The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Is the President's Credibility on the Line in Syria? Is America's?

obama-1

Andrew Sullivan thinks we’re in a “panic” when we say that a “no” vote from Congress on Syria will destroy the President’s foreign policy credibility.

He doesn’t seem to understand how serious it would be for the president’s Syria policy to be repudiated by Congress. Quoting Ezra Klein he tells us that foreigners will still know that the US would respond to attacks on our embassies and troops. While true, this is not very important. The Iranians might well, for example, believe that the US would not intervene effectively against a nuclear program that brushes up against red lines.

More to the point, most of what happens in foreign policy has nothing to do with threats—thank goodness. But that doesn’t mean that credibility isn’t important. Here’s one: in any negotiation with between the Palestinians and the Israelis, part of what the US will need to do is put some financial sweeteners on the table for the Palestinians—aid, compensation for refugees, whatever. The problem will be that these are empty promises unless Congress backs them up. Palestinians aren’t stupid; they know that foreign aid and especially aid for Palestinians isn’t exactly the most popular cause in the US. They will look at a president who’s just been repudiated in the most humiliating and direct way and ask themselves whether he can persuade Congress to pay up. They are likely to conclude that he can’t, and therefore will see the negotiations as a charade.

That’s just one example. Our Asian allies are being asked to bet the farm on whether the “pivot to Asia” will be real and whether it will last. Can President Obama push military appropriations through Congress? Can they assume that the next administration will follow through on commitments he makes?

In trade negotiations, counterparts are going to be asking themselves whether the Obama administration has what it takes to get these agreements through a GOP House (and, possibly, a GOP Senate in 2014). The lack of grip that they currently see on his own party much less the opposition suggests that he may well fail.

The vote on Syria will be a vote of confidence in President Obama’s leadership, and it will be seen around the world as a crucial test of his standing and power as President of the United States. There are good reasons to vote against what appears to be a classic example of inept military action in Syria, but to think that this vote won’t have serious consequences for President Obama’s ability to conduct the nation’s business is to stick your head in the sand.

[Photo courtesy Getty Images.]

Published on September 8, 2013 9:50 am
  • Torestin

    Conclusion is wrong. Had Obama been a uniter rather than a caustic divider of anything or anyone who opposed him, his ‘credibility’ would be intact because even the opposition could feel some level of trust in Obama. You speak of a cascade of consequences that are likely to occur with a no vote on Syria. Proves again that Obama and his team have never been up to their job as this type of crisis was in the cards and he laid no groundwork for either teamwork or cooperation since 1/20/2009. Do not try to pin this fiasco on the House, they are the only ones contemplating rationality at this time…….let’s just say ‘Obama’s chickens have come home to roost…’ – Rev. J. Wright.

    • Andrew Allison

      The, absolutely correct, conclusion is, “to think that this vote won’t have serious consequences for President Obama’s ability to conduct the nation’s business is to stick your head in the sand.”, this preceded by, “There are good reasons to vote against what appears to be a classic example of inept military action in Syria.”
      I share VM’s view that this mess is entirely of the President’s making. It would be utterly irresponsible of Congress to vote for war (and make no mistake, regardless of what it’s called, that’s what it would be) to pull the Administration’s irons out of the fire, and reprehensible of the President not to resign after such a rebuke.

      • f1b0nacc1

        Since this president is reprehensible, he will not resign.
        This surprises you?

  • cubanbob

    The Professor is making a good argument for Obama’s resignation.

  • f1b0nacc1

    This is entirely reminiscent of the ‘domino theory’ from the 1960s. You might remember that the horrific consequences predicted there did not come to pass.
    This is more a matter of this administration (and its enablers) trying to convince the rest of us to continue to permit them to pursue a disastrously flawed policy despite its obvious failure. The logic of WRM’s position seems to be that if the American people ever say ‘no’ to a president’s proclamations, no matter how utterly nonsensical they may be, that we are undermining the credibility of the country as a whole. That is the logic of divine right monarchs, not of a republic.

    • Andrew Allison

      WRM’s position is “The vote on Syria will be a vote of confidence in President Obama’s
      leadership, and it will be seen around the world as a crucial test of
      his standing and power as President of the United States. There are good
      reasons to vote against what appears to be a classic example of inept
      military action in Syria . . .”

      • f1b0nacc1

        You left out the last clause of the sentence… “but to think that this vote won’t have serious consequences for President Obama’s ability to conduct the nation’s business is to stick your head in the sand”
        I rather doubt that this vote will have any serious consequences for Obama, though I regret that this is the case.
        Obama’s ego will simply not permit him to draw any lessons from this debacle, so he will continue to attribute any reluctance to give him exactly what he wants as either racism or partisan obstructiveness. Hence his behavior and preferred choices will not change even a jot.
        It is conceivable that Congress might become more assertive after facing down the Administration, but given the extremely poor quality of leadership on BOTH sides of the aisle, I rather doubt that this will be the case. This is sad, because a more assertive Congress would be a useful balance right now given the extremely poor quality of the executive and the overreaching imperiousness of the courts.
        Our allies and enemies are quite capable of ascertaining the truth about Obama, and most of them have already done so. Putin had the measure of this incompetent rather early on, and from what I can see, most of the Middle East (particularly the Saudis, who have shown a deft hand in recent months) states have managed to learn reasonably quickly. Some of our enemies consider Obama to be a feckless weakling and vain bully, but since this represents a fairly accurate picture of the man, I don’t see that this current situation will change much in the way of their plans. The Israelis may be compelled to take stronger action that might have been the case with a competent president, but I am afraid that ship sailed almost a year ago…
        Finally the American people…to be fair, we are unlikely to have learn much that will be meaningful. Obama’s supporters on the pacifist left may be less likely to write him a blank check, but they will still vote for Dems in 2014, as well the black population, which would give him 95% support even if he ate a small child live on national television. In a like manner, those on the Right will pretty much oppose him no matter what, along with an increasingly restive (and shrinking) group of independents.
        My point is that little will change. WRM can wring his hands all he wants, but ultimately we are already on the road forward, to where…well, that is another matter entirely…

  • Jim__L

    So, we have (dovish) Lefties thinking that there’s no negative consequence to the President for a “no” vote, and hawkish GOPers (if they follow VM’s logic) think that Obama will suffer a humiliating defeat if they vote “no”.

    Who exactly does this leave to support Obama Militant? Hawkish Lefties, and GOPers who don’t want to give Obama a black eye?

    Good luck cobbling a majority out of those camps.

    • Andrew Allison

      Like f1 above, you misread VM’s argument, which is, “There are good reasons to vote against what appears to be a classic
      example of inept military action in Syria, but to think that this vote
      won’t have serious consequences for President Obama’s ability to conduct
      the nation’s business is to stick your head in the sand.” In other words, he’s ridiculing the nonsensical assertion by Obama apologists that his credibility is on the line.

      • Jim__L

        My own opinion or understanding of VM’s argument is not really what I’m discussing here.

        I think others, such as the head-in-the-sand Obama apologists VM mentions, will continue to ignore VM’s argument.

        Still others will interpret VM’s argument in terms of their own ends. The prospect of damaging or destroying “Obama’s ability to conduct the nation’s business [his way]” is catnip to virulently anti-Obama GOPers, whose reaction can be seen on this comment section and elsewhere.

        I suspect that together, those two camps form a majority of Congress. So, Obama is in trouble, and VM is going to experience Cassandra’s agonies.

        What’s your take?

        • Andrew Allison

          I suspect that when push comes to shove, the Dems will abandon principles (assuming that they actually have any) and vote to support the President. There are enough breast-beaters in the GOP that I fear the vote will be yes, and the mess will be unholy.

          • f1b0nacc1

            Your analysis of what may happen in congress ignores one important fact…they (the Congress) faces an election in a little over a year while Obama does not.
            This is a VERY unpopular intervention, and if it takes place, we can count upon the international media to send back a great many pictures of Adorable Arab Children(tm) dying from any number of ravages of war which will be blamed upon the US. That is unlikely to make any set of strikes, even if wildly successful, any more popular, nor will it give congressmen who vote against the wishes of a strong majority of their constituents any realistic political cover.
            I suspect in the long run, the strong sense of self-preservation among our Congressthings will cause enough of them to vote against this intervention that it will fail. The vote in the house is so lopsided that it may not even be scheduled, and at last count, even the Senate is increasingly unsure.
            Tell you what, I will offer you a wager (you name the stakes)…I take the position that Congress will not approve use of military force, you suggest that they will…
            Interested?

  • jeburke

    All very good examples of why Obama should not have drawn his red line unless he intended to enforce it. Setting aside all the malarky, we all know that he could have staged an attack last week without much of a peep out of Congress and with a very good argument that he had the power as President to do so. His last minute hand off to Congress tells us everything we need to know about his fecklessness. But having done so, he — and we — will have to live with Congress examining the merits of action, not merely supporting him to get us off the hook.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    “The Iranians might well, for example, believe that the US would not intervene effectively against a nuclear program that brushes up against red lines.”

    Like the Iranians aren’t already going full speed ahead with their nuclear program. Or that by voting for war, congress can somehow graph credibility, competence, and a backbone onto Obama. While it would be better for America if Obama had the respect and trust of our allies, these things can’t be given to him, he must earn them by his actions.

  • Pete

    So, the Palestinians expect the U.S. taxpayer is going to bankroll their pathetic ‘state.’

    Why not Britain and Europe who created much of the mess during their colonial days. Why must America always be picking the tab????

    • USNK2

      That assumption “.. But that doesn’t mean that credibility isn’t important. Here’s one: in any negotiation with between the Palestinians and the Israelis, part of what the US will need to do is put some financial sweeteners on the table for the Palestinians—aid, compensation for refugees, whatever….”
      is a huge clue that Mr. Mead’s young, naive, cluelessly post-modern interns wrote this blogpost.
      I do not believe Mr. Mead would use dashing the voracious expectations of the palestinians as the primary example of the ‘risk’ of Obama’s ‘lost credibility’.
      Only a college intern could believe that Obama’s obsession with forcing a peace with a group of people who can not even hold a city council election let alone a presidential election (Abbas is in Year 9 of his 4 year term) is not already a “charade”!

      • Pete

        Well yes, Mead’s kiddies can get out of hand.

  • lukelea

    The Iranians might well, for example, believe that the US would not intervene effectively against a nuclear program that brushes up against red lines.

    Bollocks. Does anyone suppose Israel won’t intervene if necessary? Or that we won’t help them.

    “Weapons of mass destruction” fallaciously equates nuclear and chemical weapons. Nuclear weapons destroy whole cities, chemical weapons don’t.

    • f1b0nacc1

      While I am quite confident that the Israelis will strike against Iran if they believe the alternative is a nuclear-armed Iranian state, I strongly doubt that the US will do much (if anything) to help. We will likely avoid interfering, but only because at this point I doubt that the Israelis trust us sufficiently to give us useful information regarding their plans. This is a catastrophically bad outcome for us, and is a perfectly understandable result of Obama’s empty-headed foreign policy.

  • Corlyss

    “The Iranians might well, for example, believe that the US would not intervene effectively against a nuclear program”
    Stop kiddin’ yourself. Just because as a reputable academic you can’t admit it doesn’t mean the Persians don’t know it. They count on it.

  • Ulysses4033

    Do people really take Andrew Sullivan seriously any more?

  • Boritz

    What We’re given to understand is that if Congress doesn’t rubber stamp a really bad idea we are in big trouble, but if Congress goes along with a really bad idea we are much better off. Pardon me for over thinking this but isn’t this power given to Congress for the purpose of providing checks to a rash executive? The VM argument seems to be that we are most threatened by the possibility that Congress would use its power for the purpose it was granted.

    • Andrew Allison

      Nope, VM’s argument is that it’s silly of Obama’s apologists to pretend that there won’t be serious consequences to a no vote.

  • lehnne

    The election of Obama (2X) has already had serious consequences for the U.S. Does Meade think the world has been just waiting for the last 5 years until this latest farce to make their plans?

  • DiaKrieg

    I have always suspected that Obama (and his Yes We Can cheering section) had no stomach for war, even in response to gross crimes against humanity. What else were we to make of that preemptive Nobel Peace Prize? I don’t think the mullahs are one bit surprised. (In other words, I don’t think Obama was a credible threat to them from the get-go, ergo he hasn’t any credibility to lose now.)

  • Doug

    Who cares what Andrew Sullivan says or thinks about anything?

    One of the hazards of the current moment is that the antiwar protesters are repulsive. Their arguments are generally wrong and their tactics revolting. I want to oppose anything they say because they disgust me so much.

    That said, I don’t trust President Obama, and it’s damn hard to follow into war a leader who is untrustworthy.

  • Ooga Booga

    What do you expect from Sullivan? This is a guy who probably wants Iran to have the bomb

  • CountMahdrof

    Not one of the potential “serious consequences” WRM lists concerns me very much. We elected an incompetent, feckless president. Twice. There are bound to be consequences from this. But worrying about Palestinian trust or Japanese angst isn’t going to keep me awake at night.