Shadow Government

Why Professors Don't Make Good Presidents -- and Why Congress Should Support Obama on Syria Anyway

The unfolding fiasco of President Barack Obama's Syria policy shows why professors rarely make good presidents. With Obama having previously been a law professor for many years, some of his most debilitating characteristics come out when he lapses back into professorial mode. (As a professor myself, I recognize these things all too well.) This has been on painful display over the past few weeks, as the president seems to have been arguing with himself over his own Middle East policy, especially on Egypt and Syria. The vacillations, the hand-wringing, the endless second-guessing, the sanctimonious lecturing, the odd detachment from decisions of tremendous consequence --- all of these are worthy more of the faculty lounge than the commander in chief. (Note in contrast that one of Obama's signature successes came when he abandoned professor mode and acted decisively in ordering the bin Laden raid.)

Just in the last two weeks we've seen Obama take both sides of multiple issues, including whether the United States will continue staying out of the Syrian conflict or will intervene; whether an attack needs to take place imminently or not; whether an attack needs U.N. Security Council endorsement or not; whether an attack needs the support of allied nations or not; whether an attack needs congressional support or not; whether American credibility is at stake in Syria or not, and so on.

Graduate school seminars are appropriate places to talk endlessly about all sides of an issue while never making and implementing a decision; the Oval Office is not.

Winston Churchill's theme to the concluding book of his six-volume history of World War II is "How the Great Democracies Triumphed, and So Were Able to Resume the Follies Which Had So Nearly Cost Them Their Life." The stakes in the Middle East today are nowhere near as severe as those of World War II, but Churchill's warning against democratic follies comes to mind in the midst of the confusions besetting both Washington and London. While Prime Minister David Cameron and Labour Party leader Ed Miliband ultimately bear the most responsibility for the vote debacle in the House of Commons, Obama is not without fault. He could have worked with Cameron to make a case for attacking Syria to the British public before the vote, and he also could have used his considerable political capital with Miliband and the Labour Party to secure the opposition's support. Ultimately this marks yet another failure of diplomacy by this administration, continuing an unhappy "diplomatic deficit" I have described before.

Meanwhile the public debate on process has obscured the more fundamental problem: The White House's intended use of force is completely misaligned with its policy goals in Syria. This administration's stated intention to do limited and circumscribed strikes advertised well in advance is at odds with its stated goal of punishing Bashar al-Assad's regime for the regime's chemical weapons use. In fact, the White House's planned approach will likely do just the opposite: It will embolden Assad and perhaps reassure other tyrants pursuing weapons of mass destruction as well. Waiting a few weeks, announcing to the world that you don't want to inflict too much pain, and then lobbing a few cruise missiles at empty warehouses in Damascus tells Assad and his ilk that there is little cost to be paid for using weapons of mass destruction against civilian populations. (Daniel Byman lays out in more detail the manifest weaknesses of this approach, as does Peter Wehner, and Peter Feaver points out how it masks the more fundamental problem of no White House strategy whatsoever for the region.)

In Federalist No. 70, Alexander Hamilton described the importance of "Energy in the Executive," particularly "in the conduct of war, in which the energy of the executive is the bulwark of the national security." By this he meant that the president of the United States needs to be able to act with dispatch, clarity, and authority, in contrast to the "feeble Executive" hamstrung by gratuitous constraints and indecision. As the U.S. Congress prepares to take up the Syria debate, I hope legislators will resist the temptation to mimic the follies that Churchill warned against and further enfeeble an already weakened president.

Congressional Republicans in particular have an opportunity to elevate the debate, to put America's global standing and interests ahead of the chance to score political points. Republicans should not let our disappointment with Obama detract from the need to restore American credibility on the world stage and inflict long-overdue punishment on a brutal dictator and adversary. As a friend of mine suggested, the upcoming Syria debate might also be an opportunity for the GOP to restore the defense spending cut by the sequester -- resources that will be needed to maintain robust force projection in the Middle East among other places. On Syria itself, I hope Congress authorizes Obama to impose severe punitive measures that cripple the Assad regime -- and urges him to do just that.

Photo: EPA/ROBERT SULLIVAN

Shadow Government

Obama’s Desperate Gambit

This is a move borne out of weakness.

Going to Congress could have been a sign of strength if it had been done last week, before all of the signaling from the White House of an imminent attack. But aides are not even trying to spin this as a sign of presidential resolve. Instead, their own backgrounders describe it as borne partly out of political weakness, as the president stumbled on his march to war over the past week, and partly out of political pique at congressional critics. As an aide put it, "We don't want them [Members of Congress] to have their cake and eat it, too."

Given the predicament the administration's own rhetoric put Obama in, the congressional authorization gambit may be the most tactically shrewd move left to the president. But it could still backfire in ways that hurt both Obama and the country.

It might be tactically shrewd if Obama wins a decisive vote of confidence, say, something that eclipses the strong bipartisan majority that endorsed President George W. Bush's confrontation with Iraq (77-23 votes in the Senate, 296-133 votes in the House). That vote did provide political momentum for the Iraq war and did implicate Democrats in the Iraq policy. Let us not forget that that vote is why we have a President Obama and did not have a President Kerry, nor a President Biden, nor a President Hillary Clinton.

But I doubt that Obama will get such a strong political victory. His team has a very poor track record of building bipartisan coalitions on foreign policy and the last two weeks of policy incoherence have not given them any momentum. Moreover, Obama will likely struggle to hold his left wing base, while isolationist sentiments will dampen Republican support. Does Obama have the votes to override, say, a Senator Paul filibuster? Can Obama whip enough of the far left Democrats to compensate for lost votes on the right? And look for all those nay-voters to use talking points drafted from President Obama's and his advisor's own statements over the past two years defending their hitherto policy of staying out of Syria.

On the other hand, it might be tactically shrewd if, having crashed into the Syrian iceberg, the president wants simply to take down some Republicans with him as his policy Titanic sinks below the waves. If the Republicans vote down the Syrian bill Obama can forgo the strikes (the preference he signals, wittingly or not, almost every time he speaks on the issue) and blame Republicans for it. Judging from what the leaky White House was saying about the president's abrupt reversal, this might be the core objective right now.

Yet none of these tactical gains will overcome the president's biggest problem: he has no viable strategy for Syria or for the larger region.

And therein lies the biggest risk in going belatedly to Congress: the debate will necessarily expose this inconvenient truth. Punishing or not punishing Syria for crossing the chemical weapons red line is not a strategy. At best, it is only part of a strategy, and in this case President Obama has not articulated a viable larger strategy.

It will be impossible to conduct this congressional debate without addressing what the president intends to do about the turmoil in the region, and how these strikes serve that larger strategy. Right now, the administration cannot answer those questions. Over the next couple weeks, they will scramble to supply one.

The only optimistic outcome I can think of is that the debate manages to not only expose the strategic deficit, but also prods the administration finally to confront it and overcome it with a new, coherent and sufficiently resourced approach to the region. In this rosiest of scenarios, the necessity to work across the aisle in pursuit of congressional authorization might even be the wake-up call the administration has hitherto resisted.  

But I am not optimistic this rosy scenario will arise. It seems more likely that the congressional chapter of the Syrian saga will result in any of several bad outcomes:

* a razor thin vote of approval that hardens political divisions in the country and exposes but does not fix Obama's strategy deficit, obligating the administration to go forward with minimal political support.

* a negative vote that Obama "honors" thus yielding all of the negative consequences the president himself said inaction in the face of chemical use would engender.  

* a negative vote that Obama defies -- a defiance that is almost without precedent (and the only precedents I can think of are bad, very bad: Iran-Contra).

And yet, even after all of those bad outcomes, the president will still have to struggle through many more chapters of the saga, confronting all of the regional problems that will remain without a strategy commensurate with the task and even weaker politically than he was just a few short weeks ago.

This last prospect is one that should please no one who cares about the national  interest.  Obama is in perilous waters, but he has taken us in the ship of state with him there.  We all should hope that he gets us out of this more deftly than he got us in.

Kristoffer Tripplaar-Pool/Getty Images