It should come as no surprise that people such as former Vice President Dick Cheney, Republicans seeking the presidential nomination or serving in Congress and FOX News, are virtually unanimous on this subject: Russian President Vladimir Putin is showing bold leadership and strength in Syria - President Barack Obama is clearly indecisive and weak.
Based on my own rough calculations, the main stream media - print and broadcast – are only marginally less critical of President Obama. CBS correspondent Steve Kroft’s confrontational interview with the president on the program 60 minutes last Sunday was as tough a public grilling as any sitting president is ever likely to get.
Still there are some people in this country who believe that bold and strong are not the sole criteria for measuring presidential leadership. Polls taken in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 indicated most Americans felt this was a bold and strong move by President George W. Bush. Yet a decade later George Will, the darling of conservative pundits called the invasion quote, “the worst foreign policy decision in U.S. history.”
Actually it is not an overstatement to suggest the Iraq invasion set off much of the turmoil in the Middle East today - including the civil war in Syria – which became a religious proxy war between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shite Iran. Still critics repeatedly charge that having said Syrian President Bashar Assad “must go”, President Obama should have taken the steps to remove him. I have little doubt that American forces could have accomplished that. But then what?
The U.S. is good at removing despots. With relative ease it ousted the Taliban in Afghanistan, Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. But what the U.S. does not do well is nation building. Given the extraordinary complexity of the Syrian conflict that now has a U.S. vs Russia component, it is evident that simple regime change is not enough. Absent a political settlement, dictator Assad’s most likely successors would be some combination of al Qaida and the fanatic Islamic State.
The wisdom not to go to war should not be mistaken for weakness. The best example of this was shown by President John Kennedy, who was the only member of his executive committee on national security, who did not want to start bombing Cuba when Russian missiles were discovered there in October 1962. Although branded an appeaser by Air Force chief of staff General Curtis LeMay, we have Kennedy’s thoughtful judgment to thank for the fact that nuclear war was avoided. The stakes today may not be as high as they were then, but one day they very well might be.