Walter Russell Mead observes that President Obama has managed to disappoint the left, the right, and the center with his approach to the two-year-long Syria crisis:
President Obama wants it both ways: he’s demanded Assad step down and called preventing genocide “a core national-security interest,” but promised in his second inaugural that “a decade of war is now ending.” He’s also threatened war with Syria if chemical weapons are used and proclaimed a “responsibility to protect,” but seeks to slash defense spending, might withdraw a U.S. carrier from the Gulf, and vetoed his cabinet’s recommendations on Syria.
The problem is not that the President is turning his back on Syria; there’s certainly a case that one could make for such a policy. The problem is that the President has neglected to make a case at all. He’s been content to make certain rhetorical promises while pursuing contradictory lines of policy. This is not only insincere to the American people, it is an extremely dangerous strategy: Iran, Assad, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Israel might no longer know what to expect from the U.S., or believe anything its Commander in Chief says. When one of the region’s most powerful actors projects that kind of weakness, it’s a game changer.
The emperor’s new clothes are beginning to attract hostile comment from all sides of the political spectrum. This could be a long second term.
It's interesting. On the domestic front, Obama seems able to construct consistent arguments and maintain consistent positions (indeed, to take positions in the first place). With regard to foreign policy, though, he is so patently discomfited by the obligation to take any positions at all that he boomerangs all over the place, settling nowhere.
This clumsiness intrigues me. By all accounts, Obama is fiercely proud, so much so that it's difficult to understand how he can tolerate his own ham-fistedness in this vital arena -- let alone repeat variations on the same bumbling performance again and again. One theory is that his positive experience around Muslims in Indonesia as a child rendered him incapable of countenancing the existence of radical Islam, and that that myopia has fatally compromised his ability to construct a foreign policy that touches on Islam in any way. Maybe.
It could be simpler, though. I've long had the impression that on a personal level, the president -- in parallel with many Americans -- just doesn't particularly care what happens anywhere abroad, and is deeply reluctant to formulate positions that might lock him into one side or the other of conflicts he'd rather not think about, let alone be involved in. I suspect he's as unconcerned by tens of thousands of dead Syrians as he is with Israeli civilians in the flight path of Palestinian rockets, or, for that matter, in the cross-hairs of a putative Iranian nuclear weapon. To his mind -- possibly -- the parties involved should sort out their business on their own, and the US will formulate policies after the dust settles. It's been argued that the president is motivated by anti-colonialism, and is hamstrung by his own refusal to throw American weight around. But his befuddled inaction abroad could also bespeak a simple lack of interest in who the ultimate winners and losers are destined to be. If you feel an equivalent contempt for all parties, why stick your neck out for any of them?
This is obviously speculation -- much as I would enjoy it, I've never had the opportunity to grill the president personally on any of this -- so it might be a wildly unfair extrapolation. What do you think?