For President Obama, this past week may turn out to be an unpleasant turning point in his presidency: The moment when the magical insulation of not being George W. Bush finally wore too thin to protect him.
The president’s expressed determination to send “a pretty strong signal” to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad through what he called “a shot across the bow” for the Assad regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons to massacre its own citizens is not going down well with his media lapdogs or even the mainstream left, never mind those from the far-left fever swamps.
The New York Times is not happy with him. Neither is its soon-to-be-former satellite organ the Boston Globe. Even satirical columnist Andy Borowitz is mocking him in The New Yorker, “quoting” Obama assuring the nation that any U.S. action in Syria would have “no objective whatsoever.”
Yes, the president still has his unconditional loyalists. Vice President Joe Biden, who once said the president, “has no constitutional authority ... to take this nation to war ... unless we’re attacked or unless there is proof we are about to be attacked. And if he does, I would move to impeach him,” is conspicuously quiet now.
Of course, that was in 2007 when some other guy was president, and both Biden and Obama will argue that a military attack against another country is not technically taking the nation to war – a distinction they would have derided as absurd when that other guy was president.
Still, Biden was on much more solid ground then, and the president deserves the grief he is getting from his usual allies.
A disclaimer here: My loyal fans and fierce critics know I am not a kneejerk opponent of military force. I think war is always a terrible thing, but that sometimes it is the only way to prevent a greater evil.
I applauded the president for authorizing the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, even if I thought he should have given more credit to those who carried out the operation. I do not think drone attacks are always wrong, and I think the attempt by some of the president’s critics to equate them with the obscenity of chemical weapons attacks on innocent civilians are obscene themselves.
But in the case of Syria, the president’s critics on both the left and right have better arguments than he does. You can count the ways.
First, as Biden noted before Obama was president, the U.S. should initiate military action only if this nation’s vital interests or security are at stake. That is not the case in Syria. Iran is a bigger threat to the U.S., and to Israel, than Syria.
Yes, the use of chemical weapons against his citizens is a “moral obscenity,” as Secretary of State John Kerry said. But so is killing civilians by conventional means. If the president wants to intervene militarily in Syria, he should at least get the support of his own Congress – it is certain he will not have the backing of the “international community.”
Second, even if the president was serious about taking out Assad or degrading his capability, what is the benefit? Assad hates the U.S., but so do the rebels who would like to overthrow him. If the rebels consider the U.S. a “friend,” it is only in the sense of the old war cliché, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Removing Assad from power will not bring peace and democracy to Syria – it will simply allow another despotic regime, which would also like to destroy the U.S., to gain power.
Third and most important, Obama is not serious about the awesome and dangerous use of American military power. He is trivializing it to the point of parody. It will do no more damage to Assad than a fireworks display.
The evidence for that is overwhelming. White House press secretary Jay Carney last week assured the world, and Assad, that the administration was not seeking regime change, even though the president has said multiple times in the past that Assad should go.
Various “senior U.S. officials” and anonymous “Pentagon spokesmen” have been steadily leaking specifics of the administration’s plans to major media outlets like NBC News, CNN, the Washington Post and the New York Times – specifics like how many days the missile attacks will last and their various targets, like air bases where Syria’s attack helicopters are deployed.
Maybe, as the Wall Street Journal sardonically suggested, these are all strategic fakes. But if not, they are as damaging as anything Edward Snowden released about the surveillance activities of the National Security Agency. They will put American airmen at greater risk.
Yet there has not been a peep of outrage from Obama, or vows to find and bring the leakers to justice. Gee, why could that be?
Those leaks definitely send a message to Assad, but it is reassurance, not a warning: Don’t worry. Just move your weapons and soldiers out of the way until our big show is over and I can claim that I imposed some “consequences” for you crossing my red line, and then you can go back to slaughtering your citizens as usual.
The only reason for military action is to achieve a military objective. The president just wants to make a political statement. He should do that with his teleprompter, not missiles.
Taylor Armerding is an independent columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org