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Sherman Says: Administration could learn a lot from the animal kingdom

The roller coaster course of American foreign policy toward Syria is giving political commentators and average citizens a great deal to discuss.

Two weeks ago, I wrote that “in August 2012, more than a year ago, Obama told reporters that any evidence that Assad was using chemical weapons could prompt the United States to act, according to The Times.”

All I can visualize is a nervous crook’s walking into a bank with his hand in his pocket, his index finger’s creating a concealed point, and announcing, “This is a stickup.” The bank teller – in this case the Syrian government – has little reason to believe that the suspect’s finger is really a pistol. Even if it is, there is little reason to believe that it is going to be fired. Sounds like this week’s version of U.S. foreign policy.

A wrap-up of last Sunday morning’s political theater on the major networks was direct. Many guests were still talking about President Barack Obama’s change of opinion regarding holding off military action, in favor of allowing Congress to debate the issue.

Congress was not in session at the time, and leaders of both parties balked at the idea of calling members back to Washington early. There was an obvious lack of urgency on Capitol Hill, reflecting how disinterested most Americans were, when it came to interfering in a civil war on the other side of the planet.

Do not just take my opinion on this. On Sept. 13, David Ignatius of the Washington Post wrote, “What is President Obama doing with his bob-and-weave Syria policy that seemingly bounces between bombing and diplomacy in the space of 15 minutes? The answer tells us some worrying things about the breakdown of America’s old foreign-policy consensus and Obama’s difficulty creating a new one.”

During the president’s recent European trip, someone asked Obama how someone who was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize could be beating the drum for military intervention in Syria. For Obama, it’s a true catch-22.

Ignatius hit the nail on the head further, in the same column. “The president … wants to lead, but he wants to listen, too,” Ignatius said. “He wants to end wars, but also to intervene militarily. He wants to stay out of the Syrian war and also support the opposition. To resolve this confusion, he proposes an inductive kind of leadership. It sounded almost like government by focus group.”

The outcome is that the respect we once enjoyed in the world community is crumbling like a sand castle at high tide. For all our military might at anchor in the Mediterranean, the Syrians are unfazed. Their allies, the Russians, are now calling the signals for the surrender and neutralizing of the deadly nerve gas inventory.

The U.S. allowed the linchpin to solving the Syrian crisis to be snatched away by the equally suspicious Russians. Someone needs to wake up the White House.

The president’s vacillation on the Syrian situation has been called “dangerous” more than once, during the last few weeks. That is because we now appear unable to back up our words with actions. I’m not saying we should begin bombing Syria in the morning; I am saying we must set stronger precedents, when entering the ring with tyrants.

Columbia law professor Philip Bobbitt recalled quotes from “The Prince,” saying, “A prince must sometimes practice the ways of beasts; he should choose from among them the fox and the lion, for while the lion cannot defend himself from traps, the fox cannot protect himself from wolves. It is therefore necessary to be a fox in order to recognize traps, and a lion in order to frighten wolves.”

“[Obama] recognizes traps and generally avoids them. But he needs more lion,” Ignatius wrote. “This means bold policy; diplomacy backed by the threat of military force. To succeed in reframing U.S. power, Obama will need to frighten the wolves on Capitol Hill and in the Kremlin. Otherwise, they will devour what’s left of his presidency.”

David Sherman is the managing editor of Bee Group Newspapers and a columnist for the Weekly Independent Newspapers of Western New York, a group of community newspapers with a combined circulation of 286,500 readers. Opinions expressed here are those of the author. He can be reached at

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