POLITICS
09/17/2013 04:41 pm ET Updated Sep 18, 2013

Syria Process Critics Don't Know What They Want, Will Punish You With Garbage Opinions Anyway

Over at the Plum Line, Greg Sargent elucidates the way the ongoing coverage of our ministrations over what to do in Syria provides another example of how the obsession with "process" is ruining the world. Sargent notes that critics of the Obama administration's decision-making fall into two genres: one is a useful critique of the policy choices, and the other is a sub-literate exploration of the "process and theatrics."

Interestingly enough, many of our policymakers fall into the former camp, and their debate has been fairly serious and consequential. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has a distinct set of policy choices that he lays out and advocates. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) also has a distinct set of policy choices that he lays out and advocates. I've watched Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) do the same. Also Secretary of State John Kerry. I've watched newly elected Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) plead for more time and more information to make his own decision.

Of course, we all watched Markey get pilloried for making that choice. When Markey voted "present" in committee, he got stomped on for a solid day. He was deemed a coward for not being able to come to a conclusion about which way he wanted to go on Syria.

But I couldn't help but wonder: Whence came these critics' certainty?

Well, as Sargent points out, these critics, eternally assessing the the theatrics of process (and Markey's sin in this instance was a theatrical one), tend to be from a class of non-partisan pundit/analysts. And they've very elaborately refused to answer that question: "This second genre of criticism often suffers from a fatal dodge," Sargent states. "Its practitioners regularly take refuge behind process criticisms without taking a stand on the substance of the policy debates underlying them."

Sargent is doing a callback to a previous post on the matter:

Ultimately what this whole dodge comes down to is that one can’t admit to thinking that going to Congress and pursuing a diplomatic solution are the right goals for Obama to pursue, without undermining one’s ability to criticize Obama for betraying abstract qualities we all know a president is “supposed” to possess. It’s simply presumed to be a positive when a president shows “strength” by “not changing his mind,” and it’s simply presumed to be a negative when he shows “weakness” by changing course in midstream. That’s “indecisive,” and that’s bad, you see. But it’s a lot harder to sustain these “rules” if you admit you agree with the actual goals Obama is pursuing with these changes of mind. After all, if Obama’s changes of mind have now pointed him towards goals you agree with, how was changing course a bad thing?

People should come clean about what they really believe about all this stuff.

Well, they should! But baby steps, Greg. What first has to happen is for all of the people who want to write the "Obama's Syria Process Has Been A Muddle" story to somehow successfully manage to unmuddle their own confused brains on the matter. "Physician, heal thyself," as they say. But this body of work has produced nothing but confused, contradictory ruminations on the matter of "process," from people who actually seem to believe they are making perfect sense.

I mean, look at this John Harris piece in Politico. He criticizes Obama for his "zig-zag" process. The "zig" is "marching to war one moment." The "zag" is "clinging desperately to diplomacy the next." But which direction does Harris prefer? War or diplomacy? Harris would rather not tell you. Instead he presents both "zig" and "zag" as equally goofy "characters" in a vaudeville piece, starring "Goofus" and "Also Goofus" as "Zig" and "Zag."

Or take this Stu Rothenberg piece. He begins by stating a truism, that "the process of making sausage isn't pretty" and "all that matters is how it tastes" in the end. But he then goes on for paragraph after paragraph, demonstrating that he can't even follow his own advice: "The White House’s handling of the controversy and Capitol Hill’s reaction to it have been nothing short of sad." Right! Just as you said is always the case! Why dismiss the sausage-making process as something that doesn't matter if you're just going to go on lamenting it?

Al Hunt is much the same way, moving from this:

Despite the conventional wisdom, Obama did a pretty good job last week of threading the needle between the imperative to respond to the gassing of civilians by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and the overwhelming desire of Americans not to get bogged down in another fight.

To this:

The White House says that what matters is the outcome, not the process. Yet the administration’s overall handing of the Syrian situation, particularly in the last two weeks, has friends and foes shaking their heads. The U.S. government’s response has been anything but measured, coherent and purposeful.

And that is in consecutive sentences! Obama did a good job threading the needle but wasn't coherent or purposeful. That's Hunt's thesis. At most quality academic institutions, this sort of writing gets you red-flagged for a remedial intervention. But in the world of pundits and analysts, it's de rigeur. And ultimately, the studied, deceptive way these gentlemen pass off their own indecisiveness as a criticism of indecision gives away the game. By which I mean, the game is rigged.

There was, if you will, a "decision point" in the fairly recent past from which all of the events that have occurred since -- the congressional debate, Kerry's "out-loud thinking," the unexpected involvement of the Russians, the ensuing attempts at diplomacy -- have followed. That was the White House's decision to seek congressional approval for the use of force in Syria. The other fork in the road, of course, was "act unilaterally, without Congress' input."

What is happening in the parallel universe, where parallel-universe Obama chose the road not taken? Spoiler alert: it didn't make any difference. The process and its attendant theatrics are still deemed by parallel-universe pundits as a "muddle." Parallel-universe Politico reporters are posting interviews from the critical congresspersons who have been left out of the debate, and are now baying about Obama making an "end-run" around their authority. That universe is getting the "Obama Acknowledges That He Lacks The Leadership To Convince Congress" pieces. They're getting the "Obama's Aloofness Threatens Congressional Support For His Domestic Agenda" pieces.

And they're getting the "Obama Poised To Repeat Bush's Mistakes" pieces. A whole lot of those, actually.

In the end, I am confused as to what these pundits (in both universes) want. And I am confused because they have written very confusing pieces. If I apply logic to these arguments, they seem to be saying that once a president selects a course of action, he must hew to it. Approaching a decision with flexibility, or adapting to changing circumstances, is a grievous sin, even if it results in an optimal outcome. Bill Clinton once mocked this way of thinking: "When people are insecure, they'd rather have somebody who is strong and wrong than someone who's weak and right."

But this is actually just one level of a complicated con, because if a president selects a course, hews to it, and it ends in a failure, every single one of these pundits is reserving the right for themselves to come back and bleat, "Why didn't the president change his mind?"

The thing you need to remember is that these critics are not taking, and will not defend, any position. Like I said, it's a rigged game. They actually aren't "pro-" anything. In fact, as the current state of play, muddled as it may be, makes it pretty certain that Assad's days of using sarin gas are over -- unless Assad is stupid enough to screw over his Russian benefactors and put Obama in an even stronger position, the possibility of which I suppose I shouldn't entirely dismiss -- I wonder if any of these people are actually in favor of not having Syrians die in chemical gas attacks.

Milan Kundera once said, "Modern stupidity means not ignorance, but the nonthought of received ideas." I guess what Kundera couldn't appreciate, though, is just how many column inches you can wring from the nonthought of received ideas. And it's obviously nice work if you can get it.

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