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Russia’s Syrian Escalation Tests Obama’s Crisis Response

  • Aru Pande

As Russia lobbed missiles into the skies over Syria, Republican leaders lobbed their own missive against President Barack Obama this week.

“From repeatedly seeking to declare some arbitrary end to the war on terror, to discarding the tools we have to wage it, to placing unhealthy levels of trust in unaccountable international organizations - the president’s foreign policy has been as predictable as it has been ineffectual,” Mitch McConnell said.

The Senate majority leader spoke Wednesday, as Moscow launched cruise missiles on extremist targets in Syria from its warships in the Caspian Sea.

“Dissatisfied powers like Russia, China and Iran are all looking to exploit American withdrawal in pursuit of regional hegemony and dreams of empire,” McConnell said on the Senate floor during a vote on the National Defense Authorization Act.

The Republican leader is not alone in his concerns about Russian involvement in Syria.

Smoke rises after airstrikes by military jets in Talbiseh, a city in western Syria’s Homs province, where Russia launched airstrikes for the first time, Sept. 30, 2015. The image was made from video provided by Homs Media Center and authenticated by AP.

Smoke rises after airstrikes by military jets in Talbiseh, a city in western Syria’s Homs province, where Russia launched airstrikes for the first time, Sept. 30, 2015. The image was made from video provided by Homs Media Center and authenticated by AP.

Syria

As the country’s air campaign dominates headlines, critics of the administration are once again questioning whether the American president has been slow to act on the Syrian conflict, thus creating an opening for powers like Russia.

During a press conference last week, Obama hit out at such criticism.

“When I hear people offering up half-baked ideas as if they are solutions, or trying to downplay the challenges involved in this situation - what I’d like to see people ask is, specifically, precisely, 'What exactly would you do?'” the president shot back.

During a lengthy explanation to a reporter’s question on Syria, Obama said people are looking for an “easy, low-cost answer” to a “hugely difficult, complex problem.”

He cited lessons learned from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the United States spent enormous time, effort and resources.

“When I make a decision about the level of military involvement that we're prepared to engage in, in Syria, I have to make a judgment based on, once we start something we’ve got to finish it. And we’ve got to do it well. And do we, in fact," Obama asked, "have the resources and the capacity to make a serious impact?”

FILE - President Barack Obama holds a meeting with National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice, John Podesta, Counselor to the President and Phil Reiner, Senior Director for South Asian Affairs, aboard Air Force One.

FILE - President Barack Obama holds a meeting with National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice, John Podesta, Counselor to the President and Phil Reiner, Senior Director for South Asian Affairs, aboard Air Force One.

What drives action

This is classic President Obama, Georgetown University professor Stephen Wayne says.

From the outset of his presidency, Obama has demanded a diverse set of views, basing decisions on information not emotion.

“He is very rational, does not demonstrate a lot of emotion and doesn’t want to be the first African American president to make a major mistake. So he errs on the side of caution. And caution means you go slowly rather than go quickly. That’s the nature of the man,” Wayne said.

The Georgetown government professor says while the Middle East may be in worse shape than when Obama took office, the president is not to blame for a perceived failure to act, particularly in Syria.

"In a democracy, you can’t move without extended public support. He does not have the public [support]. He made the statement about chemical weapons in Syria, that we are going to bomb them. Then he looked at the polls and there was no support for a military response,” Wayne said.

No president can predict what’s going to happen, but George Washington University’s Matthew Dallek says the question is how quickly an administration senses when an issue becomes one that commands presidential attention.

The political management professor draws parallels to former President Bill Clinton, who was criticized for not acting quickly and decisively to put an end to Serbian atrocities in Kosovo during the late 1990s.

“In part he is judged on the result. That military campaign from the air was seen as a success, even though for many years, his critics were saying he was doing very little to nothing and really was AWOL and really this moral abject failure to intervene in the Balkans,” Dallek said.

Whether it be the spread of Ebola in West Africa or Islamic State militants in the Middle East, analysts say ultimately the president’s response to a crisis is driven by a variety of factors – whether it be media coverage, public support for action or simply how much an issue means to the commander-in-chief.

“A lot of people see it thorough a partisan lens. This administration would also say, and somewhat rightly so, that ‘we had the foresight to take the initiative with Cuba, to take the initiative on the Iran nuclear agreement, to try to take the lead on climate change,’” Dallek noted. “So, it partly depends on what people’s priorities are and what they see as the most important issue.”

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