Opinion and Taking Issue

RUSTHOVEN: A president out of his league

September 14, 2013

RusthovenThe president’s handling of the Syria situation is a model of undermining U.S. credibility and influence. Three headlines from last week: 1. “Obama Got Played by Putin and Assad”; “Amateur Hour in the White House”; “Dazed and Confused.”

These are not from Fox News or National Review. The first is from the reliably liberal New Republic. The second is from the even more reliably liberal Maureen Dowd of The New York Times, who sneers at all things Republican. The third is from Slate, which rivals the Huffington Post as online journal of today’s left.

As we know, the president said last year that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons in that nation’s civil war would cross a “red line,” which we would not tolerate. A few weeks back, it became clear that Assad, whom Russia and China support, had crossed that line.

The president first insisted on prompt military strikes. His attempt to enlist allied backing failed (save for France, which—shocker!—is weaseling). He then switched gears, saying he would seek congressional authorization. As this effort floundered, he headed for the G-20 conference in Russia, where renewed pleas to foreign leaders yielded nothing.

Administration officials have done no better. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s testimony was a reprise of his confirmation hearings. Hagel comes across as Forrest Gump (“Ah’m not a smart man”) without the redemptive humanity.

Secretary of State John Kerry, asked Sept. 2 if Assad could avoid attack, popped off: “Sure. He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community.”

Officials at State disavowed this as hypothetical rhetoric. Too late. Russia’s Vladimir Putin—who delights in humiliating Obama, and calls Kerry “a liar”—jumped on the “proposal,” as did Assad. They, of course, recognized that this means Assad stays in power, and insisted military options were off the table.

The Marx brothers act continued on Sept. 10. That morning, Kerry said Obama wasn’t asking Congress to “delay” or “not to vote” on authorizing military action. That evening, Obama said he had asked Congress “to postpone a vote to authorize the use of force.”

Previously, Kerry assured prospective allies that U.S. action would be “unbelievably small.” On Sept. 10, Obama assured the nation our military “doesn’t do pinpricks.”

Obama also engaged in self-contradiction. He called Assad’s actions “a danger to our security,” but simultaneously said Assad cannot “seriously threaten our military.” After calling it in our “national security interests” to respond to Assad’s use of chemical weapons via “a targeted military strike,” Obama praised Putin’s initiative for its “potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons without the use of force.”

Obama now spins Putin’s seizing on Kerry’s ill-advised blurt as something planned, saying the disarmament proposal grew from “constructive talks that I had” with Putin. Sure. Obama also omits that disarmament would take months, even assuming Assad sincerity, and be impossible to verify.

Ronald Reagan, disdained by the left as an “amiable dunce,” restored American strength and credibility, bringing about collapse of the Soviet Union. Obama, lauded by the left for his brilliance, is out of his depth in an international arena in which friend and foe alike no longer take seriously him or the nation he leads.

Among the foes is the dangerous Putin, who plays Obama like a fiddle—and considers the Soviet Union’s demise the greatest tragedy of the last century.•

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Rusthoven, an Indianapolis attorney and graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, was associate counsel to President Reagan. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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