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Maxilateral Man

Obama’s essence.

Sep 23, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 03 • By TOD LINDBERG
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Next, consider Libya, an intervention that had similar international backing: two U.N. Security Council resolutions; a request from the relevant regional organization, the Arab League; the support of NATO; an unmistakably noxious regime headed by a man who had avowed mass bloodshed against his own people and who was wanted for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court. In addition, the U.K. and France were the titular leaders of the effort, giving rise to probably the most-quoted observation about the Obama administration, that it was “leading from behind.” All that was missing was a vote of Congress authorizing the action, which Obama rightly didn’t believe he needed to go ahead.

And now, at last, Syria has come to a head​—​sort of. Obama showed deep uncertainty about what to do in response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons​—​weakness or fecklessness where resolve should be on display. It looked like Obama the president might find himself leading the nation into a war that Obama the observer personally opposed.

In the nick of time came a vague Russian proposal for Assad’s chemical disarmament. In mushy substance, it was exactly of the kind that George H. W. Bush, Brent Scowcroft, and James A. Baker III rejected out of hand from the Soviets in their attempt to head off a ground war in Iraq in 1991. Obama eagerly embraced it, and Vladimir Putin was happy to see his two-plus years of intransigent opposition to any Security Council action against Assad pay off with Russia’s triumphant resurgence as Middle East kingmaker. 

But there is something else: Obama had again determined that he did not need congressional authorization to use military force to punish the Assad regime. He nonetheless asked Congress for such authorization. Why?

Maybe he was just stalling. But I think the decision had a substantive basis. In the absence of congressional authorization for a military attack on Syria, the decision to go ahead would be the decision of President Obama alone. He didn’t have the Security Council or any of the rest of the expressions of international assent he had in the case of Libya. With the surprising and humiliating rebuke to Prime Minister David Cameron by the House of Commons, Obama didn’t even have Britain at his side. The United States was, if not completely alone, certainly at risk of jumping unilaterally into war.

I’m pretty confident that Obama the observer of his presidency does not think an American president or any world leader should take a country to war on his own say-so. Obama also famously said, of his comment that Syria’s use of chemical weapons would cross a red line and “change my calculus,” then favoring nonintervention, “I didn’t set a red line, the world set a red line.” Again, critics spluttered about his denial of the obvious, but Obama may well have been sincere. He believed he was expressing something larger than the declaration of even the president of the United States​—​namely, the widely shared international opposition to the use of chemical weapons.

At home and abroad, what Obama is all about, finally, is others. An individual or state exists only alongside other individuals and states. He situates individual achievement in the political and social context that gives rise to it, and the actions of a powerful nation in the context of an international community that alone can fully legitimize them. True leadership of the United States in this context is the unwillingness of the American president to go it alone despite his authority to do so. If legitimacy is unavailable through international institutions, then the legitimizing effect of congressional action looms larger. An American president, in the view of the incumbent, should act as non-unilaterally as possible. The Obama credo is maxilateralism. 

And what about Syria? The vague substance of the Russian proposal is less important than its service to restart a multilateral process at the United Nations. The real crisis​—​the potential need for the United States to act on its own​—​has been averted. As for the scores of thousands of dead civilians, including some who were gassed, well, the United States has done nothing effectual about that for more than two years now, and seems well-positioned to continue doing nothing.

All that remains is the hypothetical question of what Obama would have done if Congress had voted against an attack on Syria. Perhaps Obama would have concluded he must act anyway. But I’d bet that Obama the observer would have counseled his presidential self to stay home, thereby furthering the principle that a war of choice to vindicate an international norm is too consequential a decision for one man to make alone. Even if that man is president of the United States. And especially if it’s a man of such refined sensibilities as his own.

Tod Lindberg is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford, and a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.

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