Last week was a stinging passage for President Obama as he tried and mostly failed to find support, at home and abroad, for his plan to bomb Syrian military facilities. Things will not improve for the beleaguered administration in days to come.
Never mind the extravagant blitz of televised interviews, public appearances, and political persuasion the White House now lays on for our consumption. An adventure in Syria, never wise, is now transparently pointless. New circumstances—quite unprecedented—have come at us in a matter of weeks. It may seem sudden, but this is only because our leaders so often fail to see ahead.
No “lesson” will arrive when or if U.S. vessels in the Mediterranean shell Bashar al–Assad’s army posts. No “signal” will be sent as to further use of chemical weapons (responsibility for which remains unclear). No humanitarian purpose will be served. No American “credibility” will be salvaged: Supplies of that have been low for some time, and of the remainder much has just been frittered.
How a third-string dictator came to tie Washington so fatefully in knots will make an instructive story when some enterprising journo steps back to tell it (assuming said journo writes with an integrity not entirely obvious among our media now). In the meantime, there are two defeats we can already consider. Each has lessons, as defeats always do. Neither can be understood separately from the other.
All by themselves, Obama, Secretary of State Kerry, and their legion advisers have made the Syria crisis this president’s Waterloo. The just-ended summit of the Group of 20 marks the spot. The young victor the world cheered on November 7, 2008 (I was moved to tears that evening, I confess) left St. Petersburg mistrusted, diminished in the eyes of nearly all. He came away weak and isolated, the two things no leader of any stripe or persuasion or greatness of power ever wants to be.
“What are we telling the world?” Danielle Pletka, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, asked on CBS’s “Face the Nation” Sunday morning. O.K., good question. The better one is, what’s the world telling us?
Syria puts policy failure on television, but the lapses and wrong turns extend across the globe now. The Middle East is simply a sopping mess. We have made nothing of the Arab Spring’s opportunities. Our defense of Egypt’s army coup, Kerry’s unimaginative bribes to pull Israel and (some) Palestinians back to the table, our inability to register a valuable opening in Iran: It is non-policy, or anti-policy, or whatever.
Other administration policies yield setbacks from Beijing to Berlin. Nobody trusts Washington to control the unconscionable surveillance, and hounding Edward Snowden looks unseemly when each revelation tells all of us things we want and need to know.
Washington has exhausted its most supine allies with its McCarth-esque talk of terrorists under every bed. Guantánamo glows like an embarrassing boil on the face America turns outward.
Nobody appreciates our intrusive ideas as to global financial regulation, and nobody likes the thought that all local culture has to be destroyed in the name of free trade. The “pivot to Asia” will do little other than alienate the Chinese even more than it has already. Things with Russia could scarcely be worse. So go two of the most consequential relationships Washington will have in this century.
Few anticipated that the G–20 gathering was to be the tripwire for Obama’s foreign policy. Recent talk of “tapering” monetary stimulus has underscored Washington’s insensitivity to others—the Europeans, the troubled emerging economies. But it is the Syria question that has now concentrated this administration’s failures into a laser beam.
The worry in Washington all along has been American “credibility” in the Syrian crisis. In St. Petersburg we saw how little there is left to worry about. This revelation hung on the question of evidence—what happened and who did it. Most of us will never see any evidence. But as early as Sunday, we began hearing reports from lawmakers that the evidence does not support administration claims and that there are “embellishments” in Kerry’s and other officials’ statements.
“Trust us, we light the world for all” has been the American refrain for more than a century. That is what the administration is urging upon the world once more. The idea wobbled when we invaded Iraq, having defrauded everybody with shabby evidence, and nobody is buying it this time--least of all Russia.
You have to think about this: Russian President Vladimir Putin openly called Secretary Kerry a liar for denying the extent of al–Qaeda’s influence among Assad’s enemies. There has been no comeback so far as I have seen or read. Although no one crowded to Putin’s side in support of this kind of rough talk, it appears he has the support of a silent international majority. Kerry is a lonely diplomat right now.
The second humiliation is not so much a defeat as a moment of recognition, given there is no certainty this administration will do any better recognizing the world we live in than it has to date.
The community of nations is no longer with us. This is bigger than any full-out casserole of policy failures. Those are passing and long-term reparable. The global mission is over (such as it ever was), and that is history’s wheel turning.
Maybe it took a young Democratic president, a brave, admirable, not-quite-up-to-it man faced with a crisis of Syria’s complexity, to push this truth in our faces and get us beyond a dozen years of pretending. Obama may go into Syria soon, congressional assent or no. (He has surrendered on popular support.) It would do no more than worsen already evident perceptions of arrogance and ignorance, and many other nations have found this alienating combination in us before.
Quality control: A week ago in this space I asserted that tossing the Syria question to Congress was clever politics on Obama’s part. The truth is otherwise. The dithering—which is what it has turned out to be—is another factor in the upending of this administration’s not-a-policy Syria policy.
François Heisbourg, a cheese in policy circles on both sides of the English Channel, just published a critique in the Financial Times of “Mr. Obama’s strange argument that a strike was not time-sensitive.”
I am not with Heisbourg in his conclusions—that putting the Syria question into legislative debate in London and Washington has made the world “a safer place for those who use chemical weapons.” Emphatically it has not. But his thoughts on the consequences of Obama’s hesitation—which will be on the table this week, stated or otherwise—are provoking.
“Punishment and/or the restoration of deterrence are by definition urgent in strategic affairs: If you are not ready and able to re-establish deterrence quickly, your ability to do so effectively diminishes rapidly.”
Heisbourg regrets a lost chance to wield the terrible swift sword. I read the remark as a reason for putting it aside (no, not down) and saying, “It’s too late, and the world has just spun.” Then we proceed to statecraft as one of our advanced 21st century technologies.