Editorial: It’s time for the president to act like a president


There is a case to be made on each side of the debate over American military action in Syria; in fact, there are cases to be made inside of each side, as Arizona Sen. John McCain demonstrated when he argued for more extensive involvement than President Obama has proposed or Congress is likely to support. McCain has long insisted that the United States should take meaningful action in support of rebel forces trying to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. McCain’s view is clearly in the minority, not only in Congress but among the American people. This country simply has no stomach for another Middle Eastern military adventure that offers no more prospect for success – and probably less – than our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But Americans’ distaste for the idea of intervention in a Syrian civil war that is well into its second year doesn’t mean the U.S. has no stake in the outcome – and in any case was rendered moot by Assad’s recent use of chemical weapons to slaughter his own people. That’s an atrocity that the world’s lone remaining superpower simply cannot allow to go unanswered. Such an attack, Obama had said previously, was a red line that could not be crossed. His hesitation to respond when it happened suggests that either he never thought the line was all that red, or he naively assumed it would never be crossed. Either way, the president found himself with his back to the wall when Assad charged across the line. After hemming and hawing for days, after letting his secretary of state test the water with a combative assertion that the U.S. was obligated to punish Syria, the president finally decided that he wouldn’t decide – that he would let Congress tell him what to do. This was informative because Obama usually does whatever he wants, rarely even telling Congress what he’s up to much less seeking congressional authorization for his actions. We can’t help but suspect that the president is hoping Congress will refuse to OK a Syrian attack. That would let him off the hook: He could avoid military action ,which clearly was his preference before and after the chemical attack, or it would allow him to blame Congress if we attack and the plan goes sour. This is classic Obamaism. Whenever possible, do nothing. When doing something is unavoidable, make sure that whatever you do can be blamed at least partially on someone else. Leadership? Who needs it? Obama’s presidency is not about leading. It’s about maintaining the president’s political standing, his poll ratings, his “image.” Leadership requires risk, and nothing will wreck an image or torpedo a job approval rating faster than a risk that fails. No matter which side you favor in the debate over military action – and we say bomb ‘em back to the Stone Age if that’s what it takes to drive Assad from power – the spectacle of the president of the United States trying to make up his mind, changing his mind, passing the buck and just plain shirking his responsibility as leader of the free world is disconcerting to say the least. This is not how we want our presidents to behave, not how we expect them to go about their business. All the news coming out of Washington indicates that Congress will authorize limited military strikes against Syria. That means Obama will have to take action, whether he wants to or not. We can only hope that once U.S. missiles begin hurtling toward their targets, the president will finally accept the responsibilities that the American people have given him in two elections; that, finally, he will act like America’s commander in chief.