The congressional standoff about raising the debt limit has undoubtedly harmed the United States abroad by making us look like an irresponsible country, ready to abuse our superpower status by endangering the world economy, and by sowing doubt as to the reliability of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency. There may be no credible substitute for American leadership or for the dollar for the time being, but doubt has begun to erode confidence in both. Our vaunted democratic system is looking less and less like a desirable role model.
When the crisis and brinkmanship began, President Obama was accused of having a shaky response to Syria, and friends and foes have begun to think of him as a weak and uncertain president.
But wait a minute. Let’s look at the results of Obama’s indecision over Syria. At best a limited American airstrike would have done little to harm the regime of Bashar Assad — it would have been an ineffectual slap on the wrist. At worst it might have drawn this country into yet another quagmire like Afghanistan. Instead, a serious Russian–American diplomatic initiative has begun to dismantle Syria’s chemical arms arsenal. It could all go wrong of course, but at the moment it looks as though we have a good chance of ridding the Middle East of Syrian weapons of mass destruction without a military intervention. That’s something the president should get credit for. Ever since the Korean War ended 50 years ago America’s military interventions have seldom achieved their goals, and in some cases been outright disasters.
Of course Russia’s President Putin deserves credit too, but the initiative to engage the Russians in the removal of Syria’s chemical weapons was in the works long before Syria’s gas attack on its own civilians. If we could get Russia more closely involved with solving Syria’s debilitating civil war, it would be a great feather in Obama’s cap as well. Much better to have a president who considers all the options short of the military option, even if he seems temporarily indecisive, than one who leaps before he looks — as we had with the gut instincts of George W. Bush.
The government shutdown and debt ceiling crisis also drew attention from the encouraging spectacle of Iran sitting down with the international community to resolve their nuclear differences. The Obama-led sanctions are hurting, and Iran wants to find a way out. This could all go wrong, too, if mutual mistrust proves too strong to overcome, or because one side or the other overplays its hand. But the Iranian military has told its civilian leaders that it can defend the country against any conventional attack, but that an Iranian bomb would be so disturbing to their neighbors that the subsequent arms race would seriously destabilize the region.
Obama is not the first president to sound out Congress about a military strike and be told that support wasn’t there, or the first president to run it by the ever-faithful British and be told no. In 1954 President Eisenhower was told that Congress would not support an armed intervention to save the French fortress of Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam, and even Winston Churchill, Ike’s old comrade in arms, told the Americans no. Eisenhower was advised that the United States would look weak and indecisive if it didn’t intervene in Indochina. But Eisenhower, like Obama, decided not to go it alone without international — especially British — support, or without the consent of Congress.
Of course Eisenhower was a military hero, an experienced leader in running a great enterprise, before he was president, and Obama is neither. But they both had in common a desire to keep America out of unnecessary wars, and if Obama succeeds in either dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons, or reaching an agreement with Iran, he will have earned that Nobel Peace Prize he was given before he deserved it.
As for the debt limit standoff, even Republicans admit Obama won.H.D.S. Greenway is a former editorial page editor of the Globe.