Skip to main content

Obama's spectacular failure of leadership on Syria

By S.E. Cupp, Special to CNN
September 9, 2013 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • S.E. Cupp: President Obama's strategy in Syria has been confused from the start
  • Cupp: Obama's failure of leadership on the crisis is clearer with every passing day
  • She says the president sets the red line but then says the world sets the red line
  • Cupp: It seems the president's main concern in Syria is himself and his legacy

Editor's note: S.E. Cupp is co-host of the new "Crossfire," which debuts on Monday, September 9, at 6:30 p.m. ET on CNN. She is also the author of "Losing Our Religion: The Liberal Media's Attack on Christianity," co-author of "Why You're Wrong About the Right," a columnist at the New York Daily News and a political commentator for Glenn Beck's The Blaze.

(CNN) -- Two years into the Syrian conflict, President Obama has decided it's finally time to explain it to the American people in a speech he will give from the Oval Office on Tuesday. But from the beginning, President Obama's strategy in Syria -- if he ever had one -- has been confused.

Years of dithering, red lines that went unanswered, and a failure to persuade our international allies and the American public to get on board with the president's nonplan plan, has resulted, not surprisingly, in a confused Congress.

On the Republican side, Sen. John McCain was against the president's plan for limited intervention but on Wednesday changed his mind. Sen. Marco Rubio was for intervention in Syria for the past two years, but he cannot support Obama's plan for military strikes.

S.E. Cupp
S.E. Cupp

On the Democratic side, many who have previously defended Obama's foreign policy as somehow morally superior to his predecessor for its caution and thoughtfulness now seem delighted to support his new war in Syria. Then there are Democrats who seem a little less fuzzy on their long-held principles and do not support intervening in Syria.

Obama's own administration seems confused as well. Secretary of State John Kerry has had to backpedal more than once after contradicting official policy in Syria, which is admittedly hard to discern.

Even Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has been an awkward spokesman, spending the better part of the past year telling Congress that Syrian intervention was unwise. As Eli Lake, a correspondent for the Daily Beast puts it, "On Tuesday, Dempsey was not much more helpful for the president's case for war in the Senate. He contradicted President Obama's contention from Saturday that delays would not affect the Syria war plan, confirming the Syrian military was adjusting to press leaks about an early plan."

The confusion isn't merely a consequence of the complicated machinations in Syria or the fog of war. Everything we know now about the Syrian conflict -- that President Bashar al-Assad has been killing his own people, that he possessed chemical weapons, that he had pipelines to Hezbollah and Iran, and that al Qaeda was circling the wagons hoping to exploit the chaos -- we knew in the first week of the conflict two years ago.

Two veterans square off on Syria
S.E. Cupp on being a conservative atheist
High stakes in Congress on Syria

President Obama is solely to blame for the confusion. His spectacular failure of leadership on the crisis is coming into clearer focus with every passing day.

It's possible he just didn't know what to do two years ago, and doesn't know what to do now. Syria is a messy conflict with few good answers. But in piecing together the president's moves in recent months, it's clear he's also very much concerned about protecting his own legacy. That means spreading the blame around to others.

First, he made his best effort (at the 11th hour) to get international support for a short-term intervention that -- by his own admission -- was not meant to actually change the course of the war. I call this the beach house strategy. You want to buy a beach house, but can't afford it. So you go in with a few friends so that when the dishwasher breaks, no one person's on the hook for it. One would hardly call that leadership, and it's no wonder few wanted to join us in "not changing the course of the war" in Syria.

Obama doesn't want to be responsible for the red lines he set either, apparently. He insisted that when it came to al-Assad's use of chemical weapons, "I didn't set a red line; the world set a red line." Reactions to this absurd duck and cover were so immediate that the White House dispatched spokespeople to explain the president's contradictory remarks.

While it's true that international peace accords bar the use of chemical weapons, it's baffling and shameful that Obama doesn't proudly and defiantly own red lines against a dictator who would gas innocent children in the streets. "You're damn right that's my red line" -- would have been a far more impressive and effective message to the rest of the world.

Lastly, it seems clear the president doesn't want ownership of his own initial plan for limited strikes in Syria merely meant to punish al-Assad. I can't blame him there -- it's an ill-conceived half-measure that even Democrat Rep. Charlie Rangel likened to being impossibly "part pregnant."

After insisting he could go ahead with his plan even without Congress, he's curiously allowing legislators to craft his strategy through resolutions and amendments that significantly alter the scope of his plans for intervention. If Obama truly believed his plan was the right one, and is prepared to move ahead without Congress, then why go through the charade of hearings? I would venture it's so that he can later claim that whatever we end up doing in Syria was largely the design of John McCain and other members of Congress.

It's a sad state of affairs. With so much at stake -- the stability of the region, the security of our allies, the spread of weapons of mass destruction, 100,000 deaths and Iran watching closely -- you'd hope that the president of the United States would summon the wisdom and courage to take a clear position on Syria, and then accept whatever credit or blame follows. Instead, it seems the president's primary concern in Syria is himself.

Follow us on Twitter: @CNNOpinion.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of S.E. Cupp.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2248 GMT (0648 HKT)
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2049 GMT (0449 HKT)
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2303 GMT (0703 HKT)
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1859 GMT (0259 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT