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Paul Hayden

A Reluctant Warrior without a Plan

September 9, 2013

President Obama faced an impossible choice last week.  Many Americans, horrified at the wholesale slaughter of innocent citizens by Syria’s President Assad, were urging Obama to take some decisive action.  Particularly because weapons of mass destruction were used in defiance of Obama’s “red line,” they demanded that he back up his words.  Failure to do so, they argued, would discredit the presidency and give a green light to further use of such weapons.  Others argued that the conflict in Syria is not America’s war, and any military response by this country could have disastrous consequences.  They said it could result in retaliation against our allies or American interests abroad.  It might draw us into a much wider conflict or lead to devastating terrorist attacks throughout the world.  Even today, the experts can only guess about the potential consequences of a military strike on Syria. 

So after days of deliberation and consultation with his advisers, Obama decided to prepare for battle.  Some noted that all that pondering and planning should have been concluded before he issued his intractable and reckless warning.  Nonetheless, four long months after the first reported use of chemical weapons, and after the slaughter of more than 100,000 Syrians and new reports of chemical weapons attacks, our President sprang into action. 

He undoubtedly expected widespread international support for his operation. Assad is unquestionably a malevolent despot, capable of unspeakable atrocities.  Obama must have reflected back to a similar situation in Iraq, and the 49 nations allied behind President Bush’s leadership.  He should have had no problem putting together a small alliance for his brief operation.  After all, he is Barack Obama.  So it must have been an enormous blow to his ego when even our most loyal ally rejected plans to join his campaign. 

Perhaps the world community has come to understand what many here have long known.  They listened to Obama’s repeated assurances that the Iranians will not develop a nuclear weapon on his watch, even while the Iranian nuclear program continues unabated.  They heard him and his entire administration lie about the events leading up to the Benghazi massacre.  They heard him issue his warning to Syria, and then do nothing until the criticism became too loud to ignore.  They’re still scratching their heads over the meaning of “leading from behind.”  Ultimately, they could not follow where there is no leader.    
But Obama was undeterred.  Even after realizing he had built a coalition of exactly one, he defiantly and pompously announced he would go it alone.  He sent warships to the region.  His Secretary of State publicly outlined the justification for military action.  He promised us, and reassured Syria and her allies, that the coming attack would be a brief punitive strike, not intended to remove Assad.

Then on Saturday, he stunned the world by announcing he was not quite ready to strike.  He would let Congress determine the next course of action.  Who knows what led him to his final decision.  It could have been the harsh condemnation by his anti-war constituents.  Or maybe it was all those videos reminding us of his relentless criticism of the Iraq war.  Perhaps he just realized he was getting in over his head.  Whatever it was, something gave him a newfound respect for the Constitution, and another opportunity to blame someone else if the Middle East goes up in flames.          

The problem is that whatever Barack Obama knows about leadership, he learned from books.  Obviously he never read the famous words of President Teddy Roosevelt: “Speak softly, but carry a big stick.”  With nothing more than his impressive education and unbridled ego, Obama parlayed a tough position into an impossible one.  When he laid down the gauntlet to Syria, he assumed Assad would roll over.  He had no contingency plan.  When he called for military action, he assumed our allies would fall in line.  He had no back-up plan.  He now assumes that a brief, strategic military strike will prevent additional use of chemical weapons.  Let’s hope that Congress, in consultation with military experts, can come up with a real plan complete with contingencies.

Obama’s inept handling of the Syrian crisis has clearly diminished his position on the world stage, but the real tragedy is that he’s taking America down with him.  Our enemies are emboldened.  They have learned that our warnings mean nothing.  Our allies are shaken.  They’ve learned that America’s superpower status is eroding.  And we had hoped that Obama, himself, might have finally learned that there is more to the presidency than making speeches and playing golf.    

But that was too much to hope for.  After turning the mess over to Congress on Saturday, Obama did the only thing he could do.  He played a little more golf.

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Peter Lemiska has spent more than 28 years in government service. He is a former Senior Special Agent of the U.S. Secret Service and an Air Force veteran. His political commentaries have been widely published online and in print.