Hamlet of the White House

Obama found it easier to perform the role of critical intellectual than commander-in-chief. All the regional MidEast players sense his weakness and confusion

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President Hamlet (Credit: Michael Daley)
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Emanuele Ottolenghi
On 25 September 2013 20:05

When, on September 10, President Barack Obama finally addressed the US about his Syria policy, he said that President Bashar al-Assad shared the infamy of Ypres and Auschwitz for having unleashed his chemical weapons — only to remind them that if a diplomatic deal could be found with Assad through Russia's good offices, America would forgo military action.

Can someone be as bad as Hitler and be worthy of a negotiated diplomatic solution that America will support? Can the President of the United States be Churchill and Chamberlain at the same time?

Obama did not find it contradictory to quote Franklin Roosevelt to justify intervention in a faraway war but then play Charles Lindbergh to reassure Americans that there would be no boots on the ground, no open-ended American engagement and no regime change.

Although the crime is heinous, Syria's civil war is not America's business. He also saw no incongruity in his latest delay. America tried diplomacy in vain for more than two years, said Obama. It failed largely because of Russian obstructionism. Yet he still thinks that a Russian diplomatic proposal deserves a chance.

Until a week before, Russia was adamant that there was insufficient evidence of a chemical weapons attack. Even if that evidence were to emerge, Russia insisted it did not prove the Syrian regime was responsible for it. Assad, meanwhile, was still denying it had a chemical arsenal.

Now, he has suddenly remembered he does have one — and Russia is ready to guarantee it will be placed under international control, although still blocking any UN Security Council resolution on the subject.

Obama might as well have said, "The time is out of joint. O cursed spite, That I ever was born to set it right," since it is hard, at this point, to escape the conclusion that he is playing Hamlet in the White House.

First, he told the world that "Assad must go." Then he told the world the use of chemical weapons constituted a red line for his Administration. Then he told the world that the extensive use of chemical weapons, with mass casualties involved, would trigger an American response.

When chemical weapons were extensively used, he finally announced that he was going to launch a strike. But then he told the world he had the authority to strike but was going to seek authority from Congress to do so. Though the warships were steaming off and the missiles were loaded, he called the whole thing off and let Congress decide instead.

First, then, inaction; followed by a decision to act quickly rescinded in favour of a Congressional vote he was likelier to lose than win; and with it, a delay that could only be read as hesitancy by all the regional players, both friend and foe; and finally, in the midst of the debate before the vote, a deferral to a flight of fancy, courtesy of a Russian diplomatic offer that looks more like a pretext than a solution.

Obama has insisted that, had it not been for America's resolve to launch a strike, there would not have been a Russian initiative. But considering that the cost of Russia's proposal is that Assad stays in power and Moscow becomes the guarantor of his compliance, it is hard to see anything positive in this arrangement, especially because it will take months to negotiate and be hard to implement even in the best of circumstances.

The only thing that emerges from the last few weeks of Obama's indecision is that at every juncture of this crisis he found it easier to perform the role of  critical intellectual than that of commander-in-chief. It is as if his utterances are not statements of intent and enunciations of policy but rather the educated expression of a wish or an opinion, the implementation of which will somehow fall on other people.

So when Obama said that "Assad must go" he never apparently meant to announce a US policy; he just said, out loud, that he wished that Assad would go, much as a disgruntled football fan might wish his team's manager to quit. When he defined the use of chemical weapons as a red line, Obama must have intended, once again, not to warn of a US-initiated response but merely to express the hope that Assad would stop short of murdering his own people with chemical weapons.

Now Obama has done it again. Although Assad should be punished, Obama is not going to punish him. Although he has the authority, he will not use it. Even though diplomacy has failed, it would be nice if it were to succeed. And although Assad is like Hitler, and Obama invokes Roosevelt, the American people prefer to rebuild the economy at home rather than engage in foreign wars.

Obama almost appears not to be in charge. Rather than embarking on a course of action, he is explaining to the world what the dilemmas are, in the hope that the world will relieve him of the responsibility of actually having to choose one course of action over the other.

With an American President in the role of lecturer rather than leader, the killing in Syria will continue.

Emanuele Ottolenghi is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the author of Iran: the Looming Crisis

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