Flailing on Syria, Obama needs nation’s support

The News Tribune The News TribuneSeptember 4, 2013 

Barack Obama’s faltering response to Syria has put America’s international credibility at grave risk. But his opponents don’t have the luxury of celebrating his embarrassment; the nation has too much at stake.

The shocking poison gas attack near Damascus two weeks ago left the president vacillating in full public view. It exposed his lack of a strategy for dealing with a 2-year-old war that has long had the potential to set the Middle East on fire. He seems overwhelmed by events and spooked by public opinion polls, a fact that isn’t going unnoticed in places like Tehran, Pyongyang and Moscow.

The president’s many haters are no doubt relishing the spectacle. But some of his political adversaries are helping him make the best of it. It’s heartening to see Speaker of the House John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor closing ranks around Obama as he turns to Congress for authorizing the use of force against the Syrian government.

A brief barrage of cruise missiles may not be the best way of dealing with Syria’s use of sarin on many hundreds of noncombatants. But doing nothing – especially after the president vowed to respond forcefully – is the riskiest option of all.

If Bashar al-Assad’s regime pays no price for resurrecting this internationally outlawed chemical agent, Syria will use it again. And other dictatorships are bound to reach the conclusion that they, too, can employ weapons of mass destruction with impunity.

Action against Syria – be it military, political or economic – should not be a partisan issue. If Congress does not authorize the president to use force, as he has requested, it ought to be wholeheartedly supporting him as he reaches for other options.

So far, Obama has handled the Syrian conflict almost perfectly wrong.

When a crisis as dangerous as the Syrian civil war develops, the White House should be ahead of the curve. Strategies and plans should be in place. Congressional leaders should be in the loop. Allies should be lined up. When the worst happens, the president should be prepared to issue clear ultimatums as necessary, then act decisively and effectively.

Obama has done it backward. The ultimatum – his “red line” against chemical weapons – was issued last year with no apparent plan for enforcing it. He’s been improvising ever since.

He’s ruled out regime change and said the missile barrage would be a “limited, narrow act.” This sounds like a glorified spanking that could leave Assad crowing about U.S. impotence.

America’s most important ally, Great Britain, dropped out of the attack last Thursday when Parliament rejected the plan. Then, Saturday, Obama suddenly asked Congress to it – a blessing he hadn’t sought for his much larger, regime-changing air offensive against Libya in 2011.

If there’s a strategy behind all this, we haven’t spotted it.

Yet Obama is the only president the United States has. In foreign affairs, his failures are the nation’s failures. He needs Americans pulling for him as he scrambles to salvage American credibility from this debacle.

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