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After Faltering Weeks For Obama, What Counts Is Winning

Protesters gather outside the White House on Tuesday before President Obama addressed the nation about the situation in Syria. Obama said he was asking Congress to delay authorizing a strike on Syria to allow a diplomatic plan to work.
Win McNamee
Getty Images
Protesters gather outside the White House on Tuesday before President Obama addressed the nation about the situation in Syria. Obama said he was asking Congress to delay authorizing a strike on Syria to allow a diplomatic plan to work.

Sometimes presidents have to make things up as they go along.

President Obama's decisions have had an improvisational air these past three weeks. His course on Syria kept shifting, at times seemingly guided by offhand remarks.

But the results are what count.

"If it works out in the end, the president's allowed to be uncertain," says Tim Naftali, a former director of the Nixon presidential library. "Oftentimes, the judgment you get during the crisis is not the judgment you get at the end."

There's still plenty of opportunity for problems to emerge when it comes to implementing the deal to rid Syria of chemical weapons, announced Saturday by Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

No one has tried to dispose of weapons of mass destruction on such an accelerated timetable — and certainly not in the middle of an ongoing civil war. Obama's critics note that this deal does nothing to drive Syrian President Bashar Assad from power.

Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina called the deal "an act of provocative weakness on America's part." In a statement, they wrote, "It requires a willful suspension of disbelief to see this agreement as anything other than the start of a diplomatic blind alley."

If you get under the skin of most crises, they'd have this kind of ad hockery.

But the fact that the U.S. and Russia were able to put a framework in place at the end of a week when Obama's Plan A — bombing Syria — had lost traction at home will help erase some of the memories of how haphazardly the administration had initially handled the crisis.

"If you get under the skin of most crises, they'd have this ad hockery," Naftali says. "The point is, we don't usually see it."

Unusual Vantage

We all learned from The Godfather that it's OK for families and organizations to disagree among themselves, but they shouldn't display their differences in public.

That didn't happen with Syria. High-ranking members of the administration seemed to be talking past each other at times in recent weeks, outlining contradictory approaches and tactics.

"We got to watch something that historians normally only get to see 20 or 30 or 40 years later," says Naftali, now a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. "We got to see how hard it is to make foreign policy in the United States."

It's not unusual for the presidential response to an unexpected crisis to take unforeseen turns. But normally the public doesn't get to watch in such high-definition detail.

"This would not be the first administration that has been a little bit at sea, that hasn't had control of the situation," says Fredrik Logevall, a historian of international relations at Cornell University. "The difference here is that it's playing out much more quickly and much more publicly than we've seen in the past."

Failure To Whip

This happened for a number of reasons. Syria may have deserved punishment for its use of chemical weapons on Aug. 21, but no one could say what effects a bombing campaign might have.

The president wanted to get political cover, or at least buy-in, from Congress. He may have been surprised at the extent of the opposition to his plans.

"Republicans tend to be more hawkish, at least since World War II, and he may have thought at the end of the day [House Democratic Leader Nancy] Pelosi would bring people around, that he would prevail on this," Logevall says.

It was clear, though, that the administration had not counted the votes before announcing the decision to take the matter to Congress.

And Obama, despite warning about a "red line" a year ago, does not seem to have had an action plan in place in case Syrians ever did unleash their weapons of mass destruction.

"When they said chemical weapons were a red line, did they know what they would actually do if that red line was crossed?" asks Ronald Neumann, president of the American Academy of Diplomacy.

Making It Up As You Go

This happens to every president. Short of nuclear war — for which there is planning that covers every conceivable turn of events, or at least rigid procedures in place — presidents have to adjust their plans in response to crises as they come up.

"Presidents always have to be improvisational," says William Howell, a political scientist at the University of Chicago and co-author of a new book called The Wartime President. "One of their problems is an uncooperative world. Things don't always play out the way they would like."

Other presidents would have looked as uncertain as Obama did recently, if only media coverage had been similar.

Following the 1983 bombing of Marine barracks in Lebanon, Ronald Reagan changed his minds about air strikes, leaving allies guessing about his intentions in the middle of the night. In regard to Iraq in 1990, George H.W. Bush's own associates didn't know he would say, "This will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait," until he said it.

"This is exactly what you would have seen if the Cuban missile crisis hadn't happened in private," says Naftali, who is working on a book about John F. Kennedy. "The history's been prettied up."

Making Strategy In Public

Obama is operating in a different age. No other White House has responded to comments about a president's speech on Twitter even as he was delivering it, as happened with Obama's address last Tuesday.

"There are some features that are new, this sense that the president and people speaking on his behalf have to state and restate and update his official policy position every few hours," Howell says.

What's more, Obama is surrounded by talkers. Samantha Power, his ambassador to the United Nations, is a former academic who has an abiding career interest in humanitarian interventions. Kerry served 28 years in the Senate and was a presidential candidate accustomed to speaking his mind.

"He's used to being a senator and saying whatever he wants," Neumann says. "He's too big a personality to say, 'Mother, may I?' "

Kerry may at moments have seemed to contradict the president's messages, but his apparently inadvertent remark about Syria giving up its stock of weapons led not just to talks but the unexpected deal with the Russians.

At best, this story still has months to play out. "The Syrians will dissemble and lie and cheat, just the way the Iraqis did," says Neumann, who served as ambassador to Afghanistan under President George W. Bush.

What matters ultimately is the outcome. Presidents can stumble and bumble along the way and still be remembered as having played things just right, Naftali says.

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Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.