Barack Obama’s Failure of Leadership

It is not without irony that a legacy of a leader can take years to construct— but can be torn down in a single moment.

Many believe that leadership is about grand and sweeping campaigns and they can be—take Winston Churchill’s magnificent performance during World War II. But more often leadership is about a series of moments and the decisions made during those all-important occasions when it seems all is at stake.

By the nature of the job, presidents of countries—especially the one that heads the world’s lone remaining superpower—get more of those moments than say, leaders of corporations or other organizations.

Obama had such a moment on Saturday, August 31st, in the early afternoon. And he went down without a fight.

It was at about 2 pm Washington time that Obama stunned the world with an abrupt about- face on his tactical policy against one of the world’s worst mass-murderers—instead leaving the decision in the hands of the most incompetent congress in America’s 237 years as a Constitutional Republic. [The 113th Congress—has been called the “do-less-than-nothing Congress” by more pundits and news organizations than one can count].

First a quick bit of history: for 30 months Bashar al-Assad—the dictator of Syria– has been slaughtering tens of thousands of his own people—in a civil war against an opposition made up of many factions. The Western world watched, waited, and did nothing, hoping that the whole thing would simply go away. Instead the situation deteriorated with each passing week as more Syrians—and more innocents—were murdered by al-Assad’s armies, a fighting force which dwarfed anything he faced from the opposition. Even when Obama’s closest advisors and political foes alike told him he needed to arm the opposition, he waved them off and did nothing.

Then on August 21st, 2013, al-Assad did the unthinkable: he used sarin and perhaps other chemicals to murder more than 1,400 innocents, with more than 420 of those being children. Jews around the globe were reminded of another leader and another time in which a different gas was used to produce similar results.

Now al-Assad finally got what he did not want: the world’s attention.

Now let’s turn back the clock a year to when President Obama–in another pivotal moment— made his bold declaration: when asked about his stance on Syria he said that the “game-changer would come when Syria would throw a whole bunch of chemical weapons” around Syria. That was what he called his own “red line,” his line in the sand. No one doubted him. Wait. I take that back. Evidence now shows that his greatest foes—including al-Assad—likely questioned the word of the young American leader. Some say Obama was talking only for himself and not the nation. But the leader of the free world has no such luxury. Anything he says in front of a camera or a journalist becomes the word of the country.

It should come as no surprise that Obama is one of the most reluctant war Presidents in history. It is a good thing that he is called the “anti-Bush,” ending wars instead of starting them. That was one of the primary attractions of the young Senator from the land of Lincoln. He had called Iraq a “dumb war” long before he became president, and as President promised to bring back our heroes from Iraq and Afghanistan. He seized the moment by making good on those promises, for better or worse.

But then the Syrian crisis occurred and Obama’s red line was obliterated. And with the world’s eyes upon him, including al-Assad’s, Obama had the worst moment of his five-year presidency—when he decided to “punt” when he needed to lead. The president appeared indecisive and his foreign policy looked muddled at best. That moment played out on the world stage in a far harsher manner than it did in the U.S. Here four out of five war-weary Americans said they want Obama to get Congressional approval before striking at al-Assad’s war-making tools, even if it involves a very limited campaign with no boots on the ground. But the War Powers Resolution of 1973 gives the President the power to strike at al-Assad’s regime just so long as the attack is less than 60 days in duration.

Across the world reaction— and judgment— was swift.  “I think Obama has no desire to act,” said an Israeli statesmen following the press statement. “The Americans have lost the battle even before it started,” boasted the newly emboldened Syrian Deputy Prime Minister on a Pro-Syrian television station.” The next morning the key Syrian newspaper described Obama’s decision as a “historical American defeat.” One could only wonder what other leaders—like those in Iran and Russia and North Korea— thought of President Obama and the United States when the American President decided that he would allow members of Congress to complete their vacations and come back in ten days on September 9th. The urgency of now became the urgency  of… whenever. And what did Obama do after the worst moment of his presidency? He went golfing with his Vice-President.

For those of us who have followed and admired the first African American president the optics of the day were truly devastating. This was a President who always had the ability to do the right thing at the right time. But on this day his own decision- making abilities failed him, giving al-Assad a huge gift. It was bad enough that Obama had telegraphed—even televised—every aspect of his entire meager war plan against the regime. No boots on the ground, no regime change, nothing to really fear. Just a few targeted missile attacks, Mr. al-Assad, and you can go on your merry way killing and maiming, just so long as you do not use gas or other weapons of mass- destruction to do it. Now the Syrian leader has at least ten days to move all of his stockpiles of chemicals and weapons and troops. And what if he feels emboldened to order larger scale chemical attacks? What can we do? Congress is on vacation. In other words, even if Congress eventually does authorize force, it will be far too little, far too late. At this juncture, only a very specific and vigorous strategic battle plan with achievable goals could do real harm to the Iranian-backed Syrian regime.

How do we know that Obama failed? By what measure do I make such a judgment? The one leader I have observed and written about most extensively is Jack Welch, the former Chairman and CEO of General Electric. In Welch’s proven “4E” leadership model, he held that the most important two “E’s” of a leader is “Edge” and “Execution.”

Edge is the ability to make the really tough yes/no decisions and avoid the maybes.

Execution is the ability to transform a leader’s vision into reality.

On the final day of August of 2013, President Obama had neither edge nor execution. He never got to “execution” because he lacked edge and went straight to “maybe,” the very worst signal to send to the world at that pivotal moment. As a result, the word and reputation of the United States —and the presidency—will suffer for years to come. As he himself said, it does not matter who occupies the office when a decision like this is made. The office itself suffers. And perhaps the worst thing about this entire affair is that there is no way to turn back the clock, nowhere to go to get our reputation back. And who can the Syrian people go to now, as al-Assad continues his war with impunity against his own people?

— Jeffrey A. Krames, September 1, 2013/September 2, 2013



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