Obama's failed leadership

The watching world has seen a US president wavering, indecisive and hesitant on the Syrian chemical weapons crisis.

Obama meets natioanl security team at White House 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Obama meets natioanl security team at White House 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
AMERICAN PRESIDENT Barack Obama’s policy in the Middle East has been characterized by seemingly feckless wavering on a cluster of issues and crises including the “Arab spring,” the Egyptian revolution and counter-revolution, the Iranian nuclear weapons program and the horrendous civil war in Syria.
There has been what amounts to a systematic pattern of inaction. Indeed, the United States seems to have adopted a kind of hands-off “no policy” towards the volatile region. The role it played in the Libyan civil war was described as “leading from behind,” a strange notion for the world’s sole superpower. Senior officials called for caution and prudence, generally admirable traits, but which can become counterproductive if allowed to degenerate into hesitancy and indecision.
Granted, the challenges the US faces are enormous and the dilemmas difficult, but a world power has to be far more decisive about the policies it chooses to deal with.
Under Obama, the US has failed to develop a coherent strategy towards the Middle East and has randomly improvised responses to major events and processes. Handling the Syrian chemical weapons crisis is only one in a continuing series of leadership failures resulting from an inexplicably myopic strategic outlook.
When the Egyptian military moved against the Islamic dictatorship Mohamed Morsi was establishing in Egypt, the Obama Administration couldn’t decide whether it was a “coup d’état,” which would have required suspension of American military and economic aid, or a legitimate and necessary step to protect a transition to real democracy.
Obama couldn’t make up his mind whether to criticize the use of military force, which would have lent support to Muslim Brotherhood claims and demands to reinstate Morsi, or to applaud the military’s determination to restore law and order, and reopen the path to pluralist democracy. Not surprisingly, the result was a mixed and confusing message.
Obama didn’t call the military takeover a coup, but strongly criticized the army’s use of force. He was perceived, once again, as a leader who lacks basic understanding of Middle Eastern realities and has little hesitation in deserting his closest allies when they most need him.
In the Syrian civil war, which by even the most conservative estimates has already claimed the lives of more than 100,000 people including thousands of women and children, Obama remained neutral. He called for Assad’s resignation but, like his Western counterparts, did nothing to stop the genocide the Syrian leader has been perpetrating against his own people. He set just one red line : the use of chemical weapons.
Syria has one of the largest arsenals of chemical weapons in the world. On August 20, 2012, Obama warned for the first time that the use of chemical weapons in Syria “would change my calculus. That would change my equation.” On December 3, 2012, he warned Assad in a speech at the National Defense University, “The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable. And if you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable.”
This statement clearly implied US intervention if Assad were to employ chemical weapons.
When chemical weapons were used for the first time and both sides in the civil war accused each other of serious war crimes, the Obama Administration said it didn’t know who was responsible (a problematic admission because as a superpower with substantial intelligence capabilities, the administration should have known), and that, in any event, it was a very limited use, which didn’t warrant US intervention. In other words, in the blink of an eye, the red line had been revised and stretched to read that only large-scale use of chemical weapons would justify intervention.
THIS SUGGESTED that Obama was simply coming up with new excuses to evade his original commitment. Assad sensed Obama’s wavering and indecision, and concluded that he could continue to use these weapons without any fear of retaliation.
Wavering and hesitation continued to characterize American policy even after the large-scale use of chemical weapons in Syria on August 21. On August 26, Secretary of State John Kerry strongly condemned the Assad government and promised to hold it accountable for a “moral obscenity that has shocked the world’s conscience.”
On August 30, he made a strong case for punitive action. He said the United States had credible and verified evidence that at least 1,429 Syrians were killed, including at least 426 children. He justified military action by referring to the US role in the world as well as to US values and interests. “This crime against conscience, this crime against humanity, this crime against the most fundamental principles of international community, against the norm of the international community, this matters to us, and it matters to who we are. And it matters to leadership and to our credibility in the world… And history would judge us all extraordinarily harshly, if we turned a blind eye to a dictator’s wanton use of weapons of mass destruction against all warnings, against all common understanding of decency.”
Kerry explained that failing to act would adversely affect American credibility in the world and the vital national security interests of US allies including Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Following these strong statements, there was much speculation around the world that Obama was just waiting for the departure of the team of UN chemical weapons investigators then in Damascus, and would launch an attack limited in time and scope the following day or the day after. But as the world waited with bated breath for the strike order, Obama surprised friend and foe alike by announcing that he would act – but only after giving Congress a chance to consider the case for military action.
HIS ARGUMENT that the transfer of the issue to Congress was an essential part of the American democratic process was not strictly true. The fact is Obama did not have to obtain congressional authorization.
The 1973 War Power Resolution allows the president to use force anywhere for a period between 60 to 90 days before requiring formal congressional approval. President Bill Clinton didn’t ask Congress to approve his decision to intervene militarily in Kosovo in 1999, and Obama himself didn’t seek such authorization for the 2011 military strikes against Libya. Therefore his approach of Congress created the impression that the president had got cold feet and was looking, again, for a way out of his red line commitment.
Leaks from the White House raised further questions about Obama’s leadership.
Correspondents reported how difficult and agonizing it had been for the president to make his decision on the strike in Syria.
Never in recent history was there so much exposure of internal debates, reservations and misgivings. It may well have been a White House tactic designed to influence public opinion at home and abroad, but the result was counterproductive. Again the president’s moves seemed to stem from profound indecision. Moreover, information leaked after the announcement suggested that Obama made his decision just hours before his speech, and that it had stunned both his senior staff and Congressional leaders.
The lessons from Obama’s handling of the Syrian crisis are problematic and disturbing.
If you don’t intend to keep your word, don’t set red lines. If you set red lines and you don’t honor your commitment, don’t be surprised if the rest of the world doesn’t take you seriously when you make new demands, threats and commitments. You can’t send Kerry to make the most persuasive case for military action and the very next day pull the rug from under the entire US military and foreign policy establishment.
Kerry noted that the Syria crisis was much bigger than the issue of chemical weapons, and that the whole world was watching. And what the watching world saw was a wavering, indecisive and hesitant president. His mishandling of the crisis in Syria will certainly encourage foes such as Iran, North Korea and Russia to regard him as a paper tiger and ignore him.
Obama could still redeem himself and reverse the steep decline in his credibility by exploiting the waiting period to find a satisfactory diplomatic end to the Syrian civil war, including outside control of the Syrian chemical weapons arsenal, or, once Congress gives him the go ahead, by inflicting substantial damage on Assad’s military capability.
Prof. Eytan Gilboa is Director of the School of Communication and a Senior Research Associate at the BESA Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University