This post is not about moral agonizing over Syria. It is not about the soul-searching I believe President Obama or his advisors did before deciding to support a limited armed strike against Syria’s dictator, Bashar Assad. It is simply an observation about the political advising the president gets. And I can’t help but conclude he got some pretty lousy advice on this one.First, I’ll admit I’m pretty sympathetic to President Obama’s position overall. I was quite outspoken on the need to do something during the Darfur crisis, and though it was before my political times, critical of President Bill Clinton for not doing anything during Rwanda. Now these two events are not the same as the Syrian situation, but the impulse is. Thus The Economist declaring boldly on its front cover this week: “Hit Him Hard.”
In any case, Obama as a politician filling a role that requires pragmatism and maneuvering by definition made a mistake as he asked for the authorization to use force. It was an avoidable one.
What he did do is have a press conference that was nationally-broadcast where he asked directly for congressional authorization to use force. He also began laying out his position that both explicitly supported military action (clearly, or else he wouldn’t have asked for it). This was followed up by very-public, outspoken support by the White House generally.
Clearly, the president and his team were hoping to score political points by asking for Congress to step on board. That was smart. It could have been a brilliant stroke. He could have put the ball firmly in the do-nothing Congress’ court. And the White House should have just left it at that – Obama would have scored political capital through asking, whether the proposal was voted up or voted down.
Instead, the White House began to stump outwardly and openly for intervention, which is unpopular both with the general public and with congresspeople. Republicans can’t like it because Obama and Democrats can’t like it because of Bush.
They should have seen it coming. Now the president is stuck in a lose-lose situation. No one will remember that he wisely asked for authorization. They will instead only focus on the current military action he worked so hard for.