President Barack Obama risks getting stuck with a rap as toxic as an unpopular war or a troubled economy: incompetence.
The president may escape collateral damage if the ambitious deal reached Sept. 14 between the United States and Russia holds and Syria relinquishes its chemical weapons. Despite the conventional wisdom, Obama did a pretty good job last week of threading the needle between the imperative to respond to the gassing of civilians by President Bashar Assad's regime and the overwhelming desire of Americans not to get bogged down in another fight.
The White House says that what matters is the outcome, not the process. Yet the administration's overall handing of the Syrian situation, particularly in the last two weeks, has friends and foes shaking their heads. The U.S. government's response has been anything but measured, coherent and purposeful. It's hard to argue with Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona that this performance "makes you a little queasy."
This criticism follows earlier complaints, often from Democrats, about the White House's miscalculations in dealing with irrational Republican demands on debt and deficit issues, and the unwillingness of the president to seek counsel beyond his small comfort zone.
Obama's predecessor was fatally tarred with incompetence in the initial year of his second term. President George W. Bush was politically tone deaf on his top domestic priority of reforming Social Security, insensitive and inept in his handling Hurricane Katrina and floundering from the botched Iraq War and its aftermath.
First, in Obama's defense, his Sept. 10 Syria speech was bifurcated: We'll be tough against Assad, but not for long. You have to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. Those two objectives are compatible and rational.
Although many details and specifics remain to be worked out, there's a chance the Russian-led initiative may produce results not because President Vladimir Putin is a good guy or wants to help the U.S. — he's not and he doesn't — but because avoiding military action is in Russia's self-interest. Susan Eisenhower, the granddaughter of the president and World War II supreme Allied commander (and who herself was once married to a Russian) put it this way: Putin sees an opportunity to elevate his stature on the world stage and wants to ensure that Syria's chemical-arms stockpiles don't end up in the hands of Sunni radicals who also pose a threat to Russia.
It's easy to disregard White House spin about how the president shrewdly orchestrated these twists and turns or how he forced Putin to capitulate. Some rank-and-file Obama supporters offer a more compelling defense.
"Hamlet-like public messaging by Obama and the White House has confused many," Louise Dunlap, a longtime Democratic activist, said in an email. "But his determination and capacity to act was not lost on the international community even if people here don't get it."
To be fair, after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the American public is more isolationist than any time since the late 1930s.
On public diplomacy, Obama is failing. There is no coherent message, little explanation of the complexities and contradictions created by difficult circumstances. By taking on the role of the agonizingly reluctant warrior on Syria, he has reinforced the country's skepticism. He announced he was seeking congressional authorization for a military strike on the Saturday afternoon before Labor Day — not exactly prime time for attracting the nation's attention.
Worse, the president reached this decision to turn to Congress after consulting only with his small core of top advisers, none of whom have faced an election. He should have relied on Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Vice President Joe Biden, who them have spent a total of 76 years in Congress.
Then, there was the confusing display on Sept. 9. Kerry had dismissively raised the possibility that Syria could relinquish its chemical stockpiles if it wanted to avoid a U.S. military response — a statement that the secretary's spokesman quickly said was only "rhetorical." White House aides assailed Kerry's clumsiness and National Security Adviser Susan Rice warned that the Russians couldn't be trusted.
Only hours later, in interviews with television anchors, the president said he had discussed the proposal with Putin the week before in St. Petersburg and was open to exploring it further.
These convolutions didn't build confidence in the president among politicians, the public, U.S. allies or adversaries. The next several months will be exceedingly difficult for the Obama administration. Syria won't go away; there will be economy-threatening standoffs over the deficit and the debt ceiling, a hotly debated nomination for the next chairman of the Federal Reserve Board and probably some unanticipated crises. One example: The ongoing investigation of alleged leaks of classified security information from the Obama White House. These days, almost all leak investigations, whether of private citizens or public figures, are a waste of taxpayer dollars. But this one could be embarrassing.
On Syria, Obama might have sought guidance from the nation's foreign-policy graybeards: Jim Baker, George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, Madeleine Albright, Brent Scowcroft, Bill Cohen, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Colin Powell. The optics would have been good; the counsel might have been, too.
That, however, isn't the Obama way.
(Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist.)