The Internet is ablaze with condescension for President Obama. Many people are expressing their distaste with his handling of the Syrian crisis, involving the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime against his own people in a Damascus suburb on August 21st.
First off, Obama was condemned for not getting involved in Syria and his phrasing of the “red line” was mocked across the cyber world. Then he was derided for his decision to involve Congress in the debate, instead of using his moral authority to make a decision. Now, he is apparently a “laughing stock” according to USA Today, the Free Republic and various other sources, for his decision to pursue a diplomatic solution being championed by Russia, putting Vladimir Putin in the spotlight.
Now, I can understand why some people think that the president is meant to be clear and decisive. I guess I can also understand how his reaction to Syria may appear wishy-washy to some. But just because I understand where those reactions come from, does not in any way mean that I agree.
Unlike most voices on the Internet, I am impressed with Obama, especially in light of the recent Russian developments. On the day when he was meant to address the nation, and most pundits believed this would be when he made a formal declaration to attack Syria, Russia offered a different course of action. Colluding with Syrian officials, Russia announced that Syria would be willing to hand over its stores of chemical weapons, have them destroyed and sign the treaty on non-proliferation of chemical weapons. This is a huge development. It is a diplomatic coup for Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin, often seen as a remnant of the Soviet era, now appears the wise statesman. While back in America, President Obama is seen as indecisive and weak.
I would assume that this is exactly what Putin and Assad wanted. To push Obama into an impossible situation, make sure that any action he took would be deemed illegal by the international community (thanks to the Russian veto in the Security Council) and then in the 25th hour propose a diplomatic solution. This all seems very likely to me especially since up until this point, Assad’s government had denied even having chemical weapons.
So, as various news outlets and pundits continue to play into the hands of Putin and make him appear the hero, Obama is ridiculed. And I ask why? Is it for calling on Congress to debate the response of the American government? Or, maybe, for pursuing a diplomatic solution to an otherwise costly and messy intervention? I hope not.
Obama set limits, which admittedly were hard to enforce or to provide enough evidence to warrant action, but showed restraint. He then encouraged a public discourse on the crisis and involved the elected representatives of the people, in a show of true democratic decision-making. And then, relinquished his place as the only world leader with a solution in an attempt to pursue a different path. Isn’t this the exact kind of leadership that democracy aspires to? Involving the people, listening to others and adjusting our views based on new information is the rational, logical, mature approach.
He is being attacked for appearing weak, but strong leadership is not about appearances. It is about making the hard choices despite what it may do to your reputation. It is about due process and pursuing alternatives, from wherever they may appear. Great leaders know that sometimes you have to lead from behind. Obama has been unsatisfying to me in many respects, but in his handling of the current situation, I applaud him.
It is hard to say what will happen in the coming days. Attempting to remove all the chemical weapons from Syria would require an immense effort and the implicit cooperation of Assad. It is reminiscent of when the United Nations sent inspectors to Iraq in the early 90’s to disarm Saddam of his chemical weapons following his massacres of the Kurdish people. He appeared to cooperate, but was in reality wheeling the weapons out the back door as the inspectors entered through the front. There is no way to know whether or not Assad will truly disarm. It seems less likely given that he has requested that the inspection team be Russian and what incentive would the state that is arming him have in disarming him? There are a lot of variables that will need strict oversight for this to be successful but it offers a glimmer of possibility. And in the immortal words of John Lennon, isn’t it time we give peace a chance?
- Obama’s Syria Pause Only Delaying the Inevitable – Bloomberg (bloomberg.com)
- US ready to strike Syria if talks fail (bigpondnews.com)