THE BLOG

Obama's Saturday Surprise: Getting Ahead of the Game

President Obama has lessened an imprudent commitment he made last year that action would be taken against Bashar al-Assad if he crossed a red line by using chemical weapons against his own people. Assad has now done that, in particular with the August 21 massive attack that killed some 1,400 people. Nothing so far has yet taken place against him -- proving again that in foreign relations it is generally unwise to set deadlines or red lines, as the world is an ever-changing kaleidoscope.

What the President has done is to share responsibility for following through on this commitment to the 500-plus members of the House and the Senate, proving that divided government may not be such a bad thing after all. In creating, in effect, 500-plus secretaries of state, and assuming the House rejects an attack, Obama may (or may not) choose to wriggle out of a commitment that has no promising end. He was given cover by the "no" vote in the British Parliament, which was in part a reaction to the British having gone along with the United States in the Iraq War of 2003. It has always been my view that if Tony Blair had not enthusiastically supported the U.S., there never would have been that attack on Iraq.

There have been mixed precedents on referring decisions on military actions to the Congress. The two Bushes did it in the two Iraq wars. Reagan didn't in Libya, and Clinton didn't in Afghanistan and Sudan.. These were all, however, isolated attacks.

What Obama has now done is not weak; it is astute. There is a phrase in French for it which, like many others, does not have an exact English equivalent (and vice versa). He has done a "fuite en avant," which can perhaps be satisfactorily rendered as "getting ahead of the game."

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