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The president's hesitation

Sep 11, 2013 - By Steven R. Peck

Obama might decide that the public relations campaign on Syria wasn't worth the trouble

President Barack Obama is going through a lot of political gymnastics trying to win approval for a military strike against Syria. He addressed the nation on the topic Tuesday night.

Clearly, the American public doesn't have much appetite for hitting Syria. Obama has miscalculated in thinking that this idea would be embraced, but a short backward glance at the history of isolated military strikes by United States does raise a question: Why didn't Obama just do it and tell us about it afterward?

When the United States, during the presidency of the first George Bush, invaded Panama in 1989 and deposed tyrannical despot Manuel Noriega, there was no elaborate warning. No presidential press conferences, no public consultation with Congress, no rallying international support at the United Nations or through visits from the Secretary of State. For better or worse, we sent special forces in, grabbed the guy (it took more than a week to get hands on him), and hauled him out of the country. That's a great simplification of the operation, of course, but the point is that it was decided, it was done, and it was announced after it had already started.

President Bill Clinton did go through diplomatic and international motions before involving the United States in the Kosovo conflict in the 1990s, but on two other occasions he, as commander-in-chief, simply ordered military attacks. Both came in 1998, the first against Afghanistan and the second against Iraq. It later was learned that the strike against Afghanistan was an attempt to kill Osama bin Laden. He had been identified through satellite surveillance and was believed to be vulnerable. Clinton ordered the attack on a few minutes' notice, but bin Laden had either fled the area or taken shelter moments before the missiles struck.

In all of these cases, the president decided that there either was no time for a full-blown round of advance preparation, consultation, and notification, or that there was no need for it.

Obama's approach to Syria has been quite the opposite. For months he resisted calls from many of his political opponents to act aggressively against the Syrian regime. Only now, more than a year after the United States really started getting uncomfortable with what was happening in Syria, has Obama decided military action is necessary. But even then, bolstered by the knowledge not only of the recent chemical weapons attack but a full year of atrocities perpetrated on Syria's own people by its own government, the president has undergone an exhaustive -- and, apparently, politically damaging -- process of justifying his position and seeking approval of it from others.

It now appears possible that a diplomatic solution might be achievable, although that would rely on the dubious prospect of trusting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Until yesterday, remember, he had denied that Syria even had chemical weapons.

But, as the old saying goes, it's easier to ask forgiveness than permission. Not that taking military action against a dictator who is using chemical weapons would require forgiveness, but some now are wondering at this point why it requires so much permission. In his speech to the nation Tuesday, Obama made a reasoned and plausible case for military action. Reasonable people disagree with it, but they also can understand it. He is the commander-in-chief, he has a rational case for taking action. Perhaps that ought to be enough. Other presidents have thought so.

When this is all over -- and that could take awhile -- both Obama and history might wonder why the limited tactical military strike that he described in Tuesday's national address was not simply carried out on his authority last week, rather than engaging in this excruciating public relations effort that isn't working well at all. Not everything has to be done based on a poll or a sense of the Senate vote. The president is the boss and, in retrospect, he might decide that he would've been no worse off had he simply ordered the action on his own.

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MAIL SUBSCRIBERS: Tuesday's edition of The Ranger was delivered to the Riverton post office at 3:28 p.m., in time to meet the postal deadline for next-day mail delivery.

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