. His response to terror in Paris – was to send a singer. Yes, bin Laden was killed on his watch, but he had very little to do with that other than giving the final OK.
We came out of Obama’s era arguably worse than we entered it, with allies afraid we didn’t have their back and enemies afraid of us not at all, Iraq and Libya are hotbeds of terror. Syria is still gassing kids when they supposedly had given up their weapons. Russia is still spreading the black eagle’s wing as far as it can. This is without even touching the mess he made internally. Yet, this was supposed to be the great apostle of peace and prosperity, who would make the oceans cease moving forward and start the planet on the path to healing, who would bring enemies together and lead friends to greater achievements, who would… but you get the picture.
Charlemagnes, Napoleons, Lincolns, and Churchills are few and far between. Asokas and Antoninuses, are arguably even fewer and less talked about, since great leaders in times of peace often get glossed over as uninteresting. Obama deserves to stand among neither. Strip away his color and look only at his record, and he is revealed as the petty, cynical incompetent he really was, who wore the presidency like a giant’s robe upon a gnome.
OK, that was a weasel word. There is a very strong case that we emerged from the Obama years worse than when we entered them. However, some people, whether for partisan, racial sticktogether, or other reasons, will not buy that case.
You can really see Obama’s foreign policy as the ultimate extension of liberal politics. It’s the policy of being ashamed of the position you were given as clearly others had to suffer for your supremacy, so you play nice. Especially since you are the big bully. Who bullied Cuba for years despite the fact, the Cubans were quite willing to let Russians stick nukes on their island. Why does no one think of that when they bang on about poor Cuban immigrants.
Then Iran, Jesus christ you punish a country for years for being a bad egg and as soon as they get a big gun you get on your knees and you deal? With that approach no wonder the Iranians have no respect for the U.S. Just like with Syria what guarantees do we have? I mean is there any really incentive to listen to the U.S now? It’s not like the U.S of 2017 can rally the world to sanction the tar out Iran again.
Lastly, this whole Arab spring debacle. Just as you said, Steve, if Truman hadn’t moved into Korea the same time would have happened. The Obama administration was so spineless they assisted in the miscarriage of 4-5 nascent democracies. Let’s make no mistake systemic change like the Arab spring will always end in violence the sin of the Obama administration was that the violence was meaningless, utterly meaningless.
That eminent military and international relations expert Andrew Sullivan has weighed in and deemed Trump wanting.
I’m shocked. I’m sure he’d rather Obama and Kerry were back in charge and not doing stupid shit and otherwise being brilliant. They went to Harvard and Yale, you know.
Even failure doesn’t convince a partisan, political, artistic, or otherwise. Albert Fall’s family defended him till the day he died, despite him spending time in prison. Two-Gun Crowley went to the electric chair saying all he did was defend himself. The list goes on and on. My ex-best friend is still defending Jimmy Carter as the greatest, most caring president of the 20th century. Charlotte Church trashed a multi-million dollar classical crossover career to attempt to go pop – and was dropped twice by major labels after pop audiences sneered. Yet the few remaining Charlaholics say she succeeded – she did what SHE wanted to do, not some suit-and-tie exec. It should come as no surprise that the partisans of the great black hope that became the great black dope still support him.