As the rest of America stands opposed to bombing Syria, President Obama had six interviews yesterday, revving up for a big speech tonight. It feels a bit like Bush’s “Axis of Evil” moment in 2002. Obama is fighting an uphill battle and he needs use this speech to convince America that his international policies are justified, logical, and contained.
In the case of the Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, George W. Bush made it clear who his adversaries were on his terms. In Obama’s foreign policy, we’ve not seen a similarly simple lucidity. Until he is crystal clear, America will let him continue to lead from behind and not stand there with him.
The history of Obama’s interventions is convoluted. After winning the Nobel Peace prize in 2009, he was “surprised ... and ... deeply humbled.” That humility might have been nice to see in 2010 when he increased troops by 68,000, and pulled out of Iraq, which has been in chaos before and after we left. In 2011, he was first supporting Mubarak, then wanted him to go, then wanted democracy, then was mad with the results and wanted Morsi to go, then wanted democracy.
If we were to take a look at what Obama’s “Axis of Evil” might be, there would be two countries and a general geographic area: Libya, Syria, and scattered Africa. The story on Africa is far too under reported and wholly frightening, and too much for this article.
But the rest of the Axis comes across as far less dangerous. Libya? Before we bombed them, people were howling at Muammar Gaddafi’s antics at the UN. However brutal and destructive he may have been as the "brotherly leader and guide of the revolution of Libya," he wasn’t scary to Americans. When Obama flouted Congress, we were told that it was limited “kinetic military action” and therefore did not apply to the already unconstitutional War Powers Act of 1973. I guess Obama decided that bombing Libya was the constitutional equivalent of a double negative. Now, Libya sits in “lawlessness and ruin,” with an economy in shambles and its people trying to figure out how to deal with socialized oil in a state of anarchy.
But at the 11th hour, we hear that Putin is offering to take the chemical weapons. Is this time for Obama to take advantage of his second term flexibility? What would this deal entail? Afterwards, what happens in Syria? What does Assad do? Who takes power if he falls? What kind of weapons are next for us to take out? Where do they go after they go to Russia? The list of unanswered questions is too long for Obama's speech to answer, which is precisely the problem with the Syria debacle and many American foreign policy decisions since WWII.
Obama is like a puppy that just jumped in the pool for the first time. The pool is shallow enough where he won’t drown, but the more he changes course, the more desperate he looks splashing back and forth. He has two options: Take the Russian deal, call it the smart, diplomatic option to stay out of the civil war. After that, he can blame it on the Russians or whoever he wants if it goes wrong (which it will). Or, he can continue with the votes in Congress and get a public rebuke when the House votes it down.
Neither options are winning for him, but at this point he has no choice but to soldier on. He needs to make a choice, a strong choice, and then show that he is still focused on domestic policy. All the words in the world won’t cure tanking opinion ratings, and since the Syria crisis has started it hasn’t been good for our commander in chief. Americans won’t back a president they don’t feel isn’t primarily focused on their best interest. And the people don’t think Syria is in our interest in any way. Can he convince us otherwise?
Maybe. It depends on what he says tonight.