The Roots of Obama's Indecision

The ideological Catch-22 that cripples Obama’s calculations on Syria.

obhGeneral McChrystal, Obama’s choice to run the War in Afghanistan, described him as "uncomfortable and intimidated" by the military men at their first meeting. That made McChrystal’s firing inevitable.

General McKiernan, the first commander of the war that Obama fired, had embarrassed him by pressing for a decision on increasing troop numbers. It was a decision Obama was unable to make. Just as he was unable to make a final decision on Iraq, dragging out negotiations, and just as he is unable to commit to the number of troops that will remain in Afghanistan after 2014.

McKiernan’s firing had been virtually unprecedented, but would soon become routine. There were political aspects to some of the firings; but they fit into a larger pattern of top commanders being prematurely removed.

Obama was firing commanders for the same reason that he was unable to make wartime decisions.

He had become infamous for dithering over every conflict, demanding a countless stream of alternative plans, poring over everything, postponing a decision, and then like a student diving into a report at the last minute, making an abrupt and often disastrous final decision.

That was the way it happened in Afghanistan and in Libya. Obama never made a decision about Iraq. He let Iraq do it for him. And he made a decision on Syria only to look for a way out at the last minute.

Obama’s supporters would like to interpret his hesitancy as concern for the lives of American soldiers; but the Afghanistan surge cost countless lives by denying support to American soldiers. No amount of criticism from enlisted men ever made him drop those policies the way he dropped the generals he picked to implement them.

Some accepted McChrystal’s explanation that the indecisiveness was that of a community organizer intimidated by the military, but then Obama cheerfully turned the military into a mess of gay weddings, transgender pride events and Green Energy.  It wasn’t the military that was the issue. It was the politics.

Given a clear political orientation to follow, Obama will try to see any program through, no matter how strong the opposition or how destructive the results. It is only when necessity is at odds with dogma that he is unable to reach a decision.

Obama is dogma-ridden. Where Bush was a pragmatist trying to do what worked; he needs to follow a party line. Like the Chinese rocket scientist consulting Mao’s Little Red Book to decide what to do next; he needs the political guidance of the left to come to a decision on anything.

He can pursue any course as long as he starts with a progressive political program and then does whatever is necessary to put it into action. What he has great difficulty doing is beginning with a necessary action and working backward toward a political program.

Putin, the former KGB man, has to regard the interaction with an American leader whose Socialist inflexibility exceeds that of any Soviet leader with a certain amount of irony.

Soviet leaders were able to work backward, transforming a preferred course of action into dogma. Lenin did it with the New Economic Policy, Stalin with his pact with Hitler and Khrushchev with his destruction of Stalin’s cult of personality. By the end, Gorbachev, like Communist China, had all but completed the process of sacrificing dogma to economics.

Obama always sacrifices economics to dogma, with predictably Soviet results, but is unable to do the same thing with military policy. His spin corps makes a virtue out of a necessity, but he is unable to do the same thing in his decision loop.

The left vehemently opposes American troops in Muslim countries even when it’s for their own benefit. That made it impossible for him to do make a decision on Iraq. The left also wanted out of Afghanistan, so like a cartoon character trying to pacify both the angel and devil on his shoulders, he tried to marry a troop surge to a disastrous program of winning over the locals.

The incompatible plan led to the deaths of over 1,500 American soldiers.

Libya was easier. Help Islamist militias overthrow a dictator who had made a deal with the United States and wander away whistling cheery tunes about post-colonialism self-determination.  With no troops on the ground to keep the locals from killing each other it was as post-colonial as an intervention could get.

Syria is trickier. The left is split between the humanitarian interventionists and the anti-colonialists. The hard left is firmly on Assad’s side, but the more mainstream left leans toward fans of international law and members of the Red-Green alliance whose green Islamist wing is bent on intervention.

Obama had done the Muslim Brotherhood’s bidding in the Middle East and was comfortable fusing the left’s anti-colonialism with Islamism. But Syria was the first time that his commitments were truly tested.

The armor of self-righteousness that sees the activist of the left through the commission of even the worst atrocities, and that had seen him through a failed push for gun control over the bodies of dead kids and the Mexicans killed in Fast and Furious, had grown brittle when it came to Syria.

Liberals wanted him to bomb Syria, but the left didn’t. The UK and France wanted him to bomb. The Muslim Brotherhood wanted him to bomb Syria; but his advisers were uncertain that the “moderate” movement’s front men would be able to take the country back from Al Qaeda afterward.

Once again, he couldn’t make a decision. So he tried to make a decision without making a decision.

First he proposed a miniscule strike. Then when Kerry made a quip about Assad giving up his weapons, he jumped on the Russian offer. Once again, he had found a way to put off making a decision.

What Obama lacked was ideological clarity. The old bubble of left-wing politics had not prepared him for the big chair. There was no single Party organization to tell him what to do. No little red book he could read. On the domestic front, the decisions seemed clear. Raise taxes, ban carbon, pass amnesty. But internationally, there were no more right answers.

The left’s foreign politics are reflexively anti-American. And that meant that everything he did was wrong. No matter how Post-American he might try to be, the simple fact that he controlled American foreign policy meant that, to a left that believed America was always wrong, he was always wrong.

That is the crippling factor behind Obama’s indecisiveness in matters of war. To the Anti-American mind, there is no right decision he can make. And burdened with an Anti-American mind, Obama would rather outsource foreign policy to Putin than make another decision.

Obama is caught in an ideological Catch 22. American power is illegitimate. The only moral use of it is to destroy it. But how can he use American power and destroy it at the same time? He has done his best elsewhere in the Middle East; but there is no way to do both in Syria which is a Russian client.

The only way to destroy American power in Syria is by showing how powerless America is. And that is what he has done.

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