Sometimes it appears that everybody in Washington yearns for an action-hero president to make them feel important. That’s never more apparent than during a crisis like the Syrian civil war President Obama stands accused of “dithering” about.
Of course, his chief journalistic accusers are columnists Maureen Dowd and Charles Krauthammer, of the New York Times and Washington Post respectively. Dowd turns everything into a movie scenario. She wrote a column about George W. Bush’s 2003 “Mission Accomplished” aircraft carrier stunt that’s almost too embarrassing to quote.
“Out bounded the cocky, rule-breaking, daredevil flyboy, a man navigating the Highway to the Danger Zone,” Dowd wrote. “He flashed that famous all-American grin as he swaggered around the deck of the aircraft carrier in his olive flight suit, ejection harness between his legs, helmet tucked under his arm, awestruck crew crowding around.”
Sure, there was mockery in Dowd’s “Top Gun” take on Bush’s “joystick politics,” but hero-worship too. Here’s how her imaginary flyboy summed up America’s adventure in Iraq:
“Aggression breeds patriotism, and patriotism curbs dissent. Aggression has made Democrats cower, the press purr and the world quake. Aggression — you mark my words — will not only save humanity, but it will soon color all the states Republican red.”
So how did that work out?
Ten years later, Krauthammer thinks things would have worked out better if the U.S. still had troops occupying Iraq — the better to menace Iran and Syria too, formerly Saddam Hussein’s job. Obama, he opines, “simply does not understand that if America withdraws from the scene, it creates a vacuum that invites hostile outside intervention. A superpower’s role in a regional conflict is deterrence.”
Also known as perpetual war in the Middle East.
Even Bill Clinton famously piled on, which is what set Dowd off. At a public forum in New York, he explained that Obama risked looking “like a total wuss” if he blamed opinion polls showing that 80 percent of Americans oppose U.S. intervention in Syria for his own indecisiveness. Clinton said that presidents sometimes have to act, “and hope to God you can sell it.”
It’s not clear that Clinton spelled out exactly what a take-charge guy like himself would be doing in Syria — which may be a good thing, given his wife’s key role in the Obama administration’s wait-and-see policy.
Indeed, the former Secretary of State’s pronouncement at a 2012 conference in Istanbul that dictator Bashar al-Assad needed to leave Syria contributed mightily to the White House’s predicament. Taking sides in a sectarian civil war while refusing to get involved wasn’t terribly clever. That Clinton reportedly urged Obama to arm anti-Assad Sunni rebels makes the diplomatic blunder no less egregious.
Now that the Syrian dictator, with Russian and Iranian assistance, seems on the verge of defeating his enemies, President Obama has agreed to provide small arms to rebel groups — something unlikely to prove decisive.
Asked how he imagined Syria after Assad, a rebel commander told the New York Times’ Bill Keller “maybe Somalia plus Afghanistan.” In short, chaos and slaughter, a horrifying prospect to the crusading editor, who nevertheless thinks Obama needs to get the U.S. more deeply involved in deciding which mob of Syrian religious fanatics gets to massacre its enemies.
Perhaps sensitive to criticism, President Obama gave an extraordinarily frank interview to CBS’s Charlie Rose. “This argument that somehow we had gone in earlier or heavier in some fashion,” he said, “that the tragedy and chaos taking place in Syria wouldn’t be taking place, I think is wrong.”
In essence, the president argues that there are no good options in Syria and never were. Would establishing a no-fly zone, for example, mean bombing Damascus? What about civilian casualties? And what happens if chemical weapons stored there get hit?
“Unless you’ve been involved in those conversations,” he said, “then it’s kind of hard for you to understand the complexity of the situation and how we have to not rush into one more war in the Middle East.”
In other words, no Barack Obama doll to match the official “TOP GUN George W. Bush 12-Inch Action Figure in Flight Suit” available from Amazon.com. Also, however, no 10-year occupation of Syria, no thousands of American dead and hundreds of billions of dollars lost in the desert.
Instead, Daniel W. Drezner argues in Foreign Policy, Obama’s stalling constitutes a kind of cynical realpolitik American presidents can’t openly admit to practicing: “[t]his is simply the United States engaging in its own form of asymmetric warfare. For the low, low price of aiding and arming the rebels, the U.S. preoccupies all of its adversaries in the Middle East.”
Here’s what Obama ought to say, a friend wrote recently: “My fellow Americans. I don’t give a rat’s [posterior] who wins the civil war in Syria. And neither should you. Thank you and good night.”
In effect, he has.
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Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President”.