By Nicholas Wapshott
The confusion surrounding the American response to the Syrian government gassing its own people has shocked foreign policy wonks. Here is Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, after the president threw the problem to Congress, then, facing defeat, handed negotiations with Bashar al-Assad to his nemesis Vladimir Putin: "The President has essentially allowed the red line in Syria to be somewhat ignored." And here is Haass's final verdict on the president's dillydallying: "Words like ‘ad-hoc,' ‘improvised,' ‘unsteady' come to mind. This is probably the most undisciplined stretch of foreign policy of his presidency."
There is little sign the president has yet grasped the cost of contradicting all his top foreign policy advisors. Secretary of State John Kerry, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel were each asked for advice, then ignored. Obama appears oblivious to the fact that his fumbling over Syria has severely diminished his authority, even among close colleagues and his own party. He is under the impression that marching to the top of Capitol Hill and marching down again and backward flipping on decisive action against a despotic perpetrator of dastardly mass murder is simply a matter of "style."
He seems to think his real enemies are not Assad, Putin, Ali Khamenei, Iran's top mullah, and Kim Jong-un, the North Korean tyrant, but "folks here in Washington." "Had we rolled out something that was very smooth and disciplined and linear would have graded it well, even if it was a disastrous policy," he told George Stephanopoulos.
The president's erratic behavior over Syria, the political equivalent of texting while driving, has profoundly undermined his credibility. It may mean he sits out the next three years as a lame duck president, fiddling with designs for his memorial library in Honolulu, instead of steering the country back to prosperity. But the immediate test of his failure to fulfill his threat to punish Syria when it crossed the red line on poison gas will be his next great domestic confrontation with Congress: the impending vote on raising the debt ceiling.
Obama has drawn a red line on the debt ceiling and over the weekend repeated his resolve not to discuss the issue with Republicans. "What I haven't been willing to negotiate, and I will not negotiate, is on the debt ceiling," he said. But why should anyone in Congress believe him? If Assad can cross an Obama red line, why not House majority leader John Boehner?
Boehner would probably be satisfied, like the president, if lifting the debt ceiling by October 1 were linked to adjusting some of the sequester's most destructive cuts to public spending. There is plainly room for maneuver when moderate Republican lawmakers want to halt deep cuts to the military and Democrats want to reinstate some social programs that help the poor and needy.
But, while Boehner enjoys the title House Majority Leader, he is not the leader of the majority in the House, where Tea Party types rule the roost and dictate party policy. The Tea Party people have said they will not raise the debt ceiling, are determined to defund the Affordable Care Act, and do not have the neo-conservatives' affection for military spending. They are prepared to allow the American government to default on its debts rather than give in on any of these points.
One of the oddest aspects of the recent mayhem in Washington is why the president asked Congress to help him over Syria when he knew a majority in the House are opposed to anything he suggests, irrespective of its merits, because they detest him as much as for how he looks as for what he believes in. As he explained to Stephanopoulos, "We have a faction of the Republican Party, in the House of Representatives in particular, that view ‘compromise' as a dirty word, and anything that is even remotely associated with me, they feel obliged to oppose."
In those circumstances, asking Congress to help him out of a hole in Syria was as inept as asking Putin to save him from having to send in the cruises. Yet within the space of two days the president did both.
The Syria debacle has shown that defying the president has its own rewards. Assad was threatened with punitive action if he dared use chemical weapons; he did and will not be punished. The president's policy used to be to hold Assad's regime to account for using chemical weapons; now it is merely to help confiscate the weapons so he won't do it again. And even that depends on the good offices of Russia to ensure that the cornered Assad, facing not just the extinction of his regime but of him and his family, does not gas again. So much for the president's promise to provide justice for the 1,400 gassed to death.
The lesson for House Republicans is that Obama's word is not his bond. When push comes to shove he backs off. He lacks their resolve. They live in a universe of specific goals and absolutes and he lives in a world where promises are wishful thinking and final warnings are followed by a wagging finger.
Next week, the president will be preoccupied with the U.N. general assembly and a likely meeting with the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani. The following week the debt ceiling agreement lapses. Two weeks later — or thereabouts — the government runs out of cash and starts closing departments and cutting services. There is little time left to talk.
With the debt deadline looming, will the president blink as he did when Assad ignored his warnings? Will he start negotiating rather than allow further damage to America's prestige when the nation starts to default on its debts? It would be out of character if the House Republicans did not march over the president's red line, if only to see what happens.
(Nicholas Wapshott is a Reuters columnist. Opinions are his own.)