Every so often, a blind squirrel finds a nut. This is unquestionably good news for the squirrel, provided that what he has found is actually a nut and not some other less savory thing lying around on the forest floor. But the same blindness that afflicted the squirrel before his fortunate discovery will almost certainly make it impossible for him to see the potential consequences of his seeming good fortune. Which, if the squirrel is the president of the United States and the nut is the hint of an opportunity to find a diplomatic fix for the problem of chemical weapons in Syria, may not be a good thing for U.S. interests in the Middle East or around the world.
Even the most charitable of interpretations by the president's most loyal supporters (and I voted for him twice, so I count myself in that group) would have to rank the past couple of months as among the worst of his administration in terms of national security policy mismanagement. From the muddle of our Egypt policies to the ham-fisted and tone-deaf response to the NSA scandal and its international aftershocks; from the first contradictions around the president's improvised and then seemingly regretted "red line in Syria" to Tuesday night's "big speech," which was flat, familiar, and contradictory, and ended in a punt to an indefinite future, the otherwise often self-assured White House's recent handling of our international policies has been, well, a bit squirrely.
Now admittedly, many of these problems are not of the president's own making. But foreign policy is more often than not about how we react to global developments, all delusions about the degree to which we control our global destiny notwithstanding. And, in each of the cases cited above, we have reacted too slowly, too erratically, and too ineffectively. The litany of missteps in Syria is so long there's already a BuzzFeed list about it.
We failed to act early in the crisis when we could. Early recommendations of top officials to arm the opposition were ignored. A red line was set, then redefined, and then repeatedly sidestepped because, we argued, we weren't sure attacks had taken place (until this week, apparently, when we decided there had actually been nine of them). When the president finally decided to act, he pushed his ally British Prime Minister David Cameron to recall his parliament for quick action. He pushed so hard that Cameron couldn't get everyone briefed or back from vacation, and dozens missed the vote, including members of the prime minister's own cabinet. In the wake of Cameron's inability to cobble together the necessary votes, the president reversed his course, opting instead to take the time to go to Congress for authorization he later said he didn't need. (This triggered some real resentment from Cameron, who felt if he'd only had more time, he could have won the day or at least had a better chance to do so.)
Here at home, of course, prior to his last-minute decision to go to Congress, the president had led his national security team to believe he was on the brink of ordering a strike. His vice president and secretary of state made the case to go forward with military action. Only then did the commander in chief pull the rug out from under them and his national security team, deciding to defer to the fractious, do-nothing Congress. Ironically, the big volte-face to make his case to Congress has actually largely weakened the president's political support. In part, this is because the case has been so full of contradictions. The strike will be limited. But if Sen. John McCain wants it bigger, it will be "bigger." But if that's too big, the secretary of state then says the strike will be "unbelievably small." But then, the president retorts, "We don't do pinpricks."
So our plan of action now measures somewhere between a "pinprick" and "unbelievably small." It's vitally important, but it doesn't matter if it is indefinitely delayed. You can understand why voters, members of Congress, and the world are confused about our intent. (Hint: Because we are, too. The one thing the president made crystal clear in his speech to the nation was his own ambivalence.)
No wonder Secretary of State John Kerry's slip of the tongue about there being hope to stave off military strikes if Syria would give up all its chemical weapons quickly went from what the administration was calling a "goof" to being an initiative the president claimed he himself had proposed to Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 meeting (and just neglected to mention ever since). The White House claimed the opening to a possible diplomatic solution could only come as a result of its "credible threat" of military force. Setting aside what this assertion does to stretch the definition of "credible threat," it certainly wins an award for chutzpah of the first order. After all, if the White House knew such threats would work, why did we sit impotently by during the eight attacks prior to that on Aug. 21 that we now acknowledge took place? This was an accident, driven by the Russians, seized upon by the Syrians, and greeted by the president much as a drowning man greets a passing log.
That said, it just might work. Admittedly, the early to-ing and fro-ing at the United Nations reminded us that it's a heavy lift and it might not work. However, for a moment, let's think of the poor squirrel (and U.S. national interests) and not begrudge him his nut until and unless it proves to be something less digestible. The president deserves credit for seeing an opportunity and seizing it. Timing is as important in foreign policy as it is in other forms of comedy. And, even if the policy process that got us here was hapless and confused, who cares? Good outcomes trump good processes any day … at least they do outside the wonk dome that encloses Washington.
So for the sake of the squirrel: Hooray for the nut. Let's hope it turns out to be what it feels like it might.