The internal Democratic critiques run deeper still. One former senior Obama administration official spoke to me of the "shocking breakdown of the process." Another former top Democratic national security official called the president's assertion that his military leaders said that a delay of several weeks in the timing of the attack would not reduce its effectiveness "the most disingenuous statement I have ever heard." Whether that insupportable and patently ridiculous statement reflected disingenuousness on the part of the president or his top military advisors is unclear. (We do know from its behind-the-scenes grumbling that the military does not much like the idea of the currently planned intervention in Syria either.) On the Hill, the leadership has said to the president, "You're going to have to do the heavy lifting on this yourself."
Heck, even the president seems to oppose himself on this one. On matters of principle, he is at once reversing past stands against this kind of intervention in the Middle East (see the quote in Rosa's piece on Iraq) and those for humanitarian activism to avoid problems like the ones we faced in Rwanda. He set the red line on chemical weapons and his team bruited it as policy before he ignored it and then asserted this week that he had not actually set the red line but rather "the world" had.
He is for consulting Congress but reserves the right to ignore it. He is against regime change but is for winning political support for "degradation" of Assad's capabilities and arming the opposition forces that most certainly have deposing Assad as their goal. He seeks international support and justification under international law, but then suggests that getting the approval of the U.S. Congress would be enough to legitimize acting alone.
The presidency is a famously lonely job. But it takes hard work and some really bad decision-making to alienate nearly everyone along the entire political spectrum worldwide. (Syria's a very tough problem but earlier action or more thoughtful framing of the "red line" in conjunction with international partners or just a more buttoned-down policy process could have helped avoid this mess.) It would be a mistake to think the president put himself in this predicament thanks to one walk around the South Lawn with Chief of Staff Denis McDonough. Indeed, the events of the past week do not alone threaten to compromise the president's credibility -- there were plenty of red lines crossed, plenty of other signs of hesitation to take decisive and timely action, not just in Syria but in Egypt, in Libya, during the Iranian Green revolution and, as it may yet be seen, Iran's development of nuclear weapons. Indeed, while it's absolutely true that a congressional vote against the president's planned action to strike Syria would be absolutely devastating to America's international standing, no one is more responsible for that standing being on the line than the president. This move was akin to him holding a gun to the head of Uncle Sam in full view of the world and saying, "Support me or I will shoot."
Do the missteps associated with Obama's Syria policy amount to a mistake as damaging as Bush's in Iraq or Clinton's inaction in Rwanda? No, not yet. Indeed, we may someday look back at the Obama years and say this particular string of errors was dwarfed by the decision to double down in Afghanistan or what might someday be viewed as the failure to stop Iran's nuclear weapons program or the failure to put together a coherent policy in the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring or the failure to actually follow through on the pivot to Asia that was required to counterbalance the growth of Chinese influence in the region. Even now it's clear any mistakes we make in Syria are unlikely to be as damaging as some of the blows to America's strength that will surely result from of our failure to address our economic challenges at home. (A failure for which, it can be fairly argued, the GOP on the Hill hold the lion's share of the blame.) The jury on such judgments is clearly out and will be for a while. And, of course, we can hope that this experience of dealing with this crisis, perhaps in conjunction with others he has faced, will offer the president an epiphany -- and it will lead him to clarity, decisiveness, and the strategic vision that is necessary for him to do his job better going forward.
But for now, it is worth seeing the past week's events for what they have been: one of the really stunning self-inflicted wounds the U.S. presidency has experienced in a couple of decades in which there have been some doozies.