Having allowed an unscripted remark about red lines to take the United States to the brink of war, and after a "full-court press" that actually reduced the likelihood of congressional support for his proposal of an "unbelievably small" attack on Syria, another unconsidered remark by Secretary of State John Kerry has now derailed that policy. Russian and Syrian enthusiasm for Kerry's idea has taken the administration by surprise, but the administration is trapped into supporting it. This is not even Hollywood slapstick; it is Italian comic opera.
According to the State Department, Kerry had simply been "making a rhetorical argument about the impossibility and unlikelihood of Assad turning over chemical weapons he has denied using." Yet it turns out to be both possible and likely that the Syrian and Russian governments are smart enough to capitalize on the administration's mistakes to further our national humiliation.
It is also the president's humiliation. Midstream in the full-court press, he cannot even make up his mind about what action he intends to undertake. Yesterday he dismissed the "limited, tailored" attacks he had been advocating, saying, "The U.S. does not do pinpricks." He followed up with a sweeping boast that "our military is the greatest the world has ever known. And when we take even limited strikes, it has an impact on a country like Syria." That simplistic approach, convincing oneself the enemy will think so because we do, that our actions are all that matter in the equation, is what had so many conservatives opposing the use-of-force authorization: The president was leading us toward a disaster.
Senate Democrats, lacking the votes to approve the authorization for force, heaved a sigh of relief from not having to deal a president of their party such a blow. Nearly 80 percent of Americans were unpersuaded by the president's case. Russia's gambit will be explored and found credible, because it's the president's only escape. The White House will surely crow the president had by dint of brilliant diplomacy found a way to punish Bashar al-Assad without using military force, uphold the international prohibition on chemical weapons use, and strengthen the role of the United Nations. Such magical thinking is unlikely to gain traction anywhere but the South Lawn.
The administration's case to Congress had been that we must act in Syria, else Iran and North Korea would seize on our weakness. Yet the administration's every move in this crisis has trumpeted indecision, lacking the courage of its convictions, and the inability to craft a strategy achieving its objectives. The lessons America's enemies will take from the administration's Syria choices are that the United States can easily be deterred from intervening and is unwilling to use military force, the Russians are the ally of choice, and the coming three years will be a bonanza -- time to take advantage of America's feckless president. It has an impact on a country like the United States, President Obama.
Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.