But a year ago, he made a huge mistake that in recent months he has come to regret. He succumbed to pressure from the pro-Israel and Republican Right to intervene in the horrific mess that was evolving in Syria by stating, perhaps in an effort to seem as tough as his Israeli counterpart Bibi Netanyahu, that Obama had his Red Lines too and if the Syrian government ever used chemical weapons against its own people the the U.S. would have to take strong and forceful military action..
It was an inexcusable error since Red Lines have no place in our dynamic and fast changing world. Our leaders need to constantly update their information and determine what course of action makes sense at any point in time. That applies even moreso in the Arab Muslim countries of the Middle East which have been involved in dramatic internal upheavals that have nothing to do with us and which we don't begin to understand.
It was a particularly unfortunate statement for Obama to make since he himself had stated in 2007 that no president has the right to unilaterally commit American troops without the approval of Congress. So last year, Obama essentially promised to do something that he had stated was clearly illegal if his Red Line was crossed in Syria.
When it became clear a few weeks ago that the Assad government had used chemical weapons to murder more than a thousand of his own citizens, Obama was about to reap the harvest of his Red Line bravado.
As George W. Bush did regarding Iraq, Obama seemed on track to allow his ego and desire to save face to overcome common sense and plunge our country into an armed conflict in a part of the world where we really don't know as much as we need to know and, more important, where it would be impossible for us to make a positive difference.
The Israeli blogger and J Street friend Bernard Avishai made the complexity of the Syrian mess and the futility of armed intervention by the U.S. in Syria perfectly clear in his brilliant blog the other day. Avishai set the following as a backdrop:
Let's get things straight. Syria is now fractured into zones controlled by 1) Assad, armed by Russia and backed by Iran, 2) Hezbollah, backing Assad's Alawite Shi'a sect, 3) the Kurds, always looking for ways of unifying the Kurdish homeland on the Iraqi border, 4) an insurgent Sunni-Islamist group, Jadhat al-Nusra--admiring (if not loyal to) Iraqi Al-Quaeda--and, 5) a (more or less) secular and (more or less) puny Free Syrian Army, the heart of an opposition ("maybe 1200 free floating groups") backed by Qatar, and led ("this month, anyway") by Ahmad Jarba, with ties to Saudi Arabia.
His conclusion was that an armed attack on Syria, no matter how "limited in scope" it might be at first would be an exercise in futility since we have no idea who the good guys are over there, quoting PBS commentator Ivo Daalder:
a punitive strike...to send a message to the regime that this kind of behavior is unacceptable"--is something like trying to stabilize the picture on an old TV by smacking it. What good it does bears no relationship to how good it feels.
Faced with the prospect of making a disastrous decision just to save face--and also facing enormous pressure in Washington and from around the world to do just that--Obama came through with a courageous and brilliant decision.
Instead of focusing on saving face, our president staked out the moral and legal high ground by stating that he favored taking action against Syria but believed it would be in the best interest of our country and true to our laws to do so only with the approval of Congress.
Think about how smart that is. First, it forces those on Capitol Hill who have spent the last five years doing nothing on their own except criticizing the president to actually become engaged in a conversation and determine a course of action.
It is already clear how much confusion and disorientation that has created in Washington. Republicans who have never said a good word about Obama in their lives have been issuing statements that the president did the right thing. Many liberal Democrats who always support Obama are saying they disagree with the president. The partisan divide that has defined Congress for the last four years seems to be in total disarray--at least for the time being.
None of the major pro-Israel organizations has had a word to say about what they think should be done. J Street did come out with a statement condemning Syria's use of chemical weapons but, as an active participant in J Street's leadership online forum I can tell you I have never seen an issue where there were more heartfelt and compelling opinions and arguments on all sides of any issue.
On the Obama hating hard Right there of course has been focus on what a horrible leader Obama has been on this and every other issue. FrontPage.com ran an article by Bruce Thornton which began with the accusations that Obama is a "malignant narcissist" and "incompetent" and made the obligatory comparisons to Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler. As is usual for FrontPage and the other sites which exist only to smear Obama and Muslims, none of the charges or insults was backed by a single fact or quote or any source material.
I really encourage you to click on the link and read the whole piece--counting the number of serious accusations made against the president in the harshest of terms and then counting the number of facts or quotes or source materials used to support those provocative claims.
But after Thornton worked through the obligatory litany of unsupported smears of Obama, he made his major point-:
By far the biggest mistake of our contrary president is to ignore the wisdom every global power has known from Rome to the British Empire: the importance of prestige, which a great power nurtures by consistently rewarding its friends and punishing its enemies. Both friends and enemies have to believe your promises and threats will be followed by meaningful action. But this president gets it backwards: just make empty threats and preen morally, and then rationalize a failure to act by invoking “international law” and “U.N. mandates”
So our contrary president has managed to destroy our prestige, alienate our friends, embolden our enemies, increase contempt for our power, and leave behind a Middle East more violent, murderous, and hostile to our security and interests than it ever has been. Just what you would expect from someone who sees the world backwards.
In other words, if a president screws up or allows political pressure or the passion of the moment to cause him to make a statement that he later regrets, it is better, according to Thornton, to follow through on what might be a catastrophic mistake rather than risk losing face and prestige by changing course based on new facts and developments.
We actually just had a president who did that. George W. Bush successfully pushed for war against Iraq based on his belief they possessed weapons of mass destruction that posed a threat to the security of the United States. He was wrong and within a matter of months he KNEW he was wrong. But rather than lose face and prestige, he pressed forward with a war that was based on a faulty premise causing the death and maiming of tens of thousands of patriotic Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis--not to mention the devastation it wrought on our world standing and financial health.
Thankfully, our current president--who also took a position a year ago that was ill advised--had the courage and wisdom to regroup and rethink and pursue a different course of action.
He may lose face over this in the eyes of some. The media is already replete with stories about what an embarrassment it would be if Congress does not approve the limited strikes that Obama has said he favors. There are also complaints coming from Israel and the Syrian rebels and others around the world that American can no longer be trusted to deliver on its promises.
This could be a rough patch for Obama politically and he will have to brave many slings and arrows for his wisdom and bravery which, by the way, is not unfair since he did screw up in the first place.
But thankfully for our country and for the world he had to courage reconsider and change course rather than keep doubling down and pushing more resources and lives and treasure into the pot as our previous president did--long after he and everyone else knew he was playing a losing hand.
You have to know when to hold 'em and know when to fold 'em. We are lucky that Barack Obama understands that far better than the man who came before him.