Hamlet in the White House: Obama Blinks


I had tuned in on Friday to President Obama’s Rose Garden appearance before the media, expecting an updating of data justifying a response to the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime in Syria.  After all, Secretary of State John Kerry had spoken forcefully to the issue, calling it an act of “thieves and murderers.”  How preternatural it seemed for someone who had so vociferously opposed the Vietnam War, throwing his own medals away, to now be advocating a military strike.  There must be something here.

What I hadn’t counted on was the residue from the UK Parliament rejection of Prime Minister David Cameron’s plea for a military option.  Cameron hadn’t originally planned on asking for Parliament’s permission, only to yield to the reality of low public support in the polls and vociferous objection among even his Labor Party cohorts. He simply wanted to protect his hide, an idea that’s proven to be contagious.

Casting a dark specter over everything was doubtless the protracted war in Iraq, now largely deemed the folly of unreliable intelligence and an understandable passion for taking action following the terrorism of September 11, 2001.  While it’s often been remarked how history repeats itself, it’s not a given that we must repeat its madness.

The psychology in Obama’s turnaround in imitating Cameron fascinates me.  Sometimes we say too much and get ourselves into tight places, with anticipated fall out  locking us into responses our better judgment, tempered by time and reason, tells us are wrong.  From this angle Progressives seem justified in calling Obama’s new mindset courageous.

I see it differently, however, as a failure in will, abetted by a compliant media and a war- weary public.  We have a president who has difficulty making decisions.  For six months he knew the location of Osama bin Laden before taking action.  We’re still awaiting the Keystone decision.  Just the day before, we had heard a horrific litany of the deaths of 1400 civilians, more than 400 of them children, by the Assad regime’s use of chemical agents on its own people.  British, French and Israeli intelligence also corroborate the culpability of the Assad government.

Oddly, the President in his Rose Garden appearance told us he had determined to strike Syria, yet wanted to put it up to the Congress.  I think it unlikely that Congress will approve a strike, perhaps the Senate, but not the Republican House with its contingent of Tea Party isolationists.  This may even play into Obama’s hands, giving him an opportunity to extricate himself, or to climb down the ladder as it were.

But he isn’t going to do so without impunity or a severe loss in credibility.  Even more serious, he’s placed our nation in danger, emboldening aggression abroad by rogue governments.  No one’s talked about it, but the present imbroglio is really about Iran.  His paralysis can only encourage Iran’s efforts to achieve a nuclear arsenal.  If I were the Israelis, I would be deeply troubled.  It’s conceivable that Israel may now see itself as needing to launch a preemptive strike on its own, given the unreliability of the U. S.

Given Obama’s hesitancy towards Syria, what’s the script for Iran?  Do you tip your hand, asking Congress for its permission for a preemptive strike?  Or is it you do nothing, accepting the reality of a nuclear Iran with whom we must learn to live with as we do with North Korea?  Meanwhile, a hostile Iran that sponsors terrorism develops a delivery system potentially targeting Tel Aviv and, ultimately, America.  Let’s face it, as a corollary of the President’s pattern, the odds are that Iran gets its Bomb, despite our stringent embargo.

In the present circumstances, Obama has set a dangerous precedent.  Presidents must be free to act in dealing with contingencies that may arise, and this is what the War Powers Act allows with its 90 day allowance before Congressional oversight kicks-in.  A limited strike on Syria does not violate the Constitution, contrary to what some liberals say.

Mr. Obama is known to admire Lincoln.  But maybe he’s forgotten his history.  Lincoln didn’t ask Congress for permission to war against the eleven successionist states.  In fact, the legality of succession wasn’t allowed to be presented before the Supreme Court.  Lincoln rightly knew he couldn’t win in either the Congress or before the Supreme Court.  My point is, strong presidents lead.

A very good argument can be made that any response now planned would be ineffectual and inflammatory anyway, since the strike is so limited and considerable time has elapsed for Assad to move his military assets into the mountains and his troops into   exempted civilian areas such as schools.  Even more important, the Syrian civil war has now largely turned sectarian, with Sunnis vs Shiites, compounded with the entrance of Hezbollah and al Qaeda insurgents, both of whom target Christians, who comprise 10% of the population.

But this gets us back to square one and our ineffectual president.  Obama created this morass with his dilly-dallying over the last two years, giving extremists time to move in.   His red lines mean nothing, as seen in Assad’s emboldened aggression.  While Syrian dissidents lamented the absence of international outcry following the chemical attack of August 21, Obama was silent for 72 hours.  Later,  he played his usual rhetorical slight of hand, stating the situation defied easy answers.

Mr. President, if we’re reduced to this scenario, then you are its creator, having squandered your options and not acted on your own warnings.  Awful as these deaths from chemical weapons are, they’re minuscule in a sea of 100,000 deaths, most of which could have been prevented had you armed the rebels from the outset.  By the UN’s own estimates, we now have 2 million refugees, 1 million of them children.

Playing Hamlet–to act or not to act–is unbefitting a commander-in-chief and poses grave dangers for America.  As Hisham Melhem, Washington bureau chief of Al Arabiya news channel comments, “He seems unable to make difficult decisions. This will embolden Assad and the opposition jihadis and demoralize the secular, moderate Syrian opposition. Obama is gambling with his reputation at home and abroad.”

With one utterance, Obama has inaugurated a template for disaster, diminishing the powers of the Presidency, making a mockery of American credibility, abandoning Syria’s freedom-fighters, and putting  America and Israel under increased threat from a belligerent Iran ultimately armed with nuclear weaponry.


Author: RJ

Retired English prof (Ph. D., UNC), who likes to garden, blog, pursue languages (especially Spanish) and to share in serious discussion on vital issues such as global warming, the role of government, energy alternatives, etc. Am a vegan and, yes, a tree hugger enthusiastically. If you write me, I'll answer.

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