British Prime Minister David Cameron and U.S. President Barack Obama suffered a stinging defeat when the British House of Commons failed to approve a retaliatory strike against Syria for using sarin gas against its own citizens. It was the first time in over 150 years that a British Prime Minister had lost such a critical vote, and much of the commentariat has placed the blame on former President George W. Bush.
The vote was extremely close, but it might well be possible that the loss had less to do with the memory of former Prime Minister Tony Blair's eagerly following George W. Bush to war in Iraq on the basis of incorrect intelligence about weapons of mass destruction and more to do with the memory of Barack Obama, in February 2009, sending back to Britain Sir Jacob Epstein's bust of Winston Churchill that had been on loan in the Oval Office since shortly after September 11, 2001.
Winston Churchill is a British icon. At one entrance to Westminster Abbey there is a plaque on the floor that says, simply, "Remember Winston Churchill." I suspect that, last week, some Members of Parliament did precisely that and voted "no" to Barack Obama.
American presidents are often characterized by statements or actions that become an indelible part of their presidency and the nation's perception of their leadership. These incidents often reach metaphoric status. For Richard Nixon, it was his declaration: "I am not a crook." Gerald Ford's presidency was eclipsed by his pardon of Nixon, and Jimmy Carter will be forever remembered for his famous "malaise" speech that refers to "deep" trouble in the country. OK. You've been president for almost three years, what's next?
What came next was Ronald Reagan, whose can-do optimism and determination were summarized in "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." George H.W. Bush lost his base, and later the presidency, when he reneged on his famous "Read my lips: no new taxes" pledge. Bill Clinton had a lip-reading moment when he uttered, "I did not have sex with that woman... " And for George W. Bush, the indelible moment was his advice to the nation after September 11 to "Go shopping."
Barack Obama, now into his fifth year of governing, has so far avoided making statements like his predecessors, but it is becoming increasingly clear that the operative metaphor for the Obama presidency is not a statement but rather an object: the drone aircraft.
Barack Obama became president with the thinnest record of elected public service of any president in modern history -- save Eisenhower, who had a brilliant military career, which included executing the D-day invasion. John Kennedy spent years in the House and Senate. LBJ became not only "Master of the Senate" but a forceful president who knew how to use the powers of the presidency. Nixon: same as Kennedy, plus eight years as Ike's Vice President. Ford had spent decades in the House, including service as Minority Leader and later Vice President. Carter had been a two-term governor of Georgia, as was Reagan in California. George H.W. Bush had perhaps the most distinguished pre-presidential resume of all: member of Congress, chair of the Republican Party, CIA Director, UN Ambassador, first "Ambassador" to China, and Vice President. Clinton governed Arkansas for nearly 12 years, and George W. Bush was governor of Texas for six years.
Barack Obama served in the Illinois House and Senate seven years before being elected U.S. Senator in 2004. He served in the U.S. Senate for three years before launching his presidential campaign, and the story is that he spent much of those Senate years working alone on his 2006 bestselling autobiography, "The Audacity of Hope."
Barack Obama clearly has the intelligence to be president, but it is evident that he lacks the experience. He does not know how to use the powers of the presidency to achieve his priorities. Moreover, his priorities often change from one day to the next.
The stories in the media are now legion about the president's dismal relations with the Congress. Unlike, say, LBJ and Bill Clinton, Obama doesn't enjoy mixing it up with Members of Congress -- either professionally or personally. As a result, the major legislative successes of his first term -- Obamacare and the Dodd-Frank financial services legislation -- were the result of his having delegated most of the hard work to the Democratic leadership in the Congress. Obama preferred to remain above the fray, swoop down occasionally, stir things up, and then fly back up to the clouds where he can continue to observe.
Like the drone aircraft he sends into Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The presidency is not a professoriate, and it is about more than just giving speeches. Successful presidents know how to cajole, caress, persuade, woo, bargain, and at times even threaten to get their way. George H.W. Bush spent weeks assembling a global coalition in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and Clinton was actively involved in trying to resolve the conflict in Bosnia. These presidents actually developed close friendships with other leaders -- Clinton and Blair come to mind, as do Reagan and Thatcher. The "come let us reason together" approach rarely works, as even a cursory reading of Machiavelli's "The Prince" demonstrates. There is a reason why the word "power" is often paired with the word "politics", as in "power politics" or "political power."
Which takes us to Obama's red line in the sand concerning Syria.
He drew that line over a year ago, which was more than enough time to have built the coalitions necessary to address the August 21 sarin gas attack. The British vote should never have occurred until after the U.S. had its act together and, at a minimum, had presented its evidence to the world. Secretary of State John Kerry should never have delivered his splendid speech on the early afternoon of August 30 if the president was about to decide, a few hours later, not to launch the cruise missile attack. The lack of White House coordination and planning thus far has been nothing short of stunning.
We are witnessing the result of drone leadership. That official White House photo of Obama and his chief of staff taking a 45-minute stroll around the White House South Lawn discussing the president's decision was not especially reassuring. After all of the staff work that undoubtedly gave the president options for action, he misled the public -- and the world -- into thinking that a retaliatory strike was imminent. Only at the very last minute, after keeping his own counsel, did he reverse course, surprising both his staff and the world.
Notwithstanding the above, it is important that the U.S. Congress now act decisively to support the president's decision to launch a retaliatory strike against Syria. The use of chemical weapons is an affront against international law and must be countered. Perhaps the massive lobbying campaign now underway by the White House will have important consequences for the remainder of Barack Obama's presidency. There's an old saying that "in Washington, if you want a friend, get a dog." Perhaps it is not a good sign that the Obamas just added a second dog to the First Family.
Charles Kolb served as the Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy from 1990 - 1992 in the George H.W. Bush White House. From 1997 - 2012, he was President of the Committee for Economic Development, a Washington-based, business-oriented think tank. The views in this article are solely those of the author.