| A rare public view of Obama’s pivots on policy in Syria confrontation!

A Rare Public View of Obama’s Pivots on Policy in Syria Confrontation ~ , New York Times.

WASHINGTON — When President Obama strode into the Rose Garden last month after a week of increasing tension over Syria’s use of chemical weapons, many assumed it was to announce that the attack that had been broadly hinted at by his own aides had begun. Instead, he turned the decision over to Congress. And when Mr. Obama appeared on television Tuesday night, a speech initially intended to promote force made the argument for diplomacy.

Over the last three weeks, the nation has witnessed a highly unusual series of pivots as a president changed course virtually in real time and on live television. Mr. Obama’s handling of his confrontation with Syria over a chemical weapons attack on civilians has been the rare instance of a commander in chief seemingly thinking out loud and changing his mind on the fly.

To aides and allies, Mr. Obama’s willingness to hit the pause button twice on his decision to launch airstrikes to punish Syria for using chemical weapons on its own people reflects a refreshing open-mindedness and a reluctance to use force that they considered all too missing under his predecessor with the Texas swagger. In this view, Mr. Obama is a nimble leader more concerned with getting the answer right than with satisfying a political class all too eager to second-guess every move.

“All the critics would like this to be easily choreographed, a straight line and end the way they’d all individually like it to end,” said David Plouffe, the president’s former senior adviser. “That’s not the way the world works for sure, especially in a situation like this. I think it speaks to his strength, which is that he’s willing to take in new information.”

But to Mr. Obama’s detractors, including many in his own party, he has shown a certain fecklessness with his decisions first to outsource the decision to lawmakers in the face of bipartisan opposition and then to embrace a Russian diplomatic alternative that even his own advisers consider dubious. Instead of displaying decisive leadership, Mr. Obama, to these critics, has appeared reactive, defensive and profoundly challenged in standing up to a dangerous world.

“There’s absolutely no question he’s very uncomfortable being commander in chief,” Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, a Republican who worked with the White House to support force against Syria, said in an interview. “In personal meetings, he comes across very confident. I wish I could deliver a speech as well as he does. But it’s like he wants to slip the noose. It’s like watching a person who’s caged, who’s in a trap and trying to figure a way out.”

For good or ill, and there are plenty who argue both points of view, Mr. Obama represents a stark contrast in style to George W. Bush. The former president valued decisiveness and once he made a decision rarely revisited it. While he, too, changed course from time to time, Mr. Bush regularly told aides that a president should not reveal doubts because it would send a debilitating signal to his administration, troops in the field and the country at large.

Mr. Obama came to office as the anti-Bush, his candidacy set in motion by his opposition to the Iraq war amid promises to be more open to contrary advice, more pragmatic in his policies and more contemplative in his decisions. When it came time to decide whether to send more troops to Afghanistan in 2009, he presided over three months of study and debate that even aides found excruciating at times but were presented as a more thoughtful process.

Known as a disciplined candidate and personality, Mr. Obama earned praise for boldness with the daring Special Forces operation in Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden, although that obscured the months of secret deliberations the public did not see. He likewise expanded drone strikes against people suspected of being terrorists and until recently expressed little doubt about their wisdom and necessity.

“President Obama was elected in part because when Washington followed the conventional wisdom into Iraq, he took a different approach,” said Dan Pfeiffer, his senior adviser. “The American people appreciate the fact that he takes a thoughtful approach to these most serious of decisions.”

But Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former State Department official under Mr. Bush who broke with his old boss and has been supportive of Mr. Obama at times, is highly critical of the way he has handled Syria. “Words like ad hoc and improvised and unsteady come to mind,” Mr. Haass said. “This has been probably the most undisciplined stretch of foreign policy of his presidency.”

With the civil war in Syria, Mr. Obama has telegraphed uncertainty for two years, clearly pained by the deaths of 100,000 people yet unsure what the United States could do about it that would succeed without dragging the country into another quagmire. He set a “red line” against the use of chemical weapons without defining what it would entail.

Once a sarin gas attack on Aug. 21 killed more than 1,400 civilians, according to American intelligence, Mr. Obama agreed that a military response was needed while making clear how much he wished it were not.

“I would much rather spend my time talking about how to make sure every 3- and 4-year-old gets a good education than I would spending time thinking about how can I prevent 3- and 4-year-olds from being subjected to chemical weapons and nerve gas,” he lamented during a visit to Sweden last week. “Unfortunately, that’s sometimes the decisions that I’m confronted with as president of the United States.”

Despite his penchant for process, he decided to ask Congress for authorization over the objections of his staff and without consulting his secretary of state, John Kerry, or his secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel. When Russia proposed averting a strike by having Syria give up its chemical weapons, Mr. Obama cautiously embraced the same concept even after Mr. Kerry had dismissed it as implausible and unworkable.

“Each time he’s done an about-face or a sharp turn, other people who kept marching in the same direction look kind of foolish,” said Peter D. Feaver, a Duke University professor who worked on the National Security Council staff under Mr. Bush and Bill Clinton. “It’s clear he didn’t fully think through the implications of going to Congress and prepare for that.”

Defenders said that too much attention was being paid to the path instead of the destination, and that if Syria gave up its chemical weapons, all history would remember is that Mr. Obama had made it happen. “I’d rather always have a president who will make the right decisions at the right time,” said Representative Steve Israel, Democrat of New York, “than a president who makes the wrong decisions because he doesn’t want to give more time.”





hypocrisy meterC