In any movie, tv show or book, the toughest guy is always the one that never actually has to draw his weapon. In old western movies, you always knew who the tough guy was, he just walked into the bar and everybody started finishing their drinks and running. You watch “The Wire” and all somebody had to yell was “Omar’s coming” and folks scattered. By the time Samuel L. Jackson shows up in any scene most people are already looking for an escape route (even the snakes). The point is, that in the movies, just like real life, the tough guy is the one who makes things happen without having to lift a finger, his mere presence or even the vaguest threat is enough to get things done. Even though we all know the Hollywood tropes, some political analysts and Washington D.C. insiders insist on attacking President Obama about his Syria policy. The reality is, he is now and has been the tough guy throughout this crisis even though very few are willing to give the President any credit for it.
The Syrian Civil War is a legitimate concern for the United States even though like most Mid-Eastern policy the majority of the country has no idea what is going on in that part of the world. After decades of rule the Syrian people grew tired of Bashir Al Assad’s family running the country like their personal fiefdom (he has been in power since 2000 essentially taking over for his father). Generally a civil war in a nation that funds terrorists (according to the U.S.) would be a good thing, unfortunately the situation has become so volatile that nobody, including Assad’s neighbors really knows what to do. The Civil War has been going so badly for the Assad regime that after years of denying he even know how to spell the word “chemical weapons” Assad used them on a group of rebels in late August. At that point President Obama felt he needed to get involved.
Most Americans aren’t aware of the facts above, and certainly our national economy, healthcare and other issues take up more of our time and energy. However the president doesn’t have the luxury of only focusing on the United States, his job is to take a look at everything all of the time and determine how that might affect America. The last month of Syrian statements and speeches from the White House and hearings from Congress have been Obama’s attempt at making it clear why America has a vested interest in Syria and why using military bombing on Assad’s weapons capacity would be in our best interest. Nevertheless the narrative from most of the press over the last month falls into the following three categories. 1.) That Obama was unclear and confusing in his foreign policy goals for Syria. 2.) That Obama was going to “lose Congress” on any authorization vote. And then after last week’s 11th hour deal brokered through Russia that 3.) Obama was outmaneuvered and essentially ‘Punked’ by Russian leader Vladimir Putin. None of these things could be further from the truth.
The President said he wanted to punish Bashir Al Assad for using chemical weapons, get rid of the chemical weapons and at some point get Assad out of power. These are neither conflicting nor unrealistic goals. At this point it looks likely that both goals one and two were accomplished without firing a shot. The president was likely going to win approval for Air Strikes on Syria in the Senate, at least until Secretary of State John Kerry’s awful performance in the Senate Foreign Relations committee. However there are a couple of things to remember regarding the president and Congress. First, (at that point) using the War Powers act of 1973 Obama could have sent air strikes to Syria and not needed Congressional approval for 30 days (Clinton did that in 1999 with the Balkans.) Second, Congress, especially the House of Representatives universally votes against anything the president calls for, which explains why Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, John McCain and several other Republicans in the House and Senate were all in favor of military action against Syria UNTIL President Obama was on board. Then suddenly it was bad politics. Finally this notion the Vladimir Putin outmaneuvered President Obama is not only patently not true but brings us back to our “Tough Guy” rhetoric that we all know too well. The President merely threatened the use of force in Syria, and suddenly the Russians, Syria’s most powerful ally comes running with a peace plan to avoid conflict. That’s right, Obama didn’t have to lift a finger and the Russians jump in to provide a peace plan. There is absolutely no way that the Russians would have gotten involved in this crisis if they didn’t fear American military force under Obama. What many analyst fail to acknowledge is that many of Syria’s weapons systems are coordinated by Russian engineers, so any attack on Syrian weapons would have killed Russian citizens and Putin did not want to show and prove his tough guy image against the United States. In other words, the president brought two powers to the negotiating table without firing a shot. That doesn’t sound like a weakened presidency to me, and certainly not to anyone else who actually paid attention to what has happened over the last month without an axe to grind. The President’s policies on Syria have not always been great, or pretty, and we know they have as much to do with natural gas as with a humanitarian crisis, but he certainly comes out of this situation still looking like the Commander in Chief of the world’s most powerful military. Even with a hostile congress, skeptical public and muddled narrative he can still send nations running just by opening his mouth, and by most American standards that should be ‘tough enough’.
Dr. Jason Johnson is a professor of Political Science at Hiram College. You can reach him at Drjasonjohnson.com and on Twitter @Drjasonjohnson