The Magazine

Hesitation, Delay, and Unreliability

Not the qualities one looks for in a war president.

Sep 16, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 02 • By FRED BARNES
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War presidents don’t quibble. They don’t leak. They don’t go AWOL. They aren’t dispirited or downbeat. They aren’t ambivalent about the mission. And most important of all, war presidents are never irresolute.

Obama contemplating a bust of Jimmy Carter

Obama contemplating a bust of Jimmy Carter

thomas fluharty

These are a few of the rules for presidents before, during, and after the country goes to war. On Syria, President Obama disregards all of them. This should mean one of two things. Either Obama is a poor war president, at least in the current pre-war stage, or he’s an altogether different kind of war president.

In his World War II memoirs, Winston Churchill offered this lesson: “In war, resolution; in defeat, defiance; in victory, magnanimity; in peace, good will.” Being resolute—that is, steadfast and determined—comes first. It is normally regarded as a critical component of success.

Obama and resolve don’t seem to mix. As the death toll in the Syrian civil war mounted, he opposed American intervention. Then, in an offhand remark a year ago, he said his policy would change if the Assad regime crossed a “red line” and used chemical weapons. Still, he ignored unsubstantiated reports of gas attacks that Secretary of State John Kerry said numbered in the “teens.” He decided to act only when American intelligence confirmed an estimated 1,400 people had been killed in a gas attack by the Syrian military on August 21.

A bombing assault was planned for Labor Day weekend to “deter” further use of chemical weapons and “degrade” Assad’s arsenal. But Obama abruptly jettisoned that plan and announced he would seek the approval of Congress. An attack, if there is to be one, could be postponed for weeks, jeopardizing what’s known as “peak” military readiness.

Earlier, in June, the White House announced it would send small arms and munitions to the Syrian rebels. By early September, however, no weapons had reached the rebels.

So hesitation, delay, and unreliability are the hallmarks of Obama’s approach to Syria, for now. This amounts to presidential “fecklessness,” says Steven F. Hayward, author of Greatness: Reagan, Churchill, and the Making of Extraordinary Leaders. “A strong war leader needs one quality above others,” he says, “a ruthlessness to see it through, coupled with a touch of legerdemain to keep our enemies off balance and fearful of what the United States might do.”

Obama certainly lacks that “touch” of cunning. There’s a gulf between his mission and his military. His goal is the removal of Assad as Syrian leader —in other words, regime change. But Obama insists a bombing attack in Syria would be solely to stop further use of chemical weapons. He’s publicly ruled out a wider assault aimed at regime change or deployment of ground troops.

“Calling for Assad’s downfall and warning him not to use chemical weapons but being hesitant to back up his strong words with commensurate actions is not how successful commanders in chief behave in wartime,” says Max Boot, author of Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present.

Hayward adds: “Reagan had one important rule that Obama has already flunked: Never say ‘never.’ Privately Reagan was adamant that he’d never put ‘boots on the ground’ in Nicaragua, but publicly he’d never admit this, on the sensible ground that it was better for our enemies to be worried that we might. That fear helped make our limited actions more effective.”

One could argue that Obama had no choice but to disavow the use of ground troops. Otherwise the resolution authorizing force would lose in Congress. But this pitfall was avoidable. Obama believes, correctly, he has the authority, as president, to order the bombing and dispatch troops. Congressional consent is optional.

As Allied commander in World War II, Dwight Eisenhower felt he was obliged to be upbeat. If he appeared doubtful or downbeat in public, it would be interpreted as a sign of alarm about the war’s progress. War presidents have the same obligation. Yet Obama talks about how “weary of war” he and the American people are.

“We’ve ended one war in Iraq,” he said in his Rose Garden announcement about congressional authorization. “We’re ending another in Afghanistan. And the American people have the good sense to know we cannot resolve the underlying conflict in Syria with our military.” The message, whatever the president’s intention, was: I’m tired and I can’t achieve much in Syria anyway.

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