Second terms seldom end well. Some implode in scandal (Lewinsky; Iran-Contra; Watergate). Some dissolve into incoherence, as second raters take over key positions. Some are overwhelmed by events, frequently of their own making, combined with exhaustion (Bush comes to mind especially). All are bedeviled by the end-game problem. Many-especially Republican administrations-are particularly hampered by a hostile press. Modestly successful first term administrations should take a lesson from James K. Polk and rest on their laurels, but he is the exception that proves the rule.
But I am hard pressed to find a historical precedent for the public humiliation of a president so early in his second term, due to his own strategic foreign policy blunders, as we are witnessing with Obama at present. Even a decidedly friendly press recognizes that the Syria situation has degenerated into an epic debacle. Some objective observers, who want desperately to succeed, have been brutal in their criticism: Walter Russell Mead comes to mind. He calls the Syrian episode a “clusterfarce.” Very clever. You know exactly what he means to say but is too polite to say.
The twists and turns of the last weeks are mind boggling, and too tiresome to recount. But I think, at root, they are readily explained. Obama had no stomach for intervention in Syria, but felt compelled to do something due to his previous ad libs (“redline”, “Assad must go”) and political pressure in the face of atrocity, even though his most fundamental instincts and beliefs (other than an instinct for political survival and a belief in his destiny) counseled him to stay out. Faced with a varied political opposition, and not convinced in the prudence of intervention, Obama seized upon the Putin/Assad offer to put Syrian CW under “international control” despite the obvious fact that this was a practical impossibility, in order to avoid taking a military action he fundamentally detested. His desperation is palpable, and no amount of posturing will show otherwise.
Some of the political opposition was well-intentioned. Some of it was opportunistic and loathsome-particuarly that part of which regurgitated the propaganda put forth by Putin and the Iranians. Regardless, Obama made no serious effort to present the case for intervention either to Congress or to the American people. He didn’t use the opportunistic right as a foil, like he usually does in domestic brawls (where he runs against Limbaugh, for instance). Again, his heart wasn’t in it.
It is distressing beyond words to watch Obama seize on the Putin Fig Leaf mere weeks after Putin humiliated him over Snowden. After Snowden, he had to know that Putin is no friend, but he played along anyways. (It would actually be worse if post-Snowden Obama does not grasp that Putin is an adversary bent on besting the US, and indeed, humiliating it.)
It is even more depressing to witness Putin strut around, and rub Obama’s nose in it-and the nation’s collective nose in it-with an obnoxious oped in the NYT. I take that back. It was not obnoxious. It was mendacious. The Russian exceptionalist ridiculing American exceptionalism, and posing as a prince of peace, even though everything Russia has done since the Syrian revolution began has served to prolong and intensify the brutal war. Obama has performed the miracle of making Putin look like the reasonable peacemaker.
The Putin Plan will only result in delay, rather than resolution of the humanitarian and political crisis in Syria. Already Assad is laying down conditions: he will accede only if the US stops supporting the opposition and pledges to forego any use of force in the future. In other words: we surrender first, he’ll give up his CW. But you know in reality he’ll pocket the surrender, and then go on exactly as he pleases.
I am in Geneva right now, and a few hours ago and a few miles away Kerry and Lavrov went through the motions of negotiating a path forward based on the Russian proposal. Perhaps they should go to a railway car in Compiègne instead.
It’s obvious that I am no fan of Obama, but it must be noted that even many of his reliable supporters recognize this has been an epic debacle. Only the sycophants attempt to portray his conduct as cagey and statesmanlike.
There are those who take glee in Obama’s distress. I am not one of them. Through his blunders he has humiliated his office, and humiliated the country. His personal distress is irrelevant: the damage to the nation far too relevant indeed. He has emboldened our enemies-and yes, Russia is an enemy and views the US as its enemy-and dismayed our friends. Radical and dangerous forces-notably the Iranians-will be tempted to take advantage, and allies disconcerted by Obama’s fecklessness and confusion (Israel, Saudi Arabia) may feel impelled to act on their own in self-defense, despairing of the ability and willingness of the US to act decisively. Such a situation is fraught with danger, especially with a wounded president. That the wounds are self-inflicted makes it all the more discouraging.
I noted the other day that Obama sounded an uncertain trumpet on Syria. Demons have responded to that call. I have no idea how he retrieves the situation, especially when he must rely on pompous buffoons like Kerry and Hagel and Biden for advice and execution.
I have often said I hope Bismarck was right about the special providence that America shares with fools and drunkards. Putin certainly doesn’t believe in it, but never have we needed more for this to be true. Obama has definitely proven himself to be no Bismarck, but he had better hope Bismarck was right.