When President Obama changed course abruptly on Saturday and announced that instead of attacking Assad’s regime in Syria, he would “seek authorization for the use of force from the American people’s representatives in Congress,” my immediate reaction was to roll my eyes. Here we go again, trying to have it both ways. It’s reminiscent of announcing a surge in Afghanistan, then simultaneously announcing a date certain for beginning to draw down the extra troops.
Conservative pundits whose national security opinions I generally respect jumped on Obama with both feet. Commentary magazine editor John Podhoretz breached the magazine’s normal practice of not publishing new material on the Jewish Sabbath, with a blog post headlined “Obama’s Bizarre Syria Policy.” The next day, Peter Wehner weighed in with a blander headline, but stated high in his post that “President Obama has handled the Syrian situation with staggering incompetence.” They both make a strong case, which you can read for yourselves.
Other pundits opined that the delay would give Assad time to hide his chemical weapons; that it made Obama look ridiculous to decide we should strike Syria, but delay it until Congress returns from vacation; and asked why does the commander-in-chief think he needs Congressional approval for limited military action in Syria, but did not feel the same way in Libya?
All reasonable arguments. But then military leaders declared that the delay is not a significant tactical setback. Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said:
Many of Assad’s assets we’d like to target are “fixed installations” he can’t move; the amount of intelligence and surveillance assets being devoted to the region should make it difficult for him to move matériel out of sight; and Assad’s current position, engulfed in a civil war, means he can’t exactly be moving military units, such as rockets or artillery, as he wishes.
Obama can be criticized for being indecisive, which is not what you want in a commander-in-chief. But stubborn persistence also can be taken too far. President George W. Bush — whose decision to overthrow Saddam I supported then and support to this day — has to answer for staying with a failed strategy in Iraq for years after it was clear a change was needed.
I think faster action on Syria might well have been preferable for the immediate tactical situation. But if Obama succeeds in getting Congressional approval — a big if, but not impossible — it may be worth it in the long run to have an intervention supported by Democrats as well as Republicans.
Despite Obama’s wishful declaration that “this war, like all wars, must end,” the war against Islamic extremism will certainly outlast his presidency — and it may outlive all of us. Future presidents will also have to wrestle with how to make war against Middle Eastern terrorists and despots, and I’m thankful that Obama is helping to build a bipartisan history of asserting America’s strength.
(Syrian flag from Wikipedia)