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Stunning and Inexplicable Foreign Policy Incompetence

Obama Hand on Head 2The President’s uneven Syria response has damaged his office and weakened the nation. 

On the eve of the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Barack Obama made the strongest possible case for the use of force against Bashar Assad’s Syrian regime. But it wasn’t a very strong case. Indeed, it was built on a false premise: “We can stop children from being gassed to death,” he said, after he summoned grisly images of kids writhing and foaming at the mouth and then dying on hospital floors. Does he really think we can do that with a limited military strike—or the rather tenuous course of diplomacy now being pursued? We might not be able to do it even if we sent in 250,000 troops and got rid of Assad. The gas could be transferred to terrorists, most likely Hizballah, before we would find all or even most of it. And that is the essence of the policy problem Obama has been wrestling with on Syria: when you explore the possibilities for intervention, any vaguely plausible action quickly reaches a dead end.

The President knows this, which makes his words and gestures during the weeks leading up to his Syria speech all the more perplexing. He willingly jumped into a bear trap of his own creation. In the process, he has damaged his presidency and weakened the nation’s standing in the world. It has been one of the more stunning and inexplicable displays of presidential incompetence that I’ve ever witnessed. The failure cuts straight to the heart of a perpetual criticism of the Obama White House: that the President thinks he can do foreign policy all by his lonesome. This has been the most closely held American foreign-policy-making process since Nixon and Kissinger, only there’s no Kissinger. There is no éminence grise—think of someone like Brent Scowcroft—who can say to Obama with real power and credibility, Mr. President, you’re doing the wrong thing here. Let’s consider the consequences if you call the use of chemical weapons a “red line.” Or, Mr. President, how can you talk about this being “the world’s red line” if the world isn’t willing to take action? Perhaps those questions, and many others, fell through the cracks as his first-term national-security staff departed and a new team came in. But Obama has shown a desire to have national-security advisers who were “honest brokers”—people who relayed information to him—rather than global strategists. In this case, his new staff apparently raised the important questions about going to Congress for a vote: Do you really want to do this for a limited strike? What if they say no? But the President ignored them, which probably means that the staff isn’t strong enough.

The public presentation of his policies has been left to the likes of Secretary of State John Kerry, whose statements had to be refuted twice by the President in the Syria speech. Kerry had said there might be a need for “boots on the ground” in Syria. (Obama: No boots.) Kerry had said the military strikes would be “unbelievably small.” (Obama: We don’t do pinpricks.) Worst of all, Kerry bumbled into prematurely mentioning a not-very-convincing Russian “plan” to get rid of the Syrian chemical weapons. This had been under private discussion for months, apparently, the sort of dither that bad guys—Saddam, the Iranians, Assad—always use as a delaying tactic. Kerry, in bellicose mode, seemed to be making fun of the idea—and the Russians called him on it. Kerry’s staff tried to walk back this megagaffe, calling it a “rhetorical exercise.” As it stands, no one will be surprised if the offer is a ruse, but the Administration is now trapped into seeing it through and gambling that it will be easier to get a congressional vote if it fails.

Which gets close to the Obama Administration’s problem: there have been too many “rhetorical exercises,” too many loose pronouncements of American intent without having game-planned the consequences. This persistent problem—remember the President’s needless and dangerous assertion that his policy wasn’t the “containment” of the Iranian nuclear program—has metastasized into a flurry of malarkey about Syria. It’s been two years since he said, “Assad must step aside.” He announced the “red line” and “the world’s red line.” And now, “We can stop children from being gassed.” The Chinese believe that the strongest person in the room says the least. The President is the strongest person, militarily, in the world. He does not have to broadcast his intentions. He should convey them privately, wait for a response, then take action, or not. He should do what the Israelis did when they took out the Syrian nuclear reactor: they did it, without advance bluster, and didn’t even claim credit for it afterward. The wolf doesn’t have to cry wolf, nor should the American eagle. We must stand for restrained moral power, power that is absolutely lethal and purposeful when it is unleashed, but never unleashed wantonly, without a precise plan or purpose.

Creating a precise plan in the Middle East is utterly impossible, which is something the American people have clearly come to realize. The region is at a hinge of history: those straight-line borders, drawn by the Europeans nearly 100 years ago, seem to have passed their sell-by date. The next decades may see the formation of new countries, like Kurdistan, along ethnic and sectarian lines, and the process will undoubtedly be bloody. Some version of Syria will probably emerge—there’s always been a Syria—but perhaps not within the current borders. The West will have to stand aside as this is worked out. We have slashed our way into these places, under the neocolonial assumption that they are somehow in need of our wisdom and power, and left too much chaos and too many dead bodies in our wake to have any moral credibility left in the region except, perhaps, in Israel. And you have to wonder if, after the past few weeks, the Israelis would trust us to provide the security for the peace that Kerry is trying to negotiate with the Palestinians.

Once again, the President understands all this. The subtext of his presidency has been that it is no longer possible for the U.S. to go it alone—even if he continues to do so himself—unless we face a direct and immediate threat to our national security, and that we must build multilateral coalitions to enforce the world’s red lines. And so, the question must be asked: Why has he persisted in pursuing a limited military option in Syria? These things almost never work. Often, they make the situation worse. Ryan Crocker, the retired American diplomat with the most experience in the region, has speculated that Assad’s diabolical response to an American military strike might be to launch “another chemical attack just as a stick in our eye.” And then, our next move? Could the President let another gas attack stand?

The President isn’t crass or stupid enough to say it, but I would guess that he is persisting in his public threats of military action because American credibility—and, more precisely, his credibility—really is at stake. But playing the “American credibility” card is a foolish and extremely dangerous game. In my lifetime, more lives, including American lives, have been lost in the pursuit of American credibility than by any legitimate military factor. It was what led Lyndon Johnson to double down in Vietnam. It was what helped propel George W. Bush into pulling the trigger in Iraq, even after it was clear that most of the world and, quietly, the American military thought it would be a disastrous exercise. It was what led Obama deeper into Afghanistan. Make no mistake, Obama has already lost credibility in the world, given his performance of the past few weeks. But American credibility is easily resurrected, given our overwhelming strength, by prudent action the next time a crisis erupts, a clear strategic vision and a rock-steady hand on the wheel. It was resurrected by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. The sad thing is that Obama had been rebuilding our international stature after George W. Bush’s unilateral thrashing about. He has now damaged his ability to get his way with the Chinese, the Iranians and even the Israelis.

That may never come back—and there were real opportunities to make some progress, especially with Iran, where the ascension of a nonprovocative President, Hassan Rouhani, and a reform-minded Foreign Minister in Mohammed Javad Zarif had opened the possibility of real progress in the nuclear talks and maybe even in other areas, like Afghanistan. The question now is whether Obama’s inability to make his military threat in Syria real—and the American people’s clear distaste for more military action—will empower the hard-liners in the Revolutionary Guards Corps to give no quarter in the negotiations. The Chinese, who have been covetous of the South China Sea oil fields, may not be as restrained as they have been in the past. The Japanese may feel the need to revive their military, or even go nuclear, now that the promise of American protection seems less reliable. The consequences of Obama’s amateur display ripple out across the world.

There are domestic consequences as well. This was supposed to be the month when the nation’s serious fiscal and budgetary problems were hashed out, or not, with the Republicans. There was a chance that a coalition could be built to back a compromise to solve the debt-ceiling problem and the quiet horrors caused by sequestration and to finally achieve a long-term budget compromise. But any deal would have required intense, single-minded negotiation, including political protection, or sweeteners, for those Republicans who crossed the line. Precious time has been wasted. And, after Syria, it will be difficult for any member of Congress to believe that this President will stick to his guns or provide protection.

There are those who say Obama has destroyed his presidency. It may be true, but I doubt it. All sorts of things could happen to turn the tide back in his favor. The snap polls after the Syria speech indicate that he still has the ability to sell an argument, however briefly. He has been lucky in his opponents: the Republicans will doubtless continue to take positions that most Americans find foolish or extreme. He may make crisp decisions in the next overseas crisis; one would hope he’s learned something from this one. But he has done himself, and the nation, great and unnecessary harm. The road back to credibility and respect will be extremely difficult.

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Joe Klein is TIME’s political columnist and author of six books, most recently Politics Lost.