Ruminations, September 1, 2013
Obama says what he means but doesn’t mean what he says
-- For a guy reputed to be among the best speakers that the world has known, President Barack Obama sure says some things stupidly.
No, he hasn’t said something like “misunderestimated me.” Actually, former president George W. Bush spoke a bit like Yogi Berra; the syntax was fractured but the meaning was clear. When Bush stated that he was misunderestimated in November 2000, he meant that the Democrats had been mistaken and underestimated him as a presidential contender. And when Bush said, on March 17, 2003: “Saddam Hussein and his sons must leave Iraq within 48 hours. Their refusal to do so will result in military conflict, commenced at a time of our choosing,” the world knew that he meant it.
Last April, when Obama said, “A red line for us is we start seeing chemical weapons moving around, or being utilized,” what did he mean? It is apparent that he wanted Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad to infer that strong steps would be taken. And yet, Assad has twice crossed the line and Obama has done nothing. Have we misoverestimated our new chief executive?
And last week, Obama advocated a metaphorical “shot across the bow” at Syria. A “shot across the bow” is a naval term for a warning shot. So Obama warned Syria with his red line comment and, now that Syria has violated that warning, Obama will warn them again. And this time he will be really, really angry.
Obama still hasn’t figured out what he wants to do. He has ruled out sending troops into Syria. He has ruled out regime change. He has ruled out any targets that might change the balance of the civil war. He has ruled out strikes on chemical weapons because those strikes could cause the release of more of those chemicals. It’s almost starting to look like all he will do is to authorize a literal “shot across the bow.”
Now there are those supporters of Obama who view the situation differently. His staff says that his lack of a plan is “evidence of a thoughtful, responsible leader.” They could be right. On the other hand, a lack of a plan could be evidence that someone who enunciated the red line warning over four months ago still hasn’t figured out the consequences of his mellifluous threats.
There is no doubt that Obama has gotten himself – and us – into this mess by his comments. Had he said nothing about the use of chemical weapons, we would not be in this situation. But, some humanitarians might say, how could Obama overlook the killing of 1,500 civilians? Well, he seemed to regularly overlook the fact that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the deaths of one million Iraqis.
As repulsive as going to war is, having a thoughtless leader who makes idle threats can be worse. Consider how Iran and North Korea view the resolve of the Obama Administration. If one or both countries announce that they have embarked on a deliverable nuclear weapon, will Obama say a red line has been crossed and now is the time to fire a shot across the bow?
If you don’t think that our enemies are looking at our response seriously, remember this line from Osama bin Laden’s Declaration of War against the U.S.: "...in Somalia... you left the area carrying disappointment, humiliation, defeat and your dead with you...you withdrew; the extent of your impotence and weaknesses became very clear. It was a pleasure for the 'heart' of every Muslim."
“Weakness and impotence” is something our enemies recognize and act upon. It’s up to Obama to lay out a plan of action that will be strong and decisive. Does he have it in him to conceive and execute such a plan? We shall see. As George W. Bush might have said, if Yogi hadn’t said it first, ”it ain’t over ‘till it’s over.”
Quote without comment
French President François Hollande, in an August 30 interview with La Monde: "The chemical massacre of Damascus cannot and must not remain unpunished. There are few countries with the capacities to inflict sanctions with the appropriate means. France is among those. It is ready."