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Excuses Excuses

Jun 9, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 37 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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In a White House conference call after the speech, reporters pressed a senior Obama administration official to explain what, exactly, “ramping up support” might mean. The administration, this official disclosed, would seek to “have a conversation .  .  . with Congress” and would be “discussing with Congress” the options available. Beyond that: “We do want to have this discussion with Congress” and “this is something we have to work with Congress on going forward” and we “will discuss our overseas contingency funding with Congress in the coming weeks” and “there needs to be dialogue and coordination between the administration and Congress” and “we want to explore whether we can come to some understanding with Congress about the best way to maximize our resources and get additional support to the Syrian people.” And on it went.

Work with Congress? What explains this sudden respect for the legislative branch? This is the same president who has repeatedly declared his willingness to circumvent Congress or ignore it altogether. “Congress is tough right now, but that’s not going to stop me,” he boasted last summer. “We’re going to do everything we can, wherever we can, with or without Congress, to make things happen.” Obama has made good on this promise—on immigration, climate change, welfare reform, health care. When Obama intervened militarily in Libya, administration lawyers prepared a lengthy justification for his decision to bypass Congress. The United States scrambled to drop bombs on regime targets to prevent Muammar Qaddafi from killing hundreds of his countrymen—and the president ordered those attacks without approval from Congress.

But in Syria, where Bashar al-Assad has slaughtered scores of thousands and shows no signs of slowing down? That’s different. In late August 2013, after Assad’s repeated breach of Obama’s red line on chemical weapons, the president and his top advisers prepared the country for military retaliation. But at the last second, Obama decided to seek from Congress authorization he knew he wouldn’t get. Why? He needed an alibi for his own weakness and vacillation.

The ability to work well with others—with Congress, with allies, with international institutions—can be a hallmark of an effective leader, confident in his ability to build coalitions for joint action. You might say that it can be a force-multiplier for a strong president. For Obama, who is not a strong leader, it is something else entirely: an excuse-multiplier, a way to spread the responsibility and blame for his own failures. 

This isn’t new American leadership. It’s old-fashioned evasion of responsibility.


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