I'm not saying that President Obama has played it masterfully. I'm not even claiming that his judgments have necessarily been basically right. Maybe they were, or maybe they weren't. But his big decisions have been at least defensible, reasonable, plausible.
Yet, as this whole Syrian story has unfolded, Obama has gotten little respect, as if he did not measure up to the American standard for commanders-in-chief.
The right --like John McCain-- has been pounding Obama for many months for being a wuss for not jumping into the Syrian civil war in some way that would get us enmeshed and incur responsibility in a situation over which our control is dubious. Maybe McCain and Co. are right, but after our experience with their wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, maybe the ability of these Republican hawks to fully foresee the consequences of involvement should not be assumed.
Maybe Obama's restraint is wiser --better for the nation-- than the path of action the Republicans have castigated him for not acting. That is as plausible as their case.
Maybe it was not best that the President drew that "red line" about the use of chemical weapons. My guess is that he did it because the Republicans put him in a position where he felt the need to refute their "Obama's a wuss on Syria" attack by showing that he's ready to flex American muscle, but there's got to be more of our interests involved than there were then. Hence a red line beyond which...
Once that line got drawn --whether or not Obama should or shouldn't have drawn it (and whether or not the Republicans basically pushed him into it with their latest version of the old Republican theme of only WE are manly enough to protect Americans and be the exceptional big guy in the world)-- it created a reality that must be taken into account when, as has now happened, the Syrian regime so brazenly crossed it.
Whether we like it or not, the failure of the President of the United States to back up his threat can have serious repercussions in terms of world stability.
American power is not always used in benign ways, certainly. But overall, if the credibility of American threats were to erode in any serious way, the world would be destabilized and would move, through a dangerous process, to a geopolitical order that would likely be worse for the world than what we have now. Think of who would fill the void, and what would happen if the void stays unfilled.
Neither we, or most of the rest of the world, will prefer a geo-political system where an American threat or promise lacks credibility. (That may be especially true with respect to the very important goal of preventing any kind of war in the Middle East over the Iranian nuclear program.)
So it was also perfectly defensible --at least as likely to be the right move involving the use of American force as most of the uses we've had since World War II-- for the president to call for a targeted, limited strike. Not to get involved, but not to let the nerve-gas massacre pass without consequences, either.
Even if President Obama's decision is within the range of reasonable, some of the Republicans (and some of the same ones who have been beating him up for not striking harder and sooner) have attacked Obama as aggressive and reckless. And at the same time as a wuss-- a wuss now for turning to Congress for approval. Not man enough to just outright hit the enemy and make the world conform to our will.
Too much of a wuss and too aggressive, too. Neat trick.
But coming to Congress was also a most defensible move. There was no urgency. There's no need for the president to bypass the notion that Congress is supposed to be involved in questions of war and peace, even if we no longer declare war (and haven't since 1941). So why not try to re-balance the powers some in an area that's run too far toward an imperial presidency, especially as abused by George W. Bush? And why not also further fortify that credibility of American words and power that the right would claim to care so much about by showing a united front?
Republicans would have every reason --as patriots-- to rally together to underscore that though this nation is tired of war, we are united enough as a nation to be willing to back a president whose judgments are at least defensible, and are better than those of the last president who gave us two disastrous wars.
But of course, these Republicans have always been willing to put their quest for partisan advantage, by undermining Obama every way they can even at the cost of the nation's being able to meet its challenges of all sorts. So why not also with this Syrian crisis?
Obama, however, bears responsibility also. He has not been able to get the American people to follow him. Partly it's because the nation is understandably and properly tired of war. But part of it is also because this president has not held his own in our domestic war.
As a result of the Republicans' war upon him, and his failure to deal with it effectively, enough Americans don't see him in a way that disposes them to follow his leadership on this matter. There's the 30 percent who hate him with a passion. And there's the segment that has been taught to have no respect for him.
The media we now see piling on Obama, seeing in him no strength or clarity of purpose or clear game plan. Yes, maybe FDR would have managed the process better. But let's remember how these media lionized the courageous and manly President George W. "Mission Accomplished" Bush as he led us into arguably the biggest foreign policy blunder in American history.
So the president's enemies in Congress get fortified how the winds of public opinion is blowing-- blowing on them but on all the rest of Congress as well.
And finally, there's the pivot to accommodate the Kerry/Russian idea. Arguably, this could be a real achievement for the administration, even if it was not planned. If it can be achieved that the consequence of Obama's way of thoughtfully navigating this thing has had the unanticipated consequence of leading peaceful to the destruction of Syria's supply of chemical weapons, that would be a better outcome than we've had with most of our forays into geo-politically important areas with our military or threat thereof.
The biggest effect of our long nightmare in Iraq, let's not forget, has been the strengthening of Iran.
But the involvement of the Russians is also used to portray Obama as failing in leadership.
So we watch as many of the Republicans get up on their high horses and speak disrespectfully of how Obama's managed this crisis. After their disasters, one might hope for a bit of humility. But that implies a degree of moral integrity that is not part of the spirit that now runs the Republican Party. They've bungled one thing after another, left the nation in tatters in 2009, yet have not for a moment shown the slightest capacity for shame. Shame is not part of that spirit.
It just doesn't give a damn, and so they're no less willing to strut around and say how it should be done just because they made a hash of everything during Bush's presidency.
In sum: Obama's done at least a decent, and perhaps even good, job navigating in a flexible and sensitive way the kind of decisions that we've not dealt with so well in recent years. But he's faced with Republicans who damn him whatever he does, and a public that is not disposed to follow him.