Of course, since we know what the road to hell is paved with, we may shrug that off. But before we do, we have the more immediate example to consider: the deal struck this weekend between the United States and Russia regarding Syria giving up its chemical weapons. In this case we see that instinct and character have the power to trump intellectual indecision. What Obama wanted in Syria, it is clear, is both to avoid another war and, admittedly reluctantly, to take action to stop the most heinous of war crimes being committed in that country via chemical weapons. He fumbled and hesitated and sent mixed messages and behaved in a way that was both politically weak and too illustrative of his inner torment. But when the opportunity to achieve his goal without war arose -- and even though it was an imperfect solution, one that leaves Bashar al-Assad's presidency intact and Russia strengthened at a moment when that must've been very hard for the president to swallow -- he acted with lightning speed.
Still, whether the deal struck this past weekend ultimately works remains to be seen. How Syria's greater tragedy is resolved also remains an open question. Almost certainly the president emerges from these last few weeks weakened both at home and abroad. But had his instincts not truly been to address the chemical weapons problem, had he really felt at heart he had to militarily intervene, or had he felt the core issue here was to deliver about American influence, he would have acted differently, acting instead as some of his predecessors might have. He could have attacked. He could have shrugged off the deal. But he didn't. He hesitated when he did for reasons that had to do with who he is -- and perhaps to some degree that had to do with his weaknesses, like his overly political nature and his unwillingness to listen to his best advisors. But in the end, this most rational of presidents acted for reasons of character rather than intellect and seized the one opportunity that presented itself to achieve at least a portion of what he had hoped for. As for the overall impact of this momentary "victory" on the course of war in Syria, on the pursuit of justice vis-à-vis Assad, and on America's standing in the region, it is too early to say, but some initial signs are worrisome. (See David Kenner's excellent FP piece on the first reaction of America's allies in the region to the U.S.-Russia deal.)
That said, as we look back on this small, fragile, positive step forward, one thing we must acknowledge is that one more good thing the president did was to trust and empower his secretary of state. Although John Kerry has yet to devote sufficient attention to managing his department, this weekend (as with the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks) his actions have again suggested that the life-long senator may have the makings of a first-rate chief diplomat: tenacity, energy, creativity, and a willingness to take risks. Kerry also gave the single best speech regarding the rationale to go to war in Syria, something that no doubt gave him traction in this weekend's talks, thus revealing the benefit of properly playing two contradictory ideas in a way that produces a good outcome. Again, the proof is in the pudding, but recent signs concerning Kerry are encouraging.
In Syria, in Egypt, across the Middle East, around the world, and at home, President Obama faces many challenges to come. His natural sense of ambivalence and consequent hesitation -- even if he comes by it for good reasons -- will almost certainly cause more problems than it resolves. He should trust Kerry, Susan Rice, and the rest of the team around him to temper those inclinations and address them within his policy processes rather than alongside them or in ways that contradict them. The failure to do so may not only weaken the president but create just the kind of likelihood of conflict he seeks to avoid. And none of this mitigates the big -- and to my mind worrisome -- shift in global affairs that will result from an American body politic that has overreacted to the errors and excesses of the past decade by a now too prevalent, too sweeping inclination to lean away from intervention and activism. But choosing to focus for a moment on what positive we can find in recent events, we can hope that with some luck, if allowed to express itself, the inner nature of this president will from time to time help him again to seize whatever opportunities that may present themselves to lead this country and the world more in the direction of peace than away from it. It may not make for a coherent or even a successful foreign policy, but when it works and even when it doesn't, there's something to be said for the impulse. After all, an author who has enjoyed even greater popular success than Fitzgerald once wrote, "Blessed are the peacemakers.…"