Barack Obama’s Sad Sausage-Making Foreign Policy

by Stuart Rothenberg September 12, 2013 · 9:21 AM EDT

They say that the process of making sausage isn’t pretty, but all that matters is how it tastes. And often, that applies to politics, as well.

The political process can be messy, with bad decisions along the way, but if the outcome is popular, the process doesn’t matter at all. That’s why those of us in the political analysis business often fall back on the trite — but true — response that the proof is in the pudding.

So, even though the Obama administration has looked confused, erratic and in way over its head on Syria, and most members of Congress have behaved like scared children, the Syrian “crisis” may yet blow over, with relatively little long-lasting effect on our politics — or on the 2014 midterms and the 2016 presidential election.

But even if that is the case — and it is far too early to know now — the White House’s handling of the controversy and Capitol Hill’s reaction to it have been nothing short of sad.

First the president of the United States draws a red line, promising action if it is crossed. Then, when Syria crosses the line, he prepares for action, saying that absolutely, positively, a military response is necessary.

Then, at the last minute, he apparently changes his mind and figures that passing the buck to Congress to authorize military action is a good idea. But, of course, he won’t say what he’ll do if Congress fails to authorize action. Then, after his secretary of state seeks to mollify those worried about a full-scale war by promising that the U.S. military response would be “unbelievably small,” the president responds that “the U.S. does not do pinpricks.”

Is this an Abbott and Costello comedy routine? A Peter Sellers movie about an inept political leader?

Presidents are elected to make tough decisions, particularly when it comes to matters of foreign policy. President Barack Obama seems to be looking for a way not to be “the Decider.”

If Syria’s act was as heinous as the president and the secretary of state said it was, then Obama should have acted one way. If it wasn’t so heinous, he should have acted another way (and not have drawn a red line initially). How about picking one and staying consistent?

Syria’s willingness to discuss giving up its chemical weapons may well create a palatable exit ramp for the president, for most members of Congress and for those countries that want to stand against the use of chemical weapons but don’t want to actually do anything about it.

But make no mistake about the Russian plan being floated: It is akin to letting a serial killer go free and unpunished as long as he turns over the weapons that he used to kill innocents. It doesn’t sound like much of a punishment to me, and it doesn’t do anything to deter similar action in the future.