THE BLOG

"He Kept Us Out Of War"

"He kept us out of war." This was the slogan used by the Woodrow Wilson campaign that led the incumbent President to a narrow victory over Charles Evans Hughes in November 1916. (However, five months later, President Wilson brought America to war with Germany after the latter launched unrestricted submarine warfare.)

We can now provisionally say the same about President Barack Obama. Despite his overconfident statement in August 2011 that "Assad Must Go", without saying how he would go; and despite his declaration last year that Assad's use of chemical weapons would be a "red line" demanding a reaction, without spelling out a clear idea of what that reaction would be; he has now saved himself (and the country) from yet another military adventure in the Middle East.

In what a Harvard colleague of mine described as "brilliant," Barack Obama on August 31 referred the decision on attacking Syria to the opinion of the Congress, apparently sensing correctly that the American public was strongly against such a move.

According to a retrospective in the Financial Times on September 14, President Obama, in a short talk on September 6 with President Vladimir Putin at the end of the St. Petersburg summit, agreed with the latter that Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov could pursue the idea of compelling Syria to give up its chemical weapons, a subject that had been under discussion between the Russian and American sides since the G20 summit in Mexico in 2012.

When Secretary Kerry on September 9 in London either blurted out the idea of a Syrian chemical weapons sequester or else coordinated this beforehand with the White House, Lavrov seized the opportunity and promptly phoned Kerry, before the latter's departure from London. Lavrov said he planned to announce the sequester initiative. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem had already been brought to Moscow by the Russians. Kerry gave his agreement while remaining skeptical that much would be accomplished.

What does all this demonstrate? A) that the sequester (my word) was a joint Russian-American initiative, though the Russians are largely getting the credit; and B) that it is the role of a Chief of State to maneuver (one might say bob and weave) during a crisis. Thus the general opinion of the punditocracy that in the last couple of weeks President Obama has proven himself to be weak and indecisive is, in my view, simply over the top.

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