Obama’s Syria muddle


WASHINGTON — What is the Obama administration plan in Syria?

It depends on whom you ask and when.

At 9 p.m. Tuesday, President Obama, in his address to the nation, said that he had “asked the leaders of Congress to postpone a vote to authorize the use of force.”

This contradicted what his secretary of state, John Kerry, had said in testimony to Congress just 11 hours earlier. “We’re not asking Congress not to vote,” Kerry told the House Armed Services Committee. “I’m not asking (for) delay,” he added later.

Kerry can be forgiven for being at odds with the president. Obama, in the space of his 16-minute address, was often at odds with himself. He spent the first 12 minutes arguing for the merits of striking Syria — and then delivered the news that he was putting military action on hold.

He promised that it would be “a limited strike” without troops on the ground or a long air campaign, yet he argued that it was the sort of blow that “no other nation can deliver.” He argued that “we should not be the world’s policeman” while also saying that because of our “belief in freedom and dignity for all people,” we cannot “look the other way.” He asserted that what Bashar Assad did is “a danger to our security” while also saying that “the Assad regime does not have the ability to seriously threaten our military.”

These are not all contradictions; the president was trying to thread a needle and outlined a highly nuanced and frequently shifting policy. But nuance can sound a lot like a muddle.

Ten days ago, Obama was on the verge of sending U.S. missiles into Syria to punish Assad for using chemical weapons. Then he said he wanted Congress to authorize such a mission in advance. Then it began to appear that Congress would reject the Syria attack and cripple Obama’s credibility. Finally, the president was offered a lifeline by the very regime he was planning to attack, when Syria agreed to a Russian plan to surrender its chemical weapons.

The administration’s frequent shifts convey the feeling that it is a spectator observing world affairs. Russia is drafting a proposal. France is taking a different proposal to the United Nations. And the people’s House has returned to its previously scheduled program: holding votes undoing Obamacare.

It may turn out that the Russian proposal gives Obama, and the United States, a face-saving way out of an unwanted conflict. It may even be that the possibility of a U.S. attack spurred the Russians and Syrians to act. But it feels as if the ship of state is bobbing like a cork in international waters. This was to be the week the president rallied lawmakers and the public around military action. But in a series of TV interviews Monday and in Tuesday night’s address, he instead explained why any such action is on hold.

Obama’s leadership, particularly in his second term, can most charitably be described as subtle. But he is so subtle that he sometimes appears to be a bystander. He left immigration up to Congress, which put the issue on ice. Congress also buried gun control and efforts to replace the sequester. Obama, meantime, has been reacting to events — Egypt, the National Security Agency revelations — rather than shaping them. He launched a fresh push to sell Americans on the merits of Obamacare — yet more than 4 in 10 remain unaware that the law is still on the books.

The potential agreement on Syria came about by happenstance, when a reporter asked Kerry on Monday whether Assad could do anything to avoid an attack. “Sure,” Kerry said. “He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week.”

State Department officials quickly said Kerry wasn’t floating a proposal. But after Russia and Syria embraced the disarmament idea, administration officials on Tuesday were taking credit for the “outline” Kerry offered.

Obama joined in Tuesday night, saying the Russian proposal came in part from “constructive talks that I had” with Vladimir Putin. Obama said, “This initiative has the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons without the use of force.”

Yet moments earlier, Obama told Americans that he decided “it is in the national security interests of the United States to respond to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons through a targeted military strike.”

Which one is it? Ask again in a couple of days.

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.