President Obama’s Leadership Challenges At Home And Abroad

MR. FRANK SESNO

10:06:54
And thanks for joining us. I'm Frank Sesno of the George Washington University and host of Planet Forward sitting in for Diane Rehm. Diane will be back on Wednesday. The U.S. and Russia reached an agreement on Saturday to take control of and destroy stockpiles of chemical weapons in Syria. The agreement takes off the table, for now at least, the threat of U.S. military intervention.

MR. FRANK SESNO

10:07:17
Debate over the crisis in Syria has overshadowed the upcoming fierce but familiar congressional battles that could lead to a government shutdown or default or both. Joining me to talk about leadership challenges for President Obama and Washington at home and abroad: James Thurber of American University, Byron York of the Washington Examiner and, from a studio at NPR in New York City, Katrina vanden Heuvel. Good day to you all.

MR. JAMES THURBER

10:07:44
Good day.

MR. BYRON YORK

10:07:44
Good morning.

MS. KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL

10:07:44
Thank you.

SESNO

10:07:45
Byron, why don't you start us off here? We have for now, as I mentioned, a reprieve of sorts in this issue of whether the United States is going to launch a military strike in Syria and when and over what circumstances, but major disagreement over how we got here, whether this reflects strength or weakness, a welcome development in many corners nonetheless. Bring us up to speed on what took place over the weekend.

YORK

10:08:09
Well, you know, I do not see how this can make the president or the United States look stronger. I just don't see how that can happen. What we have over the weekend, I think, is, in the clear light of day, we're seeing a plan that doesn't look workable. We've learned how much effort it takes to remove chemical weapons, to destroy chemical weapons, how many people are involved, and we're trying to sort of put that onto the Syrian civil war situation. And it doesn't work.

SESNO

10:08:41
And the plan itself consists of...

YORK

10:08:44
Well, the plan itself consists of having forces who would go in -- first of all, having the regime identify where perhaps all of the chemical weapons are, having some sort of international forces go in and protect them. This is in the middle of a civil war. And then there's a long process of removal. Destroying is complex. This has taken years and years when it's been tried in other places. And I think the United States appears to be kind of following along with international momentum and the president not leading.

SESNO

10:09:20
And, Katrina vanden Heuvel, this depends upon the Russians.

HEUVEL

10:09:26
I think it depends on both countries and both leaders to support what too often has been missing in U.S. foreign policy national security, which is a belief that diplomatic action should be tried, tried, tested, tested. I think what we've seen over the weekend is a remarkably ambitious plan, but it is far more effective, offers a better chance of deterring the threat than the limited military strikes that President Obama was considering.

HEUVEL

10:09:54
Frank, I mean, one thing I feel is, too often, there is an inside-the-beltway assessment of how one measures credibility or bold leadership. Too often it's linked to military action, and I think that whoever wants to take credit for this important diplomatic plan, which could revive an important U.S.-Russian relationship which would be constructive in a number of geopolitical arenas, let them take it.

HEUVEL

10:10:20
But the media coverage has been who's up, who's down. Putin poked Obama in the eye. There are vital national security interests at stake here and the stake of millions of people's lives and the stake in the future of a region. So I think we need to assess credibility in different ways, and I know we'll come to it. But the real credibility crisis in Washington is that the Republican Party is no longer capable of effective governance of our nation.

SESNO

10:10:47
Well, we'll come to if not all of that, Katrina, then certainly a lot of it in our discussion today. But I would like you talk a little bit more about the plan itself, the role the Russians...

HEUVEL

10:10:57
Absolutely.

SESNO

10:10:57
...must play because it is the Russians, after all, who have the Syrians as their allies, who've been blocking the strategic U.N. security resolution.

HEUVEL

10:11:07
Absolutely. And I think it's very important to pick up the -- to change slightly, tweak what President Reagan said of his dealings with Soviet President Leader Mikhail Gorbachev at a different time, also focused on nuclear issues, which is not trust, but verify, but test, test, test the resolve of Russia to hold its ally to what is a daunting and ambitious agreement.

HEUVEL

10:11:31
It's going to require vigilance and commitment by the U.N., and it's going to require comprehensive listing by Syria of its chemical arsenal within a week. And this will include types and quantities of poison gas and storage production and research sites. The agreement also requires immediate and unfettered access to these sites by international inspectors with the inspection to be completed by November.

SESNO

10:11:53
And then what becomes of those weapons?

HEUVEL

10:11:55
What becomes of those weapons is, either within Syria or outside, they will begin to be dismantled and destroyed. Now, don't hold me to this. I'm not a weapons expert, but I will say that those like Charles Duelfer, Hans Blix who were involved with the Iraq inspections process, believe that this is complex.

HEUVEL

10:12:15
But if there is a political will and there is the backing of the United States-Russia, the international community, which we have seen in this last period, and the U.N., it is possible to dismantle. Now, it is, of course, not to be forgotten that the United States and Russia have worked for 15 years to eliminate their own chemical arms stocks and still have years to go.

HEUVEL

10:12:35
But I think the beginning of this process is critical not only to destroy Syria's chemical weapons and to note that it signed the chemical weapons convention agreement, but the process might open the way to a broader settlement of the Syrian civil war, which is at the heart of so much of the instability and the horrors of humanitarian refugee crises and other factors in the Middle East, and could open the way to a different resolution of the Iranian nuclear program with a more moderate president having just been elected coming to the U.N. next week, in fact, following or speaking soon after President Obama will speak from that podium.

SESNO

10:13:13
So, Jim Thurber, depending on, you know, what we -- we often say, what you see depends upon where you stand, so we've already heard here a little bit with our guests that there is the argument to be made that President Obama has reinforced his position. He's averted a military confrontation. He's made real progress that could go deeper than a mere retaliation. Others believe that this demonstrates a lack of resolve, even reluctance, in reactivity to the world -- very different style from his predecessor, George W. Bush. You've written about this, studied presidential leadership. Your take?

THURBER

10:13:46
Well, I don't think Obama has strengthened the office during this period over Syria. Even before the Syrian issue, I regarded Obama during this divided party government period as quite weak. And, remember, he was phenomenally successful in the first two years in office and then lost, in 2010, 87 Democrats in the House of Representatives, and it's been very difficult.

THURBER

10:14:14
One thing we do know, that presidents should have a clear strategy, theme and message linked to tactics and with respect to foreign policy, campaigning or domestic policy. And in this case, he seemed to not be predictable in terms of what he was going to do with respect to Syria.

SESNO

10:14:32
Not predictable.

THURBER

10:14:33
Well, in the sense that, just before they were going in one direction using force against Assad, he changed his mind after the vote in the House of Commons being lost in terms of their support of the United States in this action. They decided to take the issue to Congress. That was a surprise to his own advisors, very much a surprise on the Hill.

THURBER

10:14:58
And on the Hill, we have weak leadership. Boehner is weak. He's got a far right wing -- the Tea Party that will do everything to undermine the president. And in this case, they didn't support it. And then he has the progressives on the left that were very concerned about this also. So he has a problem of this individualism on the Hill, problem of his leadership, problem that he doesn't really like Congress and doesn't have close friends. And it's really a problem to get things done.

SESNO

10:15:30
Byron York.

YORK

10:15:31
There's also the message that he sent to the world. Go back to August 31. The president comes out into the Rose Garden. A lot of people thought he was going to announce that strikes against Syria had begun or would begin very soon. And he says, after careful deliberation, I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets.

YORK

10:15:54
So he announces his conclusion and this is what we should do. And a lot of Republicans, at the time, said he should've just done it. I mean, do it and then talk to Congress later. That's the way a number of presidents have done it in the past. There would be some members of Congress who were complaining that the president should have consulted him.

YORK

10:16:15
But with military action, the focus would have been on the success of the United States' effort in Syria. Instead, he created the situation in which momentum began to build against him not just among Republicans, but Republicans were almost unanimous, with the exception, by the way, of the leadership, Boehner and Cantor in the House of Representatives.

SESNO

10:16:34
Katrina, your response to that?

HEUVEL

10:16:36
There's something fundamentally anti-Democratic about this conversation because, first of all, I believe -- in The Nation, which I edit, and I've been critical of President Obama's foreign policy leadership largely on the failure to break with the post-9/11 national security policies. But I do think President Obama displayed sensible caution at a certain point on Syria and rebuked those who kept saying U.S. credibility is on the line.

HEUVEL

10:17:03
I mean, those who say that show neither the slightest awareness of the distress, cynicism, and hatred that would be generated if dying Syrian civilians are the victims of U.S. bombs or of the deep divide within the Muslim world over the civil war there. I think, again, this idea of bold resolute leadership or not going to Congress -- which, by the way, is not just a petty thing.

HEUVEL

10:17:26
I know that the president, in some ways, chose to do it because perhaps nimbly he wanted to find a way to extricate himself, but we haven't had a declaration of war by Congress since World War II. I understand this was a military strike, but to go to Congress was to be responsive, which has been, I would think, one of the things people seek from a president responsive to the lack of lust for war or military action after two interventions, Iraq and Afghanistan, on the part of the American people, war weary American people.

SESNO

10:17:56
Jim Thurber, your...

HEUVEL

10:17:57
But I will say the U.K., the British parliamentary vote, was also critical because you could hear people saying here, wait, they had a debate in that parliament. Why can't we, as a democracy, have a debate in ours? So I think that was an important moment in all power not just to this idea that the use of force -- the threatened use of force was so important, but there was a threatened Democratic opposition that was important in delaying these military strikes.

SESNO

10:18:25
We're discussing President Obama's response to the crisis in Syria and whether this strengthens or weakens him as a domestic and international leader. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." More coming up in just a moment.

SESNO

10:20:02
And welcome back to "The Diane Rehm Show." I'm Frank Sesno sitting in for Diane today. We're discussing Syria, the crisis there, President Obama's response, and the impact this has and what it says about his leadership domestically and internationally.

SESNO

10:20:15
We're discussing this with: James Thurber, professor and director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University, author of "Obama in Office: The First Two Years," Byron York, chief political correspondent for the Washington Examiner, author of "The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy: The Untold Story of the Democrats' Desperate Fight to Reclaim Power," and Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation, also an author, "The Change I Believe In: Fighting For Progress In the Age of Obama."

SESNO

10:20:41
Jim Thurber, I'm going to come to you in just a minute to kind of condense and digest a bit some of what you've heard from Katrina and Byron here. But the discussion and debate that they've teed up really is remarkable and reflects, I think, a fairly unusual moment in a national discourse because it's such an unusual response the president has had to the situation in Syria.

SESNO

10:21:03
I posted on my Facebook page the nature of this discussion today and got a number of immediate responses when I said, does this make -- I asked the question, does this make -- or suggest that Barack Obama is stronger or weaker? One person said, "I think weaker. I believe he lost support from his voting base, not because of the deal which I believe the vast majority support but because diplomacy was an apparent afterthought."

SESNO

10:21:24
Someone else: "If he did this on purpose, he's stronger. Come on, one day he's with Putin, the following day Kerry challenges him, and Putin responds with help. Putin has more to lose than we do." Finally this: "The deal was obviously in the works for some time so not only did diplomacy win out over military action, he, meaning Obama, now has Russian credibility on the line as they must help oversee the confiscation, destruction of their partner Syria with chemical weapons." So people very much divided, Jim Thurber, in how they're viewing this.

THURBER

10:21:56
Well, the American public doesn't seem to be very divided. About 75 percent of the American people did not want him to use force. But let's look at this. The credible threat of the use of force caused this to happen. The problem is that we go way back to his statement of the red line warning and not getting international support before he started moving towards the use of force. He had France, yes, but it would've been better to have other nations before he moved ahead.

THURBER

10:22:30
In other words, he didn't approach this incrementally showing international leadership and then, using force here, even without Congress with those other nations following him. Remember he promised -- and part of the whole campaign in 2008 against Hillary was he promised to get other nations to come with us if he went to war. This is an act of war. I mean, it may have been a strategic strike against certain weapons, but, as Dempsey said, it's war.

SESNO

10:23:01
Byron, Katrina mentioned a moment ago -- and we have others -- many others have observed that the nation is war weary. We were talking about the difference with the approach to things from George W. Bush. Isn't it possible that not just weary but less than productive is the sort of swaggering American president who issues a threat, pushes a button and unleashes a military response? Because, before this pivot by the president, there was a lot of discussion about OK, fine so you launch a limited response. So what? Then what? What do you achieve?

YORK

10:23:32
That was completely an issue. I would take issue a little bit with the swaggering response scenario. I went back and looked at the case that Bush made for war in Iraq. And there's 14 months between Axis of Evil speech in January of 2002 and invasion in March of 2003. And in between, there are all sorts of positions. There's making the case. There's going to the United Nations over and over and over again. There's work on gathering an international coalition.

YORK

10:24:04
Now this is nowhere near the size and scope of the Iraqi operation. I'm not suggesting that at all, but I think Jim is exactly right in saying that Obama did not prepare the way. He did make this red line comment in August of 2012. And after that, he didn't really assemble an international coalition to be behind him in taking some action against Syria. So when he comes out on August 31, having decided apparently the night before not to attack, he doesn't have anybody with him.

SESNO

10:24:38
Katrina, you've characterized the president's approach as nimble. How so?

HEUVEL

10:24:45
I believe that he -- first of all, if you go back to May, the president was displaying what I would call silver caution about military strikes in Syria. And I think, as we could see a week or so ago when he spoke of how the world had drawn a red line, I think Obama understood he spoke too loosely about this "red line" in Syria. But then perhaps he understood the most damaging thing he could do would be to take action simply to follow through. One doesn't correct for careless language through careless military action.

HEUVEL

10:25:14
But I think when he saw that he wasn't assembling not just the British special relationship partnership, he didn't have the American people behind him, he was nimble in going to Congress, which, by the way, is, you know, a constitutional mandate. It's not just a thing a president should cavalierly choose to do. But by going to Congress, by opening it up, and then by accepting, we still don't know the provenance of this diplomatic agreement. I have to -- we don't know if it goes back a year to when Putin and Obama met in Mexico.

HEUVEL

10:25:51
There is discussion that they talked then about this idea. There was also the G20. We don't know who raised it. But the ability to seize on this and say, let us move with this, and to continue with the speech he gave to the nation that night, which they had to have been rewriting up to the last minute, I think shows a nimbleness. And for that, it also speaks to a responsiveness, to a democratic instinct to the war weary people who were referred to earlier. So I think that's important. I also think...

SESNO

10:26:20
So, Katrina, let me -- yeah, let me -- let me...

HEUVEL

10:26:22
...it speaks to the understanding that there are limits of U.S. power in this world today that have to be respected.

SESNO

10:26:26
OK. Katrina, you talk about nimbleness, so let me just ask you to respond to Jackson Diehl who writes in the Washington Post about a rudderlessness. And he says, "There's no pretense of a strategy, only a reactive racing from fire to fire in the ad hoc concoction of responses." Apparently, that's something that a lot of people sense and feel. So what can or should the president do? Because it's so important that people sense both confidence and strength in their presidency, especially at a time like this.

HEUVEL

10:26:59
Well, Jackson Diehl is my editor at the Washington Post, but we disagree on almost everything when it comes to foreign policy.

SESNO

10:27:04
All the more reason for me to ask you what you think.

HEUVEL

10:27:05
I mean, Jackson is a believer in many ways in -- you know, in a -- what -- in -- all right. So I think we are at a time in this -- in the international relations of the world when it would suit America to understand the limits of its power. Does that mean rudderlessness? It means working with other nations in a multilateral way to find pathways for it, often diplomatic if possible. I don't find that rudderlessness. I think, as I said earlier, too often bold has meant regime change politics or a politics which treats America as the indispensable nation.

HEUVEL

10:27:46
I found in President Obama's speech to the nation a very important point, which is he said, we can't be the world's policemen. That may be viewed as rudderlessness by many people, but I think it's a measure of a humility which is also a leadership style, not aggressive, not swaggering, assertive when needed and nimble when possible.

SESNO

10:28:09
I'm going to invite our listeners to join the conversation in just a few minutes. You can call us at 1-800-433-8850. 1-800-433-8850 or you can email us at drshow@wamu.org. Jim Thurber, let me share with you a few of the things that the president's legislative friends -- and I use the term friends loosely -- had to say about this over the weekend.

SESNO

10:28:36
Rep. Chris van Hollen, Democrat from Maryland said, "We've gone beyond just deterring the future use of chemical weapons to a plan to actually destroy Assad's chemical weapons stockpile." He says, "This is a good thing and demonstrates strength." Sen. Roy Blunt -- he's a Republican from Missouri on the Armed Services Committee -- takes a very different approach.

SESNO

10:28:54
He says, "'Look, the Americans took their best shot at me,' Assad will say, 'and I'm still here.'" Blunt says -- and I'm quoting here, "Assad's a lot stronger today than he was two weeks ago." We have very different views of the president and the situation there.

THURBER

10:29:09
Well, if we get rid of the weapons of mass destruction, and it's verified -- and that will take sometimes years as they saw in Libya with Gadhafi. He still had some left over after he said he destroyed everything -- then Chris van Hollen is correct. I think Assad has been warned that, if he uses them again, it's going to be very bad because Putin will be putting pressure on him. But also, we may strike without getting permission.

THURBER

10:29:43
Remember the president can do that under the War Powers Act and under previous behaviors. Of course, it's better to have the support of Congress to do it. I think that there's a bloc of people in the House of Representatives and the Republican Party that just want to block him no matter what, on this, on the budget, on immigration, on all kinds of things. So it's very, very hard to govern this highly polarized situation, and especially when it comes to the fact that we no longer have a unified position on foreign policy as we did for many years after World War II.

SESNO

10:30:17
Byron, you have written that even though the large majority of the Republican lawmakers were united against military intervention, have spoken critically of the president, that's about the only thing they agree on amongst themselves. Explain what you mean by that and what the implications are for broader governance in this town.

YORK

10:30:35
Well, I was speaking about varieties of other issues including Obamacare, debt, spending, all these things that are coming up in Congress. And, you know, I must say the reason I even wrote that piece was I had spoken with a member -- fairly influential Republican member of Congress the night before. And he said to me this. He said, you know, I believe the White House wakes up every morning thinking how they can punch us in the nose. And I believe we wake up every morning thinking how we can punch each other in the nose.

YORK

10:31:09
And that was true.

SESNO

10:31:11
And that's a Republican who is talking about other Republicans.

YORK

10:31:12
That is a Republican talking. Yes. And...

SESNO

10:31:15
And we've got so much on the line, right. We've got the budget. We've got the debt ceiling. We've got a possible government shutdown. We've got immigration. We've got Obamacare, as you point out, so there's -- these are big deals.

YORK

10:31:23
Right. Right. And the Obamacare and the debt and the spending intersect because you have a significant group, but not a decisive group at all, of Republicans in the House and some in the Senate who want to stop any funding of the government that includes funding for Obamacare. And we saw a group of 43 members of the House stand up for this, and we've seen about 15 members of the Senate.

YORK

10:31:52
So these are subsets of the minority party in the Senate and a fairly small subset, about 20 percent, of the majority party in the House. But they have enough power, especially in the House, that they can make it very difficult for the party to proceed. And we've already seen John Boehner and Eric Cantor back off a plan.

YORK

10:32:13
They had a plan in which they could pass continuing resolution and still allow a vote against Obamacare, but they'd be separate so that Republicans could vote this -- Democrats would vote it down on Obamacare, but the continuing resolution would go ahead -- the government would be funded. The conservatives said, no way. Everybody's got to take a stand on this.

SESNO

10:32:31
I'm Frank Sesno, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And if you'd like to join us, may I invite you to call us at 1-800-433-8850. Send us an email at drshow@wamu.org. We'll go to your calls and your questions in just a minute. Jim Thurber, size up what we're confronting in terms of, you know, possible government shutdown and all the rest that Byron was talking a moment ago, and where the position and power is right now.

THURBER

10:32:57
Well, I think the power is weak in the House of Representatives with Boehner. He cannot control his caucus. He has 43 to 50 people that aren't supporting a compromise position to get a CR, a continuing resolution, through the end of the year before the big sequestrations or automatic cuts start next year. They will be even larger next year. There's a debate between a budget of $967 billion that's with sequestration now to a $1 trillion 58 billion budget that the democrats want.

THURBER

10:33:37
There's a middle position that I think he wants, a middle position that the leadership wants. But we have a president that's really disengaged in this budget process. He presented it last spring. He really gave an opportunity to negotiate on this. He promised $100 billion cut in Social Security, cuts in health care. It was dead on arrival as expected. But he's not engaged. He's not engaged at all. And we've got weak leaders and lots of individualism on the Hill.

SESNO

10:34:09
When you say he's not engaged, what exactly do you mean by that?

THURBER

10:34:13
Well, I mean that he doesn't really personally get engaged with the leadership to say, this is what we want, this is what we can get in the middle. He has a legislative affair shop that helps, others that help, but he really doesn't like this, I don't think, to be that engaged. He wasn't that engaged in the first two years either, and he had a lot of success. But he had a huge majority in the House and the Senate.

SESNO

10:34:39
Let us go to the phones now and take some questions. Joshua from North Carolina is calling in. Hi, Joshua. Joshua, you there? Maybe he's there, or maybe the cell went away. We'll try to come back to Joshua. How about Mark from Kingwood, Texas. Hi, Mark.

MARK

10:34:57
Yeah, hello. Thanks for taking my call.

SESNO

10:35:00
Thanks for calling.

MARK

10:35:01
You're welcome. What I wanted to say is that we seem to have two minds when it comes to being the moral authority in the world. We like to think of ourselves as being the moral authority, but, when it comes to actually getting involved, then we tend to back away. Maybe you could have the panelists talk about that.

SESNO

10:35:20
Sure. Katrina, do you want to start with that one?

HEUVEL

10:35:23
I'm interested in your caller's question, but it's, how do we define moral authority? It seems to me that, in the case of Syria, we do want to enforce the norms against use of chemical weapons, and we want to ensure that no more civilian lives are lost. There's a terrible refugee crisis. Could we lead by leading the way, along with other countries, in assistance to refugees in nonproliferation efforts, in moving toward political settlements that at the end of the day, for the most part, are possibilities of providing moral leadership?

HEUVEL

10:35:56
How can we lead by getting our own house in order? I'm not an isolationist. In fact, I think this is an interesting moment for new foreign policy. And I think it's a good thing that bipartisan foreign policy has broken down 'cause it's an opening for not isolationism and not internationalism defined by military force of drones, but by being a moral leader, leading economically, a new deal for the world, rebuilding our own home at home, something to think about on this fifth anniversary of the financial crisis where millions remain unemployed. So I think it's a question. People have different views of it, but I...

SESNO

10:36:31
Byron, perhaps you could weigh in on this, too, from your perspective.

YORK

10:36:34
Well, you know, putting aside the question of moral authority, which is -- it's hard to define, and I don't like the idea. But, you know, I find myself in a little bit of kind of a bank shot agreement with Katrina on this in the sense that we should be considering the wisdom of having intervened militarily. I think a lot of conservatives, when they saw the commander in chief announce that this should be done, were then appalled to see him back off, get run out by Congress and then sort of jerked around by other international players.

YORK

10:37:09
So they were appalled to see that. But on the original question of, would it be wise to intervene militarily in Syria, I personally think no because it's just an impossible situation that we cannot make better with cruise missiles.

SESNO

10:37:22
You are listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Our discussion today, Syria, domestic politics and the strength or weakness of President Barack Obama. Coming up, more of your calls and questions for the panel. Stay tuned.

SESNO

10:40:02
Welcome back to "The Diane Rehm Show." I'm Frank Sesno sitting in for Diane today. Our guests: James Thurber, professor and director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University, Byron York, chief political correspondent at The Washington Examiner, and Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation. Jim Thurber, you wanted to make a comment with your political and historical perspective on moral authority.

THURBER

10:40:26
Well, I think that Obama raised great expectations in his campaign and afterwards in giving speeches around the world and here about moral authority and how we were changing our position in terms of human rights and foreign policy based upon his core values, and it really raised expectations. And because of that, there's a great sometimes anger, but also disappointment with him on what he did in this situation.

THURBER

10:40:58
It reminds of Jimmy Carter in a little way, in some ways. And Jimmy Carter was not as good in terms of his smile and rhetorical skills, but he had a certain -- he raised expectations about our position in terms of moral authority. And then he had serious problems with the hostages in Iraq, and then he failed in getting them out. And it really damaged his presidency significantly. This is not that situation, but it's in that direction.

SESNO

10:41:29
Go back to the phones, and William calls from Washington, D.C. Hello, William.

WILLIAM

10:41:33
Hello, how are you?

SESNO

10:41:34
Very well, thanks. Thanks for calling. Go ahead with your question.

WILLIAM

10:41:37
Well, I won't take up your time, and I appreciate such a thought provoking commentary about this. But what I wanted to address was perhaps or is it possible that President Obama took the course of action that he took to buy himself time? Because, as it has been commented, previous administrations have shown that the ability to go to war, to go to strike doesn't necessarily fall always in the best interest of going to Congress.

WILLIAM

10:42:08
However, with this, it had already been proven that we had a red line based on what's established in the treaty, and all of the world would look towards America to make the definitive decision on how to proceed forward. I think that -- it's my opinion I think Obama knew that something like this, addressing it in the way that he did would buy himself and the administration time to find the appropriate resolution.

SESNO

10:42:38
OK, William. Thanks very much. Byron, what about that? Buy time to find the appropriate resolution.

YORK

10:42:44
Well, I think the president is extremely uncomfortable with the idea of unilateral American action. Jim referred to the campaign. And one of the things the president referred to in the presidential campaign repeatedly was acting in concert with international bodies, especially the United Nations. And he found himself in the situation with the United Nations paralyzed -- that's his word.

YORK

10:43:05
He said, the United Nations, they're paralyzed. The Security Council's paralyzed. Russia has a veto. Nothing's going to happen. And then he found himself unable to get NATO or specifically Great Britain onboard on this. And then perhaps it was time to buy time. And it was certainly time to bring Congress into this. You know, the night the president made this decision, I believe it was on Oct. 31.

YORK

10:43:33
It was a Saturday -- excuse me, August 31, a Saturday. David Axelrod tweeted that the Republicans in Congress are now the dog that caught the car. Let's see how they deal with the situation. So I believe the president had found this to be an intractable problem, and his solution was not to act, but to pull Congress in the same box and say, we're all in trouble now.

SESNO

10:43:54
Katrina, I want to throw at you an email we got from Claire, a listener here. And she's chiding us a little bit here, and fair enough. "I think the topic is faulty and too linear," she writes. "Strong or weak is irrelevant. Each situation is unique, response not absolute one way or the other. This may take some time seeking forward as Obama did, feeling out to get the appropriate one. The question might more aptly be, is it political or not?"

HEUVEL

10:44:23
I think that's right. I mean, when I use the word nimble, it's suggesting that the president is -- that there's a beltway, for want of a better term, kind of assessment of what constitutes leadership or credibility. And I think that we've seen in Washington this obsession with what is a strong leader. And I think you have to take it case by case.

HEUVEL

10:44:44
I will say -- and I come back to Prof. Thurber's good point about how Obama raised expectations not only in the sphere of engagement with the world with his speeches but in the idea of transforming politics as usual, the transformative president, the transformational president. And there, too, leadership in that arena is not linear.

HEUVEL

10:45:07
And there, too -- I'm sure Prof. Thurber knows this -- that it's going to take more than four or even eight years to transform a Washington that is steeped not only in money and lobbyists but now in paralysis and civic invective. I will say domestically I do think the president -- talking nonlinear, this is different -- didn't serve this country as well as he might've in explaining the challenges of the financial crisis. We sit here marking the fifth anniversary.

HEUVEL

10:45:36
I wish the president early on had not been as willing to play footsy with the Republican Party which was determined in many ways to take him down as now at war within himself, but had educated the country about the importance of changing the narrative, that the importance was jobs and growth, and not debt.

HEUVEL

10:45:52
When he ran for president, he got in trouble in 2008 for saying and speaking to a New Hampshire newspaper that he admired Ronald Reagan. And what he meant, in many ways, was how Reagan had changed the storyline, the narrative of this country. And I wish President Obama had been more effective in doing that though there are many forces in Washington which have made it more difficult. So that's my...

SESNO

10:46:13
I want to call on the good professor to respond, but I was struck by some words that were written, Jim Thurber, by some other good observers and long-time seers of Washington, Norm Ornstein and Tom Mann. They wrote some time ago in their book: "If a mythical magician could create a president from the combined DNA of FDR, LBJ, Tip O'Neill, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, the resulting super president would be no more successful at charming or working his will in this context." Wow.

THURBER

10:46:48
I absolutely agree. What's the...

SESNO

10:46:50
So it isn't about President Obama. It's about the context of this broken town.

THURBER

10:46:54
Well, what's the context? The context is in the House of Representatives and the Senate, we have 2 percent of the members voting together. We had that in 1860 before the Civil War. Back in 1975 when I worked on the hill for that Sen. Hubert Humphrey, we had a third of the Senate and the House working together. Why is this? There are a variety of reasons.

THURBER

10:47:19
One is redistricting, so it's not four years from now. It's the next census before we redistrict and see what comes out of it in terms of people in the House of Representatives in particular. The real election is the primary. We know that. For most elections there were only 33 seats that were competitive. That means people are worried about -- a new verb -- being primaried or -- another verb -- being tea-partied, and so they'll do anything to keep their position.

THURBER

10:47:48
And that means going against Obama completely if you're a Republican on the far right. That's the context. It's amazing that he thought he could get the vote on this thing out of a Congress that's so bipolar with nobody in the middle. The Senate is very similar. It has a whole bunch of people from the House that work the same way as the House. It's very difficult.

SESNO

10:48:10
Back to the phones and Chris from Quincy, Ill. Hi, Chris, go ahead.

CHRIS

10:48:14
Hi, thank you for having me. I wanted to say that, to use a different word than Katrina used, instead of nimbleness, I would call it single-mindedness. And I believe Obama has kept his eye on the ball in Syria regarding chemical weapons, trying to contain their use, and jumping on the opportunity to get rid of them altogether. I think that's been his most important thing. I also think that if you go back to when Obama, on August 20, 2012, set down the red line, it was a year and one day later that Assad used these chemical weapons on the 21st of this August.

CHRIS

10:49:02
And so I think that very much alarmed the Obama administration, but I also think that, going back to his meeting with Putin in Mexico a year ago, that they've been talking about this all along. So I think Obama has been focused on this, focused on this, and that taking this to Congress in the end was his way of sending a message to Russia that, you know, we're still going to keep the military option open regardless of what Congress comes back with. He never said that he conceded that authority to Congress, only that he wanted the discussion there.

SESNO

10:49:39
All right, Chris. Thanks very much. Let me let Byron York respond.

YORK

10:49:42
Well, the taking -- he took it to Congress in such an indecisive way. He comes out. He says, I believe the United States should take military action. I'm going to Congress on this. He then promptly goes to play golf. The next day he makes a couple of calls. And the next day he's gone to Europe for a week. Meanwhile the whole time Congress is out in its August recess. There are a number of people who say the president should have called Congress back. Of course, each House could've called itself back if they wanted.

YORK

10:50:14
But the key part of the president's presentation became when he said that his military advisors had told him that a strike would be just as effective today as next week or maybe a month or two from now, which allowed this sort of meandering process to take place. But the president never showed any decisiveness once he made that announcement.

SESNO

10:50:34
All right. Here's a reality check email from Nino, who writes, "It's amazing to me to listen to us discuss the Syrian problem in the Byzantine way -- who gained the advantage, whose influence is bigger or smaller? In the 21st century, this should be about the Syrian people and how to help them stop the carnage and figure out what's the way forward for them. A serious (word?)-like peace conference is a necessity," Nino writes. Katrina, what about, you know, we're having a conversation, and deliberately, about the politics of this because that's an element.

SESNO

10:51:04
You can have 24 hours of conversation of the different sides and elements and facets of what this all raises. But here's the thing, in reading some of the coverage from around the world today, one may see that there's worry that the Assad regime is going to intensify the battle now that the pressure is lifted. In looking at the numbers, we see that 100,000 people have been killed -- well over 1,400 from the chemical attack perhaps, but 100,000 altogether -- so many, many more by other means -- 2 million refugees. "What's being done," Nino asks, "to stop this?"

HEUVEL

10:51:37
This is a true humanitarian catastrophe. And Nino's right to say we must focus on the Syrian people. But what we're also looking at is how this -- the break out of diplomacy may well lead to an overall peace settlement for Syria. There's a reason at thenation.com right now our lead piece is about what is happening in the refugee camps, which are swollen with Syrian people desperate to escape the carnage.

HEUVEL

10:52:02
But politically we need to find a way forward that will resolve a civil war, and so you need both tracks. But I would urge countries -- and Russia and China have been shameful in this regard -- to give as much as they can to humanitarian aid. The United States has also upped its humanitarian aid to the Syrian people and to the refugees. I don't think giving to the rebels at this stage is the way forward.

HEUVEL

10:52:28
And I do think that our "humanitarian military intervention," as some called it, might well have deepened the humanitarian catastrophe that we do see unfolding in Syria. I would simply point out on the 100,000 figure, that number is just so brutally raw. But let's not assign that figure entirely to the dictator Assad. The rebel groups, some of them very extremist, connected to al-Qaida, have contributed to the carnage in what is a civil war.

SESNO

10:52:56
And a very, very, very ugly civil war. I'm Frank Sesno, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Our conversation here today about the crisis in Syria, about American domestic politics, and President Obama in the middle of it all. 1-800-433-8850. To the phones now and Betsy who's been waiting patiently from Rhode Island, Coventry, R.I. Hi, Betsy.

BETSY

10:53:18
Hi there. How are you?

SESNO

10:53:19
Very well. Thanks for calling and thanks for being patient.

BETSY

10:53:22
No problem. As any good parent, I'm patient with my kids, too. And I was just telling your first caller or the operator that any good parenting skills require that you let children resolve issues among themselves. However, when there is an issue of, you know, one outweighing the other by 30, 40, 50 whatever pounds, you can't let the older one pummel the little one all the time. So you've got to step in.

BETSY

10:53:53
And as one of your callers pointed out, Obama did not pull this out of the hat. This has been a conversation, maybe not ongoing to the American people -- but at least over a year ago he started a conversation with Russia. And as we are watching the play unfold, we don't know what's going on in the back stage where, you know, things are getting put together. And we as people watching have to realize that it's not all what we see.

SESNO

10:54:26
OK.

BETSY

10:54:27
We should be aware of that. But the last thing I wanted to say was, as in any good structured system, when there's evidence of abuse, should we sit back and say, well, let me see if it happens again. I mean, come on. What's reality saying? Reality, take your gut instincts. That's what we as mothers have to do when we see bullying going on. We have to step up and say, hey, wait a minute.

SESNO

10:54:52
OK. I see Byron York wants to jump in on this. Byron.

YORK

10:54:54
Well, but we have to ask ourselves the question of what would happen if we would intervene. Perhaps we should look at what we did in Libya where there was talk of a humanitarian crisis and the United States preventing a humanitarian crisis, that we were allied with NATO in doing this. We deposed the dictator there.

YORK

10:55:13
It ended kind of in an ugly extrajudicial way that I don't think we could be proud of. But the end is Libya is a mess now. It's a complete mess. We have no real government there. When the Benghazi attack happened, the United States government was relying on the Feb. 17 Martyrs' Brigade for embassy security because there's no government.

SESNO

10:55:33
We're almost out of time, so, Jim Thurber, before we wrap, I want to ask you, do we pivot from one crisis to the next? Are we about to see a government shutdown? I read that the chances -- and I hear from people I talk to, some of whom have the great privilege of serving on Capitol Hill -- that the chances are better than 50/50 that we will.

THURBER

10:55:50
We have a debt of $16.7 trillion. We're coming up to that debt limit mid-October. It looks like we're going forward towards that. The Syrian situation gets in the way of that, gets in the way of the battle of the Affordable Care Act and whether it's fully funded, gets in the way of creating jobs, gets in the way of immigration that's been building. It looks like a train wreck coming up by the end of September when we have to have an appropriations bill. And mid-October on the debt limit, yes, it's going to be a problem.

SESNO

10:56:24
Katrina vanden Heuvel, we've got about 10 seconds, 15 seconds for you. What do you expect to happen now from the White House?

HEUVEL

10:56:32
I think the White House is going to step back and try to speak in broader ways because you see the abdication of any credible interest in the governance on the part of Republicans. And they're going to have to frame the debate and show that there's a politics of sabotage that could be overcome if you had a party willing to work together for a clean debt ceiling resolution -- continuing resolution, and it's going to cripple this country.

SESNO

10:56:52
And, Byron York, you get about -- thanks, Katrina. Byron York, about the same time.

YORK

10:56:56
No government shutdown, last minute perils of (word?) settlement, continued conservative unhappiness with Boehner and House leadership.

SESNO

10:57:04
And so it goes. And so it goes. To Byron York, Katrina vanden Heuvel, and James Thurber, thank you all very much for this insightful conversation. I'm Frank Sesno. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show."

ANNOUNCER

10:57:15
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