Sunday, September 1, 2013
"Oh please Brer Congress, don't tie my hands in Syria..."
"Credible," in my dictionary, is defined as "believable, worthy of belief or support." And for a while last week it seemed America would go to war against Syria, at least briefly, in order for President Barack Obama to maintain his credibility. We were going to battle because he had said we would.
"To do nothing in the face of images of children killed by poison gas," David Sanger wrote in the New York Times, "would cripple his credibility in the last three years of his presidency."
Can't have that. Though in Sanger's argument the deaths seem secondary to the robust presidency. And raises the question of exactly who we're trying to maintain our credibility for—it's the Iranians, right? Though they aren't either supporting or believing us as it is, and few seem to really imagine that an air strike or two will make them start. Maybe we're trying to uphold our believability in our own eyes, to convince ourselves that we really are still a trustworthy people who do what we say we're going to do. I would have thought the ship had sailed on that one. We say we're going to fix the budget. Every year.
This situation came about because President Obama said, over a year ago, that if "a whole bunch of chemical weapons" were "moving around or being utilized" in the Syrian civil war, why, that would be "a red line for us" and he'd have to do something. Not exactly a binding contract. And we probably should be grateful he didn't hide behind a Clintonian professorial parsing of just what "a whole bunch" constitutes.
A whole bunch of chemical weapons, more or less, rained down upon a rebel-held section of Damascus Aug. 21, killing some 1,400 people, 400 of them children, fired—we're absolutely, positively sure, almost—by the government of President Bashar al-Assad. Why that bothers us a lot while the 100,000 Syrians who have already been killed in the conflict by conventional means bothers us hardly at all—a bit of finger wagging, some empty talk, as if reading off a script, and we're done—is a question for historians, or psychiatrists, because on its surface, it's kind of crazy. Chemical weapons are horrible. But so are bullets and bombs and rockets. You're dead or maimed either way.
But chemical weapons are a step too far, long-held tradition dictates, so something has to be done, by us, by default, because we're the world's policeman, apparently, despite all our bad experiences trying to fill that role. The president seemed poised to do something—in the standard limited, undefined, wham bam thank you ma'am death-from-above way he summed up as "no boots on the ground." My theory is that he was eager to call in a few air strikes, not because doing so would be an important, meaningful action, but the opposite: any passing military strike a tiny, symbolic insignificant act, the sort of thing we've become so good at. The Americans, arriving on the scene late to blow something up. The kind of ass-covering half measure we like to take, telling ourselves something dynamic is being done, just as we said it would be. Our promises are being kept!
"I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets," Obama announced. Which sounded determined, until you remembered that he had also said he was determined to close Gitmo. Things change.
If Obama expected a cheer to go up and the boys to kiss their sweethearts, then toss their hats into the air and rally behind him, he was mistaken. Instead, Obama was Daffy Duck in the immensity of the Hollywood Bowl, down on one knee, arms spread a la Al Jolson, staring blindly into the footlights, listening to the silence punctuated by crickets. At that moment, the British Parliament let out a low muted trumpet of "wa-wa-waaaaaa" stage right, taking a pass on the whole lark, despite Prime Minister David Cameron having been the head cheerleader for military action. "Sorry mates, maybe next time." Then the American people, emboldened and perhaps embarrassed by seeing democracy in action across the pond, decided to try it here, and started whining, like tired children dragged through one too many museum of horrors. "Aww, do we hafta?"
I figured at this point, the Obama administration would quickly fire off a few Tomahawk missiles, accomplishing, by universal acclamation, nothing. Then, clutching this bold military action to his naked ineptitude like a strategically-placed gym towel—"See? I did what I said I'd do. I'm credible, totally credible. Bye!"—declared success, wave off questions and scoot dripping with sweat and shame back into the Oval Office, to not be seen again until it came time to pardon the Thanksgiving turkey.
Instead the president did something unexpected. Like the dad who, threatening to turn the car around and go back home if the kids don't behave, shocks everybody by doing exactly that, Obama said, in essence, "Fine. Have it your way," and tossed the smoldering potato to Congress. "Here, you guys decide then." Which is the equivalent of deciding to do nothing, because Congress, unable to do almost anything of importance, unable to manage the nation's helium supply, certainly won't authorize the doing of anything at all in Syria, particularly if Republicans think Obama wants them to which, in his secret heart, if he's as smart as he's supposed to be, he most certainly doesn't. (If he was truly devious, he'd have planned this all along, as a Brer Rabbit ploy. "Oh please Brer Congress, authorize my wrist -slap for Syria, and whatever you do, please, PLEASE don't tie my hands so I can't drop-kick our military into the middle of some hall-of-mirrors Middle Eastern bloodbath....")
Besides, Congress won't return from summer break for more than a week, and by then the moment of American military madness will have, hopefully, passed.
So five points taken from Obama for public dithering. And five points added for finding a creative escape—or, more likely, as befitting the luckiest man in American politics, blundering upon a solution. Either way, he squirmed out of the locked box he had sealed himself into and stood on Saturday, Houdini-like, hands raised above his head in triumph, fingers spread, the open manacles at his feet, while the audience gaped, too amazed to clap.
Although, in my biased view, his Syrian performance still represents a kind of credibility. Because there is the credibility of doing what you say you're doing to do, no matter how dumb an idea it might have been from the start. And then there is the credibility, perhaps even a higher credibility, of instead being as nimble as you are supposed to be, and dodging the disaster you promised to swan dive into. It's such a neat escape, you can almost overlook that the slaughter in Syria continues, unabated.