WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s conflicting signals on Syria perplexed congressional leaders, gave his critics ammunition to depict his foreign policy as feckless and runs the risk of weakening his standing as a global leader.
Now his reputation may rest on a course that is rife with obstacles, including reaching a deal with a Russian leader he likened a month ago to a bored schoolboy.
Obama announced two weeks ago that he believed it was necessary to launch airstrikes to punish the Syrian regime for its purported use of chemical weapons, but he said he’d seek congressional authorization. When that appeared unlikely, he put his plan on hold and tentatively embraced a Russian proposal to turn Syrian chemical weapons over to the international community for their destruction.
The outcome could be a win, but the process has telegraphed hesitancy and uncertainty, observers say.
“No leaders are going to say it, but I would imagine there’s a great deal of anxiety about American leadership these days,” said Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “American policy over the last two weeks seems to be changing almost every time you wake up.”
For example, Obama’s speech to the nation on Tuesday began as a call for U.S. military action to punish the Syrian regime but ended with a suspension of those efforts and conditional endorsement of the Russian proposal, Satloff said.
“In the passage of time, it’s possible perhaps this will this work out well and the president’s zigzag policy will be supported by history because we succeeded in Syria,” Satloff said. “But the process . . . has not enhanced America’s stature around the world. No one wants a president who is bullheaded, but our allies want leadership one way or another and not something that depends on the day of week.”
The administration’s very public shifts in stance make it appear as if Obama “No. 1, doesn’t know his own mind, and No. 2, it looks like the United States is highly constrained in what it can do,” said George Edwards, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M University.
“It looks like a grasping of a safety net,” Edwards said of the Russian gambit. “If it works, the president will take his bows. But it looked like the president was going to go down to defeat, and this is a way to stave off that defeat, and that isn’t going to be particularly impressive either to our friends or to our enemies.”
Obama does get some credit.
His threat of military strikes may well have pressured Syria and its ally, Russia, to seek a deal, said former Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Lugar called for a similar plan in August 2012 in Moscow, arguing that Russia and the U.S. ought to cooperate in an effort to contain a chemical weapons arsenal that he believes poses a threat to the region and both countries.
“That outcome, if it occurs, would be more far-reaching than the president’s hoped-for strike,” Lugar said. “There is a potential here that in a best-case scenario that chemical weapons are destroyed. That would be an optimum position for the world, as well as ourselves.”
Obama’s Syria stance came under withering fire this week from Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, who said the administration had “hurt our credibility around the world just in the muddled way that they have dealt with this Syrian issue.” He charged that Obama wasn’t comfortable being commander in chief.
The White House said Obama was flexible and pragmatic, not waffling.
“The American people . . . appreciate a commander in chief who takes in new information and doesn’t celebrate decisiveness for the sake of decisiveness,” Press Secretary Jay Carney said this week.
Obama, Carney said, “believes that the American people would certainly support the proposition that if there’s a diplomatic opportunity here to remove from Assad’s control these chemical weapons stockpiles, that we ought to pursue it.”
Obama’s options have been curtailed by American distaste for military intervention in the wake of the long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, said Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Stimson Center, a global security think tank.
“When you fight a very unpopular war, and there have been two of them, a president’s maneuverability narrows,” Krepon said. “The United States is as wounded today as we were in the wake of the Vietnam War.”
A Gallup poll this week found that Americans’ support for military action against the Syrian government was on track to be among the lowest for any intervention Gallup has polled on in 20 years. Just 36 percent of Americans favored the U.S. taking military action to reduce Syria’s ability to use chemical weapons. The majority – 51 percent – opposed such action, while 13 percent were unsure.
American ambivalence is reflected globally, said Ian Bremmer, head of the Eurasia Group, a global political risk research and consulting firm in New York.
“Syria really is the poster child for a G-Zero world, a world where there’s an absence of global leadership," Bremmer said, using a reference to the G20, group of the largest and emerging economies. “This is not just Obama. We’d be seeing this if Hillary were president, if Romney were president. It’s about the U.S. people not supporting this level of engagement, not wanting to be the world’s policeman.”
And, he said, most U.S. allies are “vastly distracted by their own domestic issues” and want no part of a military strike.
Obama’s push for support on Capitol Hill has been hampered by a lack of deep ties with lawmakers. Jon Alterman, a former State Department official and now director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he sees a familiar trend on the world stage. Indeed, Obama secured the signatures of only 10 international allies urging a "strong international response" to the chemical weapons attack at a global summit last week. An additional 23 countries have since signed the declaration of support for the administration’s Syria stance.
“Obama doesn’t seem to have a lot of appetite for building the personal relationships that are the most important currency in international affairs,” Alterman said. “He comes into the room as the person everyone wants to count as a friend, but he doesn’t always want to use that as a tool.”
Alterman notes the push for intervention in Syria comes as Obama has spent much of the past two years “sending signals and indicating he’s doesn’t think there’s a lot of strategic importance that’s at stake in Syria. It’s hard to pivot from that stance toward using military force.”
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