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.
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.
“Saying ‘I am war-weary’ is an appalling thing to do,” says Eliot Cohen, whose book Supreme Command examines four successful wartime leaders (Lincoln, Clémenceau, Churchill, Ben-Gurion). “Number One has to look confident, self-assured, positive without conveying an impression of irrational optimism. Above all, he can never, ever feel sorry for himself—or, indeed, anyone else.”
In Sweden last week, Obama couldn’t stifle his self-pity. They don’t understand him at home, he suggested. “If I were here in Europe, I’d probably be considered right in the middle, maybe center-left, maybe center-right, depending on the country. In the United States sometimes the names I’m called are quite different.” At this point, the White House transcript noted “(laughter).”
Nor could the president resist a hairsplitting case that he hadn’t drawn the “red line” in Syria. “The world set the red line,” he claimed, citing the treaty banning chemical weapons. That wasn’t all. Forget the notion his credibility is “on the line” in Syria. Nope, it’s Congress and the “international community” whose credibility is, according to Obama.
What he gained from airing these distinctions is anyone’s guess. It didn’t improve the prospect of passage in Congress of his use-of-force resolution. And it’s hard to imagine Franklin Roosevelt or Churchill, both models of wartime leadership, quibbling over such trivialities during World War II.
But what, one might ask, was the president doing in Sweden while his Syria resolution was being debated in Congress? Sweden wasn’t likely to help. It was neutral in World War II. Thus it was no surprise that Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt declined to endorse Obama-style military intervention in Syria.
The visit to Sweden could have been rescheduled without diplomatic repercussion. And Obama’s next stop, the G20 summit in St. Petersburg, could have been abbreviated. Or skipped.
Instead, the president left to subordinates the task of lobbying antiwar Democrats in Congress, without whose votes the resolution may fail. And he’s handed Kerry the lead role—the presidential role, I’d say—in promoting the resolution and defending “limited” bombing of Syria.
I’ve concluded Obama doesn’t want to be a war president. But in his desire to bomb Syria—an act of war— he’s become a war president. Now he needs to act like one. There’s still time.
Fred Barnes is an executive editor at The Weekly Standard.