09/10/2013 11:53 am ET Updated Nov 10, 2013

Can the President Change His Mind? -- 'Yes, He Can!': Why Backing off on Syria Is a Victory for Democracy and a Plaudit for Hillary

As reported yesterday in my Huffington Post column, President Obama has re-considered military intervention in Syria. Given the worldwide opposition and the likely negative vote in the Congress, many will say the president really had no choice.

Yet other presidents have confronted similar dissenting views and ignored them constructing elaborate justifications for ignoring the War Powers Resolution and for finding in the opaque terms of the Constitution's Article II inherent executive authority to launch defensive military interventions.

The usual conservative voices are gloating and calling this a major presidential disaster and failure. Hardly. In my judgment, it is the opposite. This is a triumph of democratic governance; a highly popular president respected for his judgment telegraphs a possible military strike to his own people, astutely pursues constitutional affirmation or declaration from the Congress of the United States for that strike in ways that modern presidents have spurned, and respectfully listens to the dissenting views of his own countrymen and that of the European and world communities before deciding that the military course he initially concurred in and that was strongly recommended to him by young subordinates in the White House (e.g. Denis McDonough and Susan Rice) is in the light of all considerations, a mistaken course.

Apart from Richard Nixon's self-indulgent exit under threat of impeachment for using thinly veiled justifications of national security to break into the Watergate and to cover up the domestic surveillance and harassment of his political enemies, when is the last time you heard a president of the United States indicated sufficient open-mindedness to plead that he was in error? The closest example may be Ronald Reagan's concession that Oliver North and Admiral Poindexter had undertaken an arms for hostages trade in Iran Contra that was more aggressive than he intended or the law allowed. Even here, Reagan apologized more for being misunderstood than for being mistaken. North and Poindexter would be fired and in becoming the subject of an expensive, drawn out independent counsel investigation kept the president from having to admit any serious accountability. In essence, the buck stopped in the Oval Office but it was those other guys to blame.

Modernly, scholars tell us that newer democracies prefer the parliamentary system like that in the United Kingdom to our presidential model. Should we ever get the Arab spring back on track, it will be useful and intriguing to see the structure of democratic governments that emerge in those environments. On a day-to-day basis, a parliamentary system has much to commend it because there is a unity of purpose and party discipline that gets things done. But the American constitutional order has just revealed an area of greater strength; specifically, the ability for the leader of a political party to admit error without having toppling the governing party. In short, presidents can be wrong and still be president.

Assuming the people have brought a person of good character and judgment to office, as they have with Barack Obama, that person is not expected to be infallible. Far from it, we expect presidents, like the rest of us, to be wrong from time to time. What we haven't seen is what we also expect: namely, that a president will have the humility as well as political fortitude to admit error. Richard Nixon steadfastly refused to make such admission (he, after all, "was not a crook!"); Ronald Reagan shifted blame to lower levels that specialized in giving the president "plausible deniability."

To be sure, both Nixon and Reagan made some mea culpa. Yet, Nixon admitted wrongdoing only because he was being chased out of town. A very tired pre-Alzheimers Ronald Reagan to some degree escaped only with his likeable naïveté intact.

The way things are shaping up; I believe Barack Obama will be far more forthright. It is reasonable to expect that he will candidly admit tonight that he found greater wisdom in alternative ways to deal with an intractable problem that cries out for political or diplomatic solution - solutions that frankly were to quickly skipped over in presidential advisement and that would be dead on arrival were the president pigheadedly unwilling to change his mind in the face of greater wisdom.

In listening and participating in the vibrant democratic debate , the President began to recognize that even if our intelligence more certainly placed chemical attack with Mr. Assad in ways that Saddam Hussein was never connected to weapons of mass destruction, that still left a great deal to be desired in terms of the proportionality of an attack that, even if targeted, had its own serious risks of spreading Chemical damage to civilians and possessed the real potential of destabilizing the security of Israel and the well-being of Arab nations generally.

The question remains: what will the president say? Obviously, the president wants to avoid any suggestion that the United States or the world community will turn a blind eye to the past violation of the chemical weapons treaty or any future behavior that approximates it. For this reason, I am certain that he concurred with Mrs. Clinton's offer to reaffirm in advance of the president's speech this evening that she stood with him in the understanding that the actions of Mr. Assad were an unmistakable violation of core principles of what it means to be a legitimate sovereign power. So too, Mrs. Clinton's reminder of her own efforts in Geneva 2012 to reach a political settlement does contain, as she says, a roadmap that the international community has an obligation to pursue. The promise in Geneva of a political settlement was blocked by Russia that insisted on keeping Mr. Assad and his cronies in power. This is to the advantage of Mr. Putin since he is heavily invested in oil pipelines in the region and the last thing Putin wants is an independently minded Syrian government that might interfere with his capacity to profit handsomely from that region by manipulating the price of a barrel of oil.

More questionable is Mrs. Clinton's claim that the making of a credible military threat is what made it possible to bring real pressure upon Assad. A careful look at her statement suggests that this is more of a face-saving gesture by the former Secretary of State for the president. Saber rattling only goes so far, and if diplomatic solution comes to depend upon it, what tends to disappear in the future is remembering that the Sabers were only to be rattled not used. Mrs. Clinton has considerable faith in the prospect of responsible international action, so the most important part of her remarks was the re-focusing of the world's attention back toward the prospect of a political solution derived from the Geneva discussions and away from the unqualified un-nuanced "red line" that less experienced advisors in the White House burdened the president with defending.

Diplomatically, Mrs. Clinton has helped the president draw back from the brink.

In the end, the president has demonstrated his integrity; Mrs. Clinton has demonstrated her loyalty and reminded the world of its obligations to fulfill the promise of Geneva; and the American people have demonstrated that it's no embarrassment to admit we don't always have all the answers. Not having all the answers is frankly a corollary of our long-standing effort to convey that is it is neither in our interest nor that of the world community to assume one nation as its policeman. In this regard, the restraint of the United States over the long term necessarily obligates the world community to not tolerate obstruction in the Security Council or elsewhere to the international control and supervised destruction of chemical weapons.

And who knows, if the world is willing to stand up for core principles, it might just find an opportunity to address together, the violence that has resulted in two million refugees being in desperate need of the world's targeted kindness. And if kindness of food, shelter, medical supplies is what is being targeted, there will be few complaints of collateral exposure.