Syria Tells You Everything You Need to Know About Barack Obama

All of the president's greatest strengths and weaknesses are laid bare by the debate over intervening.
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Reuters

The good news is we're not at war. The bad news is … almost everything else about President Obama's handling of Syria -- the fumbling and flip-flopping and marble-mouthing -- undercut his credibility, and possibly with it his ability to lead the nation and world.

As he addressed a global audience Tuesday night, liberal elites blindly accepted White House fiction that Russian intervention this week was somehow part of Obama's master plan. Their conservative counterparts practically rooted against a diplomatic breakthrough, preferring an Obama black eye over peace.

Obama won! Obama lost! The fact is it's too soon to keep score. In the long view of this past week, I suspect the Syria standoff will come to be an example of the best and worst of Obama's leadership. Granted, in the heat of the moment, it's far easier to catalogue the worst.

BEST:

Open-minded: The man elected in part as repudiation of President George W. Bush's narrow approach to decision-making never closed off his options. He is paying a price for waffling (more on that later), but the president deserves credit for rethinking his plan to wage war without congressional approval. For anybody unwilling to cut Obama some slack, ask yourself: What would Bush and Dick Cheney have done?

Unflappable: From all public appearances, this was the "no-drama Obama" his aides brag about. Certainly, he was affected by public criticism and even swayed by polling, but the president kept searching for a way out of a complicated situation. He may have stumbled into peace but that's better than rushing into war.

Principles: He deserves credit for trying to do something about the slaughter of innocents. The "red line" that looks laughably opaque today will look better in time if (and this is a big if) Syrian chemical attacks stop. In his address from the White House, Obama made a compelling moral argument to respond to last month's chemical attack in Syria. "The world saw in gruesome detail the terrible nature of chemical weapons," the president said. 

WORST:

Naive about the levers of power: Where to start? Obama reversed course on congressional authorization at the last minute, after a private chat with his chief of staff, and to the surprise of his national-security team -- all in violation of presidential best practices. He then left the country on a quixotic trip to Russia, allowing misgivings to grow in Congress and the public before he could build a case for striking Syria. Boxed in, Obama seized upon a Russian proposal to put Syria's weapons in the hands of the international community. It's an impractical solution, a fig leaf. Either Obama trusts Russian President Vladimir Putin (a mistake) or he is a partner in deceit (an outrage). A Democratic strategist who works closely with the White House, and who requested anonymity to avoid political retribution, told me, "This has been one of the most humiliating episodes in presidential history."

Too cute by half: Obama and his allies are masters of "spin," packaging partial truths and outright distortions to a malleable public. With Syria, their dark arts are on full display. There is no other way to explain the White House disowning Secretary of State John Kerry's call for Syria to turn over its stockpiles until the savvy Putin seized on the off-the-cuff remark as a way to protect ally Bashar al-Assad. Suddenly, the White House is touting the Putin plan as their brainchild, an outcome Obama had in mind when he travelled to Russia. Don't buy it. A broader problem is the Obama White House's inability to break through the clutter of 21st-century media to educate and persuade Americans on policy, a communications conundrum that dates to the 2009 health-care debate.

No friends: No student of the presidency would claim that Obama's problems with Congress could be solved simply by schmoozing them. There are structural and political problems that no amount of alcohol can solve. But as a matter of history and common sense, Obama could do better for himself and his causes if he got to know Congress better -- if he listened and engaged in a way that pushes leaders toward solutions that help both sides. Instead, Obama has what one former top adviser called a "check-the-box" approach to Washington relations. He'll spend enough time to maintain appearances, nothing more, and lectures people who demand to be heard. And so, as he faced an international and constitutional crisis, Obama and his team were in a familiar state: isolated, insular, and alone.

Whenever his leadership is questioned, Obama and his allies accuse the critics of overstating the powers of the presidency and understating the intransigence of the opposition. Their argument has some merit. At home, the presidency has ceded power to Congress in recent years and the Republican Party is unusually obstinate. Abroad, Putin, Assad, and other nefarious world leaders cannot be swayed by reason alone. But Obama bears more responsibility than he is willing to admit, and polls show a growing number of voters are questioning his leadership.

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Ron Fournier is editorial director of National Journal.

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