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Sep 06 2013

Obama, Syria, Clouds and Silver Linings

One of the more amusing things to me over the last few years is watching the most devoted Obama acolytes claim over and over again that virtually every mistake he’s made or bad thing he’s done is really some secret, brilliant strategy that is just too sophisticated for mere mortals to understand. Ezra Klein says this has turned into a bit of a joke on the Hill when it comes to Syria:

Privately, Hill aides joke that everything is going exactly to President Obama’s plan. It’s just that that plan is to stay far, far away from Syria.

This is the (tongue-in-cheek) 12-dimensional chess interpretation of the Obama administration’s Syria strategy. Boxed in by red-line rhetoric and the Sunday show warriors, the Obama administration needed to somehow mobilize the opposition to war in Syria. It did that by “fumbling” the roll-out terribly…

The Obama administration’s strategy to cool the country on this war without expressly backing away from the president’s red lines has been brilliant, Hill aides say (just look at the polls showing overwhelming opposition!). If they are going to go to war, their efforts to goad Congress into writing a punitively narrow authorization of force that sharply limits any potential for escalation have worked beautifully.

Believing anything else — like this is how the administration is actually leading the United States into conflict — is too unsettling.

Even Andrew Sullivan, who since 2009 has repeatedly used the phrase “meep, meep” to signify metaphorically that Obama is, like the Road Runner, far too smart and clever for the Wyle E. Coyote Republicans, can’t buy this one.

Is this some brilliant strategic design? Force the House to acknowledge that there is no public support for war against Syria … and move unilaterally and fast first to force the UN to become more aggressive, and even get Putin’s possible assent to future action if more inspections prove Assad’s use of CWs to be deliberate and undeniable?

I wish I could believe it. The sheer weakness of the case for war is so obvious perhaps Obama is waiting for us to make him pull back before it’s too late. The delay could put more pressure on Putin ahead of the G-20. There are many twists and turns possible. But I am afraid I don’t believe it. Occam’s razor is the best bet here. Obama made a foolish pledge to go to war if chemical weapons are used, and now his bluff has been called by Assad.

The one thing I can possibly by is that Obama is going to Congress to give him a way out from that foolish “red line” statement. It’s possible that he painted himself into a corner and is now hoping Congress airlifts him above the mess. But that’s a very different thing from this idea that Obama is playing 12-dimensional chess. There’s a big difference from cleverly using reverse psychology and screwing up and that trying to get someone else to clean up his mess before he’s forced by his own blunder to make a far bigger one.

24 comments

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  1. 1
    raven

    I’ll give Obama a pass on Syria.

    1. There are no good options. Even doing nothing is not a good option.

    2. Obama doesn’t have a clever plan. So what?

    3. I don’t have a clever plan either.

    4. Nor does anyone else.

    It’s open territory for some brilliant, out of the box thinker. And so far, it is going to stay that way.

  2. 2
    raven

    The one thing I can possibly by is that Obama is going to Congress to give him a way out from that foolish “red line” statement.

    That red line comment was sort of inconvenient. So what?

    When you are wrong, admit it, shrug your shoulders, and move on. It’s better than killing a few thousand or hundred thousand people for no gain instead. Like Bush did in Iraq or Johnson did in Vietnam.

  3. 3
    eric

    The one thing I can possibly by [sic] is that Obama is going to Congress to give him a way out from that foolish “red line” statement

    I don’t even buy that. IMO the president wants to get militarily involved in Syria. The poor roll-out is primarily due to the unpopularity of that idea. Not some faux pas or bad speech. It comes down to plain old policy content; people don’t like it, no matter how well or how poorly he dresses it up in fancy rhetoric.

  4. 4
    Chiroptera

    Oh, for dog’s sake.

    So Obama can promise (as just one example) during the campaign to have the most transparent government ever and then shrug it off as if he never said anything…

    …but this threat of military action suddenly becomes the issue that damages his credibility?

    Am I missing a key point here?

  5. 5
    timberwoof

    Can someone tell Obama that starting a war in his second term won’t get him reelected?

  6. 6
    democommie

    “Can someone tell Obama that starting a war in his second term won’t get him reelected?”

    Can someone tell me why they think Obama is so stupid or has such low self-esteem that he might suppose that it would be a good idea to start a war.

    Ed Brayton has made no secret of his strong and abiding dislike for the current PotUS. That’s fine, he has his reasons. People who dislike Obama can find a raft of things to dislike him for, but the Syrian “problem” is one of the things that he did not cause anymore than he caused the banking and WS failures in 2008. Feel free to hate on him for his lack of follow through on campaign promises or his waffling on a host of other issues. Then again, which president has not done what he’s done in either of those areas? I don’t really see Obama doing any of the things he does with the idea that they will increase his stature or secure his “legacy” on his leaving office.

    Syria was and is fucked, with or without U.S. involvement. Russia, among other countries, have made it difficult if not impossible to rein the Assads, pere and fils, since around 1960. Syria has underwritten Hizbollah and deliberately destabilized Lebanon. Doing nothing is certainly an option, but regardless Obama’s actions or inaction he will be criticized and, by extension the next democratic candidate for PotUS. The sheeple are fucking morons, that’s not really up for debate, and they will vote for whoever lies most convincingly–that’s been the GOP for far too long.

  7. 7
    Raging Bee

    … the most devoted Obama acolytes claim over and over again that virtually every mistake he’s made or bad thing he’s done is really some secret, brilliant strategy that is just too sophisticated for mere mortals to understand.

    I have not heard ONE Obama supporter making any such claim. And the only citations I’m seeing here are the jokes about this alleged phenomenon. Which has to be about the lamest “where there’s smoke there must be fire” argument I’ve ever heard.

  8. 8
    eric

    the Syrian “problem” is one of the things that he did not cause anymore than he caused the banking and WS failures in 2008

    True, but about nine months ago he gave this speech, where he basically said “don’t use CW, or else.” He didn’t have to give that speech. He didn’t have to make a veiled threat of use of force. That was his choice. So, now that Syria’s used them, the world is waiting to see what his ‘or else’ will be.

    Obama could, as Raven said, respond by basically admitting it was a bluff. Or he could respond with force/sanctions/something else. Personally, I think he wants to get involved. Whether that makes him stupid for wanting to start a war (as you say) or not, that’s what it looks like to me.

  9. 9
    eric

    Rereading that December 2012 article I linked to, it honestly looks like our IC gave good intel this time around. They predicted production of weapons and the correct agent 9 months ago.

  10. 10
    Raging Bee

    Personally, I think he wants to get involved.

    Do you have even one scrap of evidence to support that claim? That one speech he made (and what was he supposed to say — that we had no problems with Syria using CW?), doesn’t support it. Yes, he’s blundering into war, yes he’s being hounded into it by chickenhawks he really should be publicly kicking to the curb — but it’s utter bullshit to say he WANTS to go to war in Syria. I almost wish that were true — at least he’d be more likely to go in with a plan — but I see no evidence that it is true.

  11. 11
    Rip Steakface

    I’m with raven. There are no good options here, absolutely none. Do nothing, and the political consequences here are nasty, along with the fact that that would probably prolong the conflict, resulting in more dead Syrians. Obviously an invasion like Iraq would be fucking terrible. But even a limited intervention like Libya would probably result in nasty political consequences and might not even help the Syrians.

  12. 12
    dogmeat

    I’m not getting the “Obama as a secretive genius” meme either. Most of his supporters, and former supporters, are frustrated as hell with his policy choices, his utter failures when it comes to negotiations, and his lack of ability to seize opportunities when he does have the advantage to push for legislation that is shown clearly to be in the best interests of the vast majority and supported by the vast majority.

    Specifically to this issue, I agree, this is a mess. I also think that Obama made a mistake in his speech; establishing a chemical weapons policy when he apparently didn’t have the support he might have thought he had. I’ve never quite understood why killing thousands of people with “conventional” weapons is okay but doing so with chemical weapons is not. In addition, I don’t see that the administration really has any stated policy other than they don’t like what the Assad regime is doing (well duh).

    I see additional problems in the region with Israel and Iran. Both could see a lack of response as a signal that future activities will also lead to little more than snarls and growls. Iran could see this as an opening to continuing to develop its own programs and Israel could see this as a lack of support. I’m not saying that these possibilities are justification for military action, just additional evidence that this is an ugly, ugly situation.

  13. 13
    eric

    Bee:

    Do you have even one scrap of evidence to support that claim?

    It would be trivially easy for him to get out of attacking Syria.
    1. Never bring it up in the first place. Let’s face it, if he had let it lie, probably most of the U.S. public would not even have been aware of what went on in Syria.

    2. Say the data is indeterminant. Nobody trusts CIA data on WMDs anyway. The President saying he didn’t have confirmable evidence would not raise any eybrows. He kinda did this…then proceeded to add some entirely unnecessary military rhetoric. IOW, he seems to be adding jingoism of his own accord, without prompting.

    3. Say you think the response should be international. This essentially kills it.

    C’mon, do we really need to draw you a picture Bee? He had/has a huge number of off-ramps to this decision, and appears to have chosen to take none of them.

  14. 14
    dingojack

    eric –
    a) In other countries of the world there is this magic thing called the media* (you may not be aware of this). It was hardly gonna remain a secret no matter how hard the average American shoved their fingers in their ears and shouted ‘I can’t hear you!!’
    b) Nobody trusts the CIA’s data, fine. But, again, other countries have secret services too (DGSE, Mossad, MI6 FSB & etc.)**, this ain’t gonna stay a secret (what with it splashed across of front pages of even the yellowist of rags and all).
    c) The response (it seems) is in fact being kicked into the International arena.

    Looks like Obama found the only safe ‘off-ramp’ he could.

    Dingo
    ——–
    * not to mention the internet an twitter and the like
    ** and the UN, EU, G-20 and similar.. An investigation was never going to magically go away

  15. 15
    sailor1031

    “Believing anything else — like this is how the administration is actually leading the United States into conflict — is too unsettling”

    I guess Sullivan didn’t read the last sentence – or his irony meter is still broken. But then, who ever expects him to get anything anyway?

  16. 16
    Michael Heath

    sailor1031 writes:

    . . . who ever expects [Andrew Sullivan] to get anything anyway?

    I can’t name another person who analyzes a broader array of events as they occur who is more accurate and provides a sufficiently broad perspective than Andrew Sullivan.

  17. 17
    dingojack

    Michael – a failure of imagination or recall?
    ;) Dingo
    ——–
    Sorry couldn’t resist

  18. 18
    democommie

    “It would be trivially easy for him to get out of attacking Syria.
    1. Never bring it up in the first place. Let’s face it, if he had let it lie, probably most of the U.S. public would not even have been aware of what went on in Syria.”

    Demonstrably untrue.

    The GOP has been licking its chops, waiting for Obama to do something that they can tear into him for, since 2008. They have been vocal and strident on issues which are nowhere near as politically volatile as the current Syrian imbroglio. To think that they would let it “go away” is childishly naïve.

  19. 19
    velociraptor

    Uh, DIngo…

    “b) Nobody trusts the CIA’s data, fine. But, again, other countries have secret services too (DGSE, Mossad, MI6 FSB & etc.”

    All of which are intelligence agencies of other nations that have their own agendas.

    Just sayin’.

  20. 20
    dingojack

    velociraptor – Really? I never knew that.
    @@
    Christ you really are an idiot.
    DIngo

  21. 21
    Jordan Genso

    This may be a very ignorant comment, but it’s my thoughts on Syria at this point.

    As long as there are “rules of war”, as the world has decided there are, then there needs to be a referee to enforce the rules. The referee, like a sports referee, should be neutral in that they shouldn’t try to help one side win the war, but if one of the participants breaks the rules, the referee should dole out punishment.

    In regards to Syria, if it is determined that the Assad regime broke the rules and used chemical weapons, then I can’t be opposed to a referee retaliating against them. The retaliation shouldn’t be that the ref tries to help the other side win (especially since it’s unclear if we want the other side to win), but limited and targeted strikes against the Assad regime seems like a proper response.

    Now there is the argument that killing is killing, and so why should it matter whether the Assad regime killed several thousand Syrians with chemical weapons when they’ve also killed a hundred thousand Syrians by conventional means. But I would compare that to the UFC, where the ref doesn’t interfere if the two competitors are beating the crap out of each other, but if one of them lands a low blow, the ref steps in.

    I don’t support the idea of a single country being allowed to take on the role of referee on their own. I think it should be required that several nations come together to take on the responsibility, but I don’t think the UN has to agree to it since a single country can so easily obstruct the UN.

    So if the US goes ahead with missile strikes on their own, I would be opposed to that. But if we do so in collaboration with other nations, I can’t disagree with the idea, as long as the strikes are all that we do. I don’t want us to get involved in trying to determine the outcome of the war, but I can understand if we dole out the punishment that the Assad regime deserves (if they broke the rules).

  22. 22
    steffp

    1)
    @ Jordan Genso, #21
    “As long as there are rules of war, as the world has decided there are”. Not wholly true, that. The US did ratify the Geneva Conventions (I-IV) and Protocol III, but not the Protocols I and II, and explicitly not the Article 90 of the Protocol I declaration. (Details here) Please note that Articles 51, 54 of Protocol I deals with incriminate attacks on civilians.
    So basically the Obama administration claims a moral high ground – as you put it, a referee position – in a field where it has refused to bind itself. Not the best career prerequisites for a referee.
    2)
    This whole discussion about “rule-breaking” and “punishment” is moot. Punishment only makes sense in a faith-based concept of sin. In the real world, it may be the result of a judicial process. There is a court for such crimes. I don’t see any such procedure by the International Criminal Court. But then, of course, the US fails to accept that court’s decisions, just like the aforementioned protocols.
    Instead, they are presently assembling a posse (others might call it a lynch mob), based on highly questionable anonymous evidence, collected by, of all institutions, the NSA. Hyper-activity indeed.
    3)
    The possible results of whatever intervention are incalculable, and no option I’ve heard discussed is positive.
    So, why go to war?

  23. 23
    bobcarroll

    Obama may have goofed. We’ll see, when the vote is taken. But I bet that Hillary is glad to be out of there.

  24. 24
    Raging Bee

    It would be trivially easy for him to get out of attacking Syria…

    If you think ANY war-and-peace decision is “trivially easy,” then you’re really not paying attention. In fact — as Al Sharpton might put it — that could be “a whole new dimension of not paying attention.” Calling such decisions “trivially easy” only trivializes the very real complications (not to mention the very real costs) of military action (and inaction).

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