The congressional debate over whether to support President Barack Obama’s call for military action against Syria will revolve around the issue of “U.S. credibility,” but here’s the sobering fact: U.S. credibility around the world has already taken a huge hit due to White House actions of recent weeks.
Each day seems to bring another wrinkle to this unseemly story, in which White House efforts appear rooted as much in crass domestic politics and amateurish notions of foreign policymaking as in the real issue at hand -- which is whether U.S. allies and adversaries should take the president at his word.
The president and his team had already damaged U.S. credibility through their maneuvering of recent weeks, reflecting Obama’s clear discomfort in backing up his “red line” threat on chemical weapons with real action.
For starters, the president remained undecided about military action for quite some time, even as evidence of a chemical attack in Syria mounted and other top officials issued bellicose statements that seemed to presage action, undercutting the notion of presidential resolve.
Then, through public statements and leaks, the White House provided intimate details of the military attack it had been contemplating -- presumably to reassure key audiences (e.g., Obama’s supporters, congressional Democrats, war-weary Americans) that it will be very limited in duration and narrow in scope, with no “boots on the ground” and no desire to alter the contours of the ongoing civil war. As Obama said this week before meeting with House leaders, “this is not Iraq and this is not Afghanistan.”
In a related matter, the administration continued to raise further doubts about how seriously to take the president’s word by failing to fulfill his decision of three months ago to help arm the Syrian rebels.
But, if that weren’t enough, the maneuvering of recent days further underscored just how compromised this redline-related effort has become, with no remaining prospects of sending a believable message to Damascus, or its sponsors in Tehran or Moscow, or our allies in Jerusalem, Riyadh or Amman.
The president’s decision to seek congressional support for military action, while he maintained that he already had all the authority that he needed to act, raises obvious suspicions that he’s at least as interested in sharing the blame with Congress for any unintended consequences as in nourishing an image of national unity.
Moreover, administration officials seem strangely oblivious about the signals that they are sending – some of them anonymously – to our friends and adversaries alike, as if they don’t realize that our overseas audiences devour U.S. newspapers, TV and radio reports, blog posts, tweets and other communications vehicles to understand what’s happening in the world’s most important capital.
That’s the only conceivable explanation for the remark from Obama political confidante David Axelrod, who tweeted last weekend that the president’s decision to seek congressional approval for a U.S. military strike was a “big move by POTUS. Consistent with his principles. Congress is now the dog that caught the car.” (That’s the kind of revealing remark that’ll attract lots of attention overseas.)
It’s also the only conceivable explanation for a U.S. official’s remark to the Los Angeles Times that the White House was contemplating an attack that was “just muscular enough not to get mocked.” That Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen highlighted the remark in his own column further ensured that it will evoke giggles from Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Iran’s Ali Khamenei and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
Speaking of Iran – which is supposed to conclude that a U.S. strike against Syria means that Obama will fulfill his commitment to prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons – the administration may have found new ways to undercut the message of firm resolve that it supposedly wants to send.
Jeffrey Feltman, a former top State Department official under Obama and now a top United Nations envoy, met with Iran’s foreign minister last week and, the New York Times reported, “discussed possible reactions to an American airstrike in Syria.”
While Feltman didn’t say that he was sending messages between governments, the Times mused that “those overtures, along with some surprisingly mild noises from Iranian leaders, have raised hopes that Washington may be able to thread the needle -- to strike Syria without compromising efforts toward an Iranian-American détente before meetings at the United Nations General Assembly this month.”
So, let’s see. A former top Obama official travels to Iran to gauge Iranian reaction to a U.S. military strike on Syria from the very government that’s supposed to receive a message of unshakeable U.S. resolve.
Lawrence J. Haas, former communications director for Vice President Al Gore, is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council and author of “Sound the Trumpet: The United States and Human Rights Promotion.” Follow him on Twitter @larryhaasonline.