Robert E. Hunter, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, writes:
[T]he president can be said to have painted himself into a corner with Syria on two occasions, initially as early as August 2011, and repeated since, by declaring that “Assad must go.”
Of course, Assad has not gone, thus demonstrating once again the first rule of being US President: never call for something, especially in a simple declaratory sentence, if you are not prepared to follow through and make it happen.
There’s a lot of talk these days about ways in which President Obama appears to be undermining the credibility of the office of the presidency. Laying down “red lines” only to later move them and making ineffectual statements about what “must” happen, ends up making an American president sound… well, just not presidential enough.
It’s taken as a given that the word of the American president should be sufficient to make things happen — much like a papal edict. Obama says Assad must go and thus Assad’s fate has been sealed.
If I wanted to be generous I might suggest that Obama has an ulterior motive in his “lead from behind” approach: that he has purposefully set about trying to modify international perceptions of America and its president and wants to tone down its all-powerful image.
Remember these lines from his first inaugural address?
To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to the suffering outside our borders, nor can we consume the world’s resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.
As we consider the role that unfolds before us, we remember with humble gratitude those brave Americans who at this very hour patrol far-off deserts and distant mountains. They have something to tell us, just as the fallen heroes who lie in Arlington whisper through the ages.
We honor them not only because they are the guardians of our liberty, but because they embody the spirit of service — a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves.
That was back in the days when much of the nation was still drunk on Obama kool-aid.
Four years later it’s much more obvious the degree to which this president, deliberative as he might generally sound, has a casual approach which suggests there must be days when alone in the Oval Office, the president sits back in his chair and wonders: what the hell am I doing here?
Last August, when Obama laid down his red line on the use of chemical weapons in Syria, the problem wasn’t so much that he forgot his word is supposedly meant to carry world-shaking authority, it was that he was free-wheeling — making it up as he goes along.
“The idea was to put a chill into the Assad regime without actually trapping the president into any predetermined action,” said one senior official, who, like others, discussed the internal debate on the condition of anonymity. But “what the president said in August was unscripted,” another official said. Mr. Obama was thinking of a chemical attack that would cause mass fatalities, not relatively small-scale episodes like those now being investigated, except the “nuance got completely dropped.”
When White House officials start talking about what the president is thinking — as though we are supposed to place more confidence in his invisible thoughts than his audible words — then the issue becomes one not of a president who fails to follow unwritten rules about being presidential, but instead the reality that we do not in fact know what the president thinks.
Maybe when Obama blurted out his red line it had less to do with Syria and more to do with Netanyahu. Having been badgered for months on the need to lay down a red line for Iran, Obama might have wanted to demonstrate that he’s capable of laying down red lines — but not under pressure from an Israeli prime minister.
Such speculation is merely that and it again underlines the most disturbing quality of this president: that after one full term he remains as opaque as the day he entered office.
This invisibility is a feature of Obama’s character but it is also a product of the institution of the American presidency — a political office endowed with way too many features reminiscent of popes and monarchs. We should have less desire that a president has the power to makes things happen, and a much stronger desire to be provided with a more transparent view of who holds this office.