Our Conflicted Commander in Chief

September 11, 2013

In his Tuesday afternoon visit with Senate Republicans on Capitol Hill, President Barack Obama said that his evening television address would not cause a 20-point rise in support in the polls for an attack on Syria. The president told GOP senators that while he was good, he was not that good. According to people in the room, the audience chuckled—after which Mr. Obama added, "Although I am pretty good."

Actually no, Mr. President, you are not.

Mr. Obama's speech will not significantly move the needle on public attitudes toward striking Syria. The address again showed the limits of the president's ability to shape opinion, as with his health-care plan that became less popular the more he spoke about it.

The president did give a concise explanation of how Syria's use of chemical weapons violated international norms and why an attack on Syrian military units and facilities involved in their use was in America's security interest. He also addressed some widespread concerns about his Syria policy.

But Mr. Obama was unable to overcome his paralyzing ambivalence. He portrayed Syrian leader Bashar Assad as a war criminal—who should remain in power. The president spent the first part of his speech making the case for military action—and the second part making a case for postponing a congressional vote to give him the authority to strike. The man ostensibly preparing America for war went out of his way to say that he was elected to get us out of war—a sign of how conflicted a commander in chief he is.

Mr. Obama also used Tuesday's speech to engage in some quick rewriting of history. For example, he explained that while as president he possesses "the authority to order military strikes," he has asked for congressional approval because his predecessor was guilty of "sidelining the people's representatives from the critical decisions about when we use force."

Small problem: Congress overwhelmingly voted in September 2001 to authorize the use of force in Afghanistan and overwhelmingly in October 2002 to authorize the use of force against Iraq. The only president in the last decade to use military action without prior congressional approval was Mr. Obama, in Libya in 2011.

Mr. Obama told Republican senators that no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq after 2003 because President Bill Clinton destroyed the WMD during his four-day bombing campaign in 1998. Maybe Mr. Clinton should have told his wife before Sen. Clinton voted for the Iraq war resolution. Mr. Obama also took a swipe at former Secretary of State Colin Powell in front of the GOP group, saying he was still dealing with fallout from the former secretary's appearances before the U.N. Security Council in the walk up to Iraq.

In any case, even if Tuesday's speech on Syria had been a rhetorical masterpiece, it came much too late. Public opinion on the issue has hardened. Nor could the president overcome the fundamental problem that he was asking Congress to postpone a vote that he'd lose in order to pursue a Russian proposal that probably won't work.

Securing Syria's chemical weapons would be an extremely difficult undertaking in the best conditions. To hope to achieve it with Assad still in power, while Syria is embroiled in a brutal civil war, is delusional.

Meanwhile, the Syrian opposition—particularly its more secular, Western-oriented elements—will be dispirited. The U.S. has backed down after it seemed clear this country would strike Assad. The opposition also will remain under a withering assault from the Assad regime, which is using conventional weapons from Russian arms manufacturers and Iranian military depots.

Mr. Putin didn't offer to help relieve Assad of his chemical weapons out of fear of Mr. Obama or in friendship with the U.S. The Russian president acted out of self-interest. He is skillfully making Russia the key player in the region, at America's expense. He understands that chemical weapons aren't necessary to keep Assad in power. Russian Kalashnikovs, tanks, mortars, helicopters and bullets will do.

Mr. Putin saved Mr. Obama from a catastrophic congressional defeat, which is why the president seized on Mr. Putin's offer like a drowning man grabs for a lifeline. In return, Russia receives a growing role in the Middle East for the first time since the early 1970s.

Such is the cost of Mr. Obama's handiwork. Begin with his lack of strategic thinking, his unwillingness to provide patient leadership, and his failure to build strong relationships internationally. Add a profound absence of trust among congressional Republicans and a lack of goodwill even among congressional Democrats. All these have now come home to roost.

The nation is saddled with Mr. Obama for three more years. And yet, he thinks he's "pretty good."

A version of this article appeared September 12, 2013, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Our Conflicted Commander in Chief and online at

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