Monday, September 2, 2013

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

There were times — not many but a few — in my college days when I played some poker with my friends.

I was never very good at it, especially the art of bluffing — and I say that with all due respect because I'm sure those guys who were good at bluffing have gone on to enjoy great success in whichever career paths they followed.

Especially if their career paths were political. Politics frequently requires good bluffing — in other words, having what is known as a "poker face." I've heard it said that Richard Nixon developed quite a poker face from playing poker in the service during World War II. Apparently, it served him well in negotiations he had as president with the Russians and Chinese.

I believe effective bluffing can be boiled down to two parts — 1) plausibly asserting that something is true, whether it is or not, and 2) successfully backing it up when challenged (i.e., when one's bluff is called).

I'm no lawyer, but, in my mind, I equate it with the legal distinction between assault and battery. It's been my experience that a lot of people think assault and battery is a single crime. It isn't.

I don't remember now when I first heard this explained, whether it was during my reporting days when I covered the police beat or on some occasion when I reported for jury duty and a lawyer was questioning prospective jurors.

It might have been something I heard when I was studying communications law in college although that is probably unlikely since neither legal term would have had much to do with communications — directly, anyway.

In case you don't know, an assault is basically a threat, presumably of physical harm (although, in the modern world, I guess you would have to define a threat of computer hacking as an assault as well — not necessarily a physical threat but a financial one, which can, in due course, threaten life).

If the person who is being threatened believes the other person is capable of carrying out the threat, that is assault. If the threat is actually carried out, that is battery.

Barack Obama did the bluffing part last year when he declared that there was a "red line" in Syria — no chemical weapons use would be tolerated.

Now there are reports that Obama's bluff has been called. Apparently, Syria has used chemical weapons on its people. Recently.

Tom Foreman of CNN writes that this has left Obama with three options: "Bad, worse, and horrible."

Actually, Foreman outlines more than three options, but, at the end of his piece, he acknowledges that, for a variety of reasons, it all comes down to one — firing cruise missiles from ships in the Mediterranean.

Such missiles, he writes, "are magnificent, virtually unstoppable weapons capable of pinpoint, devastating strikes." But the delay in using them complicates matters. The Syrians have had plenty of time already "to hide their own weapons, secure their airplanes and disperse critical command and control assets."

That sounds like what some of George W. Bush's defenders still say about the invasion of Iraq. That invasion, if you recall, was predicated on the belief that Iraq had stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction it would use against the United States, and it was necessary to eliminate them.

To many people, that sounded plausible in the immediate aftermath of 9–11, but no such weapons were found.

Supporters of the invasion insisted Iraq's leaders had moved the stockpiles of weapons. If they did, those weapons still have not been located.

Anyway, at that point, the objective changed from rooting out dangerous weapons to nation building, which was not an original objective of the mission.

In recent days, I have heard supporters of this president justify his taking unilateral action in Syria because other presidents have been launching undeclared wars (and conveniently bypassing the Constitution in the process) since the end of World War II.

But let's get back to our current predicament. I can't speak for anyone else, but I do not blame Obama for this mess — well, not entirely.

Any president who faced these circumstances would be between a rock and a hard place. There are no good options to take, only bad ones and worse ones. I realize that the option I advocate is a bad one, but, in the absence of any good ones ...

At least a portion of these circumstances, however, is Obama's fault. He is the one who drew the red line and told Syria not to cross it. He did that a year ago.

A prudent president would have devoted the past year to building a congressional consensus to authorize him to attack — just in case. Instead, he spent much of that time demonizing the opposition party rather than seeking common ground, knowing full well that he would need the cooperation of the Republican–controlled House to do anything if Syria called his bluff.

None of the polls I saw last year — including the most important one, the one on Election Day — suggested that Obama's party had a prayer of retaking the House. He must have known long before the election that, if he did win, he would have to deal with a Republican–controlled House for at least the first two years of his second term.

As a former constitutional law professor, he should have known that he would need to curry favor with influential Republicans in the House.

And a prudent president would have been building a coalition of American allies. This president has not been doing that, and now it appears we must do whatever we are going to do alone — or practically so.

He says he will consult Congress when it returns from its Labor Day recess, but Congress won't be in session again for a week. That is even more time for Syria to prepare for missile strikes.

Obama is more concerned, it seems, with public opinion polls that suggest that, by margins of 39% to 52%, a majority of Americans opposes military intervention in Syria.

If at last Obama is paying attention to the concerns of the voters, that isn't a bad thing. The American people have witnessed a decade of war that has cost them much but gained them little. The president should consider them, the sacrifices they already have made and the additional sacrifices they are being asked to make, before taking any action — assuming that Congress gives him the green light.

But he should have been laying the groundwork for this for months. He and his secretary of state made naive, false — and dangerous — assumptions about the people with whom they were dealing, and now the global credibility of the United States is at stake. If we do not enforce Obama's red line, what does anyone else have to fear from us?

Polling data suggest that most Americans oppose the idea of an attack, but a majority would support a limited strike.

I think that would be worse than doing nothing (which I believe is the least bad option). A limited strike, lasting a day or two — or perhaps an hour or two — instead of a few weeks (or even months) would be symbolic at best, a virtual slap on the wrist.

Syria (and others like it, in the region and elsewhere) would be emboldened. They would know that there is a price to be paid for using chemical weapons — but that price would be negligible, one that they would willingly pay.

For a missile strike to be more than symbolic, for it to inflict a lesson on Syria that will be felt throughout the region and beyond, it cannot be a limited strike. It cannot be a slap on the wrist that is really intended to give Obama political cover.

To be effective, it must be relentless. It must be decisive. And I don't believe the American people have the stomach for that right now.

I am inclined to sympathize with Obama. He is truly between a rock and a hard place.

But he got there mostly on his own — and now, after nearly five years in the White House, it is high time he learned what leadership is about.

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