OWL’S HEAD, Maine — It's hard to remember the last time a president appeared so naked and feckless as has President Barack Obama during the last two weeks, waffling and back-pedaling his way over and under, around and through, his self-imposed ''red line'' in Syria.
His Wednesday press conference in Sweden showed a more effective Obama than anything he had said or done previously. In addition to forcefully restating his case for military action, he said it was the credibility of Congress and of the world at stake, not his own.
Obama's original misstep was, of course, that seemingly off-the-cuff remark a year ago establishing a red line against the use of chemical weapons by Syria's President Bashar al-Assad. Actually, that was his second misstep; his first had occurred a year earlier when he demanded Assad must go.
Two weeks ago, Assad apparently crossed that red line. And the question that quickly arose was: had no one in the White House, or in Obama's foreign policy apparatus, considered how the US should respond to such a nose-thumbing? No contingency plans? No what-ifs? Apparently not.
Had Secretary of State John Kerry, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, or even Vice President Joe Biden been doing their homework, a quick response would have been ready: say, a move to toss the whole thing immediately to the UN, announcing that the US would abide by their decision.
Or, even Obama's apparently preferred action: to immediately hurl a couple of dozen cruise missiles at a few Syrian military targets with a simultaneous statement referring to chemical weapons and the red line. And that would have been it.
Sure, a UN vote, thanks to Russia, would have gone against us, but it would have focused worldwide attention on Assad's criminality. And a short, quick strike would have raised the same legitimate concern we have today about the US involving itself in a no-win situation. At least a prompt response would have avoided the pathetic spectacle of Obama, Hamlet-style, soliloquizing about the bleak choices his policies had created.
The choices involved in any end game in Syria are bleak indeed. If Assad continues to hold his own, the war could grind on indefinitely; after all, the Lebanese civil war lasted 15 years. And today's 100,000 deaths could double and then double again. Meanwhile, millions of refugees spilling across Syria's borders are clearly a destabilizing element in an already highly volatile region.
But if Assad is assassinated or de-camps, the ultimate winners would likely be the Al Qaeda-backed Sunni militias. So a strike against Assad, to the extent that it weakens him, is a boost for right-wing Islamists. And were a strike to have no effect at all on Assad or the war, then it merely underlines our impotence.
Of course, a victory for the Sunni jihadists, or even a partial victory that leaves them in control of some areas of the country, would be a defeat for Hezbollah. That’s good news. And a setback for Iran would be more good news. But it would accelerate the burgeoning return to civil war in Iraq; it would increase the chances of Lebanon getting sucked into the exploding Sunni-Shia split. Moreover, the chances of a pan-Arab conflagration would dramatically increase, the consequences of which no crystal ball can predict.
Finally, and most significantly, Syria would serve as a base for Al Qaeda terrorists and all that implies for the US and Europe.
To avoid the downward spiral, a comprehensive approach is needed involving Russia and Iran as well as our Arab friends. The current St. Petersburg G-20 summit would have been a perfect place to discuss a compromise consensus with the Russians, but instead the focus will be on Obama's bombing threat.
Obama has put himself, and our country, in an untenable position, exposing not just his incompetence but his lack of strategic depth. The damage he's done to himself and his reputation is bad enough. What’s worse is the damage to our country.
Obama has asked Congress to approve the strike. If it does, Obama will launch it, making clear, as he has done repeatedly, that it's a one-off response to Assad's use of chemical weapons.
What happens if Congress says no?
If Obama buckles to Congress, after making his case for military action, he's further weakened himself — and the US — in the eyes of the world. The damage, at least for the rest of Obama's presidency, is irreparable.
If, on the other hand, he ignores Congress's vote against him, as Obama has implied he might, and proceeds to attack against Syria, what then?
It would certainly create a constitutional crisis, not in the sense that it would be grounds for impeachment, though you can bet Republicans would raise that specter. Rather, in the context of an already hamstrung, deeply partisan Washington, congressional Republicans would become so fired up against Obama that the political impasse of the past year would seem benign.
Look what's looming on the agenda over the next month: a budget deal and another debt ceiling hike. Do you think a Republican House would be inclined to turn the other cheek after being publicly, aggressively repudiated by the president? Or would they be more likely to push the country towards a debt crisis where we are all losers?
Ironically, because of Obama's stuttering ineptitude, what was the worst option may now be the least bad option.
If Obama has learned anything from this self-inflicted debacle, he would pocket the approval from Congress and announce to the world he had re-thought the issue and realized that a military attack against Syria, red lines or no lines, would not be a constructive approach to helping end their civil war.
Mac Deford is retired after a career as a Foreign Service officer, an international banker, and a museum director. He lives in Owl's Head, Maine and still travels frequently to the Middle East.