Contrary to those who have caricatured him as an extremist or a tyrant, President Obama tends to search for middle ground almost reflexively. No doubt this useful habit served him well throughout much of his life as an organizer, lawyer and legislator. In the presidency, however, it has sometimes done him in.
Obama’s approach to the civil war in Syria is the latest and perhaps most glaring example. There is a line brighter than Obama’s infamous red one between military intervention and the lack thereof, and Obama’s endless attempts to straddle it have rendered his Syria policy a muddle.
Obama appears to favour nonintervention at heart. In this respect, he is aligned with most of the American public after a decade of long, costly, painful, and largely fruitless wars. But rather than speak up clearly for this utterly defensible point of view, Obama has repeatedly feinted toward U.S. intervention without seeming to mean it. In failing to speak up for the considered position that there is no useful role for the United States in this war, he has played into the hands of those who equate strength with military action.
Obama’s "red line" comments are his original sin on the subject. "I have, at this point, not ordered military engagement in the situation," Obama told a reporter asking about Syria last year. But rather than make the case for that position, he hastened to explain that under certain conditions, he would take the opposite position: "We have been very clear to the Assad regime... that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized... We have communicated in no uncertain terms... that that’s a red line for us and that there would be enormous consequences."
Since Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government apparently killed more than 1,400 in Damascus with poison gas last month, Obama has tried to back away from the consequences of his caveat. "I didn’t set a red line," he insisted at one point. "The world set a red line." He then punted the decision to Congress before cautiously endorsing the diplomatic solution accidentally proposed by Secretary of State John Kerry and seized upon by Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Syrian regime’s most powerful ally. Meanwhile, the halfhearted threat of an "unbelievably small" military strike, as Kerry put it, lingers.
By dwelling on the circumstances under which he would depart from his decision not to go to war — and on those under which he would depart from his departure — Obama has done a disservice to the millions of Americans who favour more careful consideration of the use of military force, and whose reluctance is reinforced by 12 years of national experience since Sept. 11, 2001.
The case for military restraint is difficult to make in the face of the horrific violence in Syria. But Obama, the winner of a Nobel Peace Prize as well as his last presidential election, is in an ideal position to make it forcefully. Unfortunately, he hasn’t.