Deferring to Congress to authorize an attack on Syria’s Bashar al-Assad may have been the biggest gamble of Barack Obama’s presidency – and could significantly weaken the presidential office if it backfires, experts and commentators warn in exclusive interviews with Newsmax.
Some observers are beginning to suggest the administration’s mishandling of Syria has been so severe, it may affect not only Obama’s presidency, but future presidents’ terms as well.
“I was stunned,” former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton tells Newsmax. “What the president did was a display of weakness of the kind we haven’t seen in an American leader in decades, if not since the 19th century.”
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GOP Rep. Peter T. King of New York has charged that President Obama is “abdicating his responsibility as commander in chief and undermining the authority of future presidents.”
Pete Hoekstra, the former Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, tells Newsmax that it’s too soon to say whether the legacy of President Obama’s “lead-from-behind” style will permanently weaken the presidency.
Hoekstra says Obama can still recover, but must change a Middle East policy that has witnessed a resurgence in Islamic extremism. Without fundamental changes in approach, Hoekstra warns, America’s enemies may well conclude that the power vacuum has left them “a real opportunity,” he says.
So far, Israelis and Arabs alike appear troubled by Obama’s rendition of Hamlet. Former Israeli UN Ambassador Dan Gillerman called it a “fiasco reminiscent of the Carter days,” and warned it would bring “gloating and celebrating” in Tehran. Gillerman told The New York Times the decision would cast “a very dark shadow” over U.S. credibility.
Arab experts are critical as well. “He is seen as feckless and weak,” Salman Shaikh, head of the Brookings Doha Center, told the Times. “Many Arab leaders already think that Obama’s word cannot be trusted – I am talking about his friends and allies.”
Future commanders in chief who launch a cruise-missile barrage or bombing campaign without congressional approval may be called upon to explain why they ignored the “Obama precedent,” for example.
The potential hit to U.S. credibility from punting to Capitol Hill how best to respond to Syria’s chemical-weapons use could have dangerous, long-term consequences for America and its allies, foreign-policy experts warn.
“I’m ready to act in the face of this outrage,” the president declared in a surprise Saturday Rose Garden speech. But the effect of the speech was lost when, after reading that line off the teleprompter, President Obama and sidekick Joe Biden grabbed their clubs and headed out for an afternoon of golf at nearby Fort Belvoir.
Off the links, the president has received no mulligans from critics, who are bolstered by voters wearied by a dozen years of U.S. war fighting abroad.
“We have the physical capability for deterrence,” Wall Street Journal columnist and foreign-policy expert Bret Stephens tells Newsmax. “[But] you have to have both the wherewithal and the will.
“What we seem to be losing, as we confront the challenges in Syria and Iran, is credibility,” Stephens says. “We’re not taken seriously. And we’re not taken seriously because we have a president who issues a red line – as he said a red line ‘for me’ – and then several months later tells us that he didn’t issue the red line, it was the world.”
Stephens charges that Obama is “hollowing out American credibility.”
He notes that ever since the 1947 Truman Doctrine kicked off the containment of Soviet imperialism, U.S. might has kept the world order from slipping into turmoil. But the unparalleled era of prosperity American strength fostered came with a caveat: It would only work as long as the world’s martinets, megalomaniacs, and tin-pot dictators believed U.S. leaders would brook no rogue adventurism.
Now, analysts are openly mulling whether the sun is about to set on the era of U.S.-enforced stability.
“The fact that the American people are confused,” former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld suggested to Fox News, “and the fact that the Congress seems uncertain, and the international community is not supportive, is a reflection of the fact that the so-called commander in chief has not been acting as commander in chief.”
Stephens cautions that Syria may be only the beginning.
“The moment that it becomes clear to the autocrats, dictators, and totalitarians of the world that America has an administration that’s bluffing, they’re going to provoke us,” he says. “That’s exactly what’s happened in Syria.”
Another reason why U.S. deterrence appears vulnerable: The sequester cuts are starting to really bite.
The sequester, a policy dreamed up in the West Wing that D.C. denizens never thought would actually take effect, is scheduled to carve nearly $1 trillion from the Defense Department budget over the next 10 years.
Those cuts have left Pentagon leaders with a Hobson’s choice: Do they cut back on the high-tech gadgets like drones that give U.S. warfighters a force-multiplier on the battlefield? Or do they reduce the number of U.S. soldiers needed to maintain deterrence?
By one Pentagon projection, the sequester could slash the Army’s headcount from 535,000 soldiers to as few as 380,000. The Marines would decline from 182,000 to 150,000. And the Navy would shrink from 11 carrier task forces to just eight. This, despite the fact that U.S. politicians continue to paint lines in the sands of the Middle East using the blood of American soldiers.
The actual declines in U.S. military might are another reason why advocates of credible U.S. deterrence are sounding the alarm.
In a Sept. 4 speech at the National Press Club, Undersecretary of the Department of Defense Frank Kendall remarked on the confluence of events: A shrinking defense budget even as the United States entertains the possibility of further intervention abroad.
“This is a bizarre situation for the United States,” he said. “We are seeing growing national security threats but we are unilaterally disarming because of concerns about the deficit and the national debt. This is a very unusual situation for us.”
Or as the Wall Street Journal’s Stephens puts it: “We have already carved out hundreds of billions of dollars from the Defense budget. And we are headed toward a military that is going to be so reduced in size that it will mean our lack of will may in fact be matched by our lack of wherewithal. That’s the terrifying scenario."
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