President Barack Obama’s handling of Syria has been widely pilloried by pundits across the spectrum. But it’s worth noting that there are two genres of criticism of the president — one useful and the other largely useless — and the distinction goes to the heart of what’s wrong with so much Beltway discourse these days.
The first of these falls into the category of criticism of Obama’s policy choices. Progressive editorial boards, MSNBC, foreign policy experts and tea party libertarians have questioned Obama’s decisions, on the policy merits, on Syria and National Security Agency surveillance. They have asked, rightly, whether bombing Syria would accomplish the goals Obama articulated and have argued that surveillance overreach violates basic civil liberties and isn’t necessary to defend against terrorism. Others on the left — again joined by some Republicans — have attacked Obama, rightly, for threatening to bomb Syria without congressional authorization. These are substantive differences over policy and the proper exercise of presidential power — arguments of real consequence.
These criticisms matter far more than the other genre of criticism of Obama, which is largely focused on the president’s handling of process and theatrics and the consequences that allegedly has had for him and the country. Into this category fall the arguments that Obama’s shifts during the Syria crisis have been “confusing and contradictory”; that this has made him “appear weak on the international stage”; and that he has failed to muscle a progressive agenda through Congress. (Never mind that Obama has passed more major liberal legislation than any president since Lyndon B. Johnson.)
This second genre often suffers from a fatal dodge: Its practitioners regularly criticize Obama on process without taking a stand on underlying policy debates. Pundits blast Obama for failing to “bend Congress to his will” without saying who is right, Obama or Republicans, on the issues driving their disputes and without addressing whether structural political realities have rendered Republicans ideologically unable to compromise — the question central to understanding U.S. politics today.
On Syria, pundits blast Obama for “changing his mind” on going to Congress and pursuing diplomacy without saying whether they think those were the right things to do. (This is separate from arguing about Obama’s motive for doing these things; they can be seen as right on the merits despite the political considerations that may have driven them.) See Al Hunt, Stuart Rothenberg and John Harris for good examples.
If these critics think Obama should have bombed without congressional assent and should not have pursued diplomacy when the chance arose, they should say so. Perhaps they think changing course midstream — even in response to changing circumstances and even if it put us on a better course — nonetheless weakened Obama and the country. Even so, critics should take a stand on whether doing the right thing was worth the trade-off.
I think the stated consequences of presidential mind-changing are vastly overstated. But if you are going to insist those consequences are significant, what good does it do anyone to assert as much without also taking stock of the relative consequences of the choices themselves? Outcomes matter. If a diplomatic solution is reached, won’t the alleged short-term blow to Obama and/or the country that resulted from changing course have proven worth it?
Very broadly speaking, the conventions of “nonpartisan” and “non-ideological” analysis hold that you’re allowed to criticize on grounds of process without stating a preference about policy outcomes. I’m not saying there’s no role for such analysis. But it often props up unstated and unexamined assumptions (a president should never change his mind, because, well, just because) and ends up obfuscating far more than it clarifies.
Greg Sargent writes for the The Washington Post .