I’d long thought the whole Obama-as-master-of-11th-dimensional-chess gig was overblown.
One, all presidents engage in an insanely complicated matrix of gamesmanship, having to deal with the House, the Senate, governors, his own party, the opposing party, bureaucracies, the courts, monetary institutions, corporate institutions, the economy, interest groups, constituents, the UN, NATO, other regional and international institutions, international allies, international adversaries, nongovernmental organizations, and sundry other non-state actors. For starters.
Two, President Obama isn’t always, or even mostly, a master. He is smart and patient and willing to wait for whichever adversary to stumble, but it’s not as if his patience has always served him well (repeated attempts at compromise with Congressional Republicans), nor that he’s never stumbled (debt ceiling negotiations and the expiration of the Bush tax cuts). That he’s pretty good at recovering from his stumbles (and his opponents so terrible at recovering from theirs) has tended both to diminish the stumbles themselves and magnify his alleged mastery.
The situation in Syria seems to me a case of stumble-recovery. I didn’t think the drawing of the “red line” regarding chemical weapons use was that big of deal, not least because there were multiple responses besides that of a military strike. (And as for the alleged loss of presidential/American credibility, well, christ, if actual air strikes on Qaddafi didn’t deter Assad, why would threats do so?)
No, the problem was with the immediate jump to the military option; all subsequent “messaging” problems flowed from the ill-conceived decision to bomb Iraq. That was the stumble.
Secretary Kerry also hasn’t been great in all of this, but whether his statement about Syria turning over his cache was off-hand or not, the fact that Syria and, more importantly, Russia, took him up on it, gave Obama the chance to recover.
Which he took.
We’re still in the midst of trouble, of course, but there’s now the possibility—not the certainty—that those troubles will lessen rather than increase. The dread “optics” on all this have been lousy, but I’ll take shitty optics with a decent outcome over the reverse any day.