Syria Is a Mess. But Every Other Crisis Has Been a Mess Too.


First Read reports today that attitudes toward military action often depend on whether your guy is sitting in the White House:

However, both Democrats and Republican can probably agree on this: The entire process here hasn’t been pretty. It’s something that Politico writes about today. “Barack Obama’s unsteady handling of the Syria crisis has been an avert-your-gaze moment in the history of the modern presidency — highlighting his unsettled views and unattractive options in a way that has caused his enemies to cackle and supporters to cringe.”

But here’s our question: Has the process been messy because of Obama, or because this is just the reality of a more-transparent world where information — and opinion — travels so quickly? The fact is, this does appear to be the new normal. (Ask yourself: How would have today’s media covered Bay of Pigs or even the Cuban Missile Crisis?) No longer can presidents hand-wring BEHIND the scenes; every incremental development is debated in the media. It’s not just U.S. politicians who conduct themselves this way; it’s world leaders, too.

Clearly, the Washington establishment is uncomfortable with how the president has looked so wobbly and haphazard in some of his decision making process. After all, every major development on Syria has looked, at times, as if the administration was “winging it” — from the initial “red line” declaration to the decision to seek congressional authorization to yesterday’s Kerry answer on Syria giving up chemical weapons. But given the media climate, and the automatic public skepticism that is built in these days with anything a politician says, is it possible that this is the new normal? It certainly appears so. Then again, this doesn’t excuse the White House for what has been a muddled case against Syria from the get-go.

I think this dynamic is worth a lot more attention than it usually gets. We tend to think of current controversies as a lot messier than past ones, but that’s mostly an illusion. Part of the reason for this illusion is that we have a rose-colored view of the past. Partly it’s because we all know how past crises turned out, and that automatically makes them look a little more predictable than they seemed at the time. Partly it’s because we learn about them from books and magazines that provide telescoped accounts. And partly, as First Read points out, it’s because the media environment of the past allowed a lot of the confusion and turmoil to remain behind the scenes.

Obama hasn’t handled Syria very well. But guess what? George Bush didn’t handle Iraq very well. Bill Clinton didn’t handle Kosovo very well. Ronald Reagan didn’t handle Iran-Contra very well. LBJ didn’t handle Vietnam very well. Kennedy didn’t handle the Bay of Pigs very well. And even the crises that were handled reasonably well—the Cuban Missile Crisis, for example, or the Gulf War—look that way more in retrospect than they did at the time.

There are lots of things about our modern media environment that I like. But one thing I don’t like is the value it puts on responding instantly to every possible provocation and then jumping on those responses like a pack of ravening beasts—for a few hours, anyway, until it’s been chewed into an unrecognizable pulp and the next demand for an instant response comes along. Generally speaking, we’d all be better off if we got it through our heads that taking a few weeks to respond to a crisis is usually OK. Not every utterance is important, and not every delay is a sign of spineless leadership. Sometimes you just have to let things play out.

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