My wife and I were big fans of NBC’s The Office. Back before Steve Carell left the show (it became unwatchable after that), we never missed an episode. Even these days, after we put our kids to bed at night and can’t find much on television, it’s not uncommon for us to turn to our DVR for one of the old, syndicated episodes that we’ve probably already seen a dozen times.
Being pretty familiar with the writing style that made The Office successful, I sometimes notice newer sitcoms borrowing from the show’s winning, comedic formula. What I’ve noticed lately, however, is that it’s not just television writers who are trying to emulate the show.
Lately, we’ve been watching the Obama administration take a crack at it. Our leadership’s handling of the situation in Syria might as well be known as “The Office Doctrine” because as best I can tell, its channeling the show at every twist and turn.
There was a memorable episode of The Office in which it was revealed that Michael Scott, when he was younger, promised to pay for the college tuition of every student, in an inner-city class, that graduated from high school. Based on his pledge, the kids (realizing that they had been given an amazing gift by a generous man) worked hard, stayed in school, and earned their high school diplomas. The problem, of course, what that Michael had no means of paying for any of their college educations. The promise he had made years earlier was done in the heat of the moment, without him even considering whether or not he would actually be able to fulfill that promise. He enjoyed the notoriety and accolades he received for the gesture, but once the reality settled in of what he had committed himself to, his hope was that he’d somehow be miraculously bailed out of the predicament, and never actually have to make good on his promise.
That’s how I see the “red line” promise that President Obama made last year – the one in which he declared that the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict would result in military invention by the United States. Obama threw out that reckless warning in order to portray himself as a bold leader. He probably never even considered that the Syrian government might actually cross that red line and use chemical weapons against its people. Thus, he likely didn’t think he would ever have to make good on his promise of U.S. intervention.
But according to our own government’s intelligence, that’s exactly what the Assad regime did. It gassed his own people, and now our president has found himself in a position in which he either needs to make good on his promise and intervene in the conflict militarily, or somehow figure out a creative way of squirming himself out of the situation he created, while still preserving some semblance of dignity.
And just like with what we’d expect out of Michael Scott, Obama is now floundering around awkwardly and embarrassingly, trying to figure out a way to escape culpability for what he said. For months, he tossed aside reports of chemical weapons use in Syria, seemingly in conscious denial of the changing landscape there. But after the latest attack, and the State Department stating definitively that Assad had indeed used chemical weapons, it seemed denial was no longer an option. There was a clear sense from the White House that our military was about to take quick action in response. That’s when the momentum came to a screeching, unexpected halt with the president’s call for a delay and congressional hearings.
The president seems desperate to avoid having to make a definitive decision on such a serious, consequential issue, and it appears he’s now searching for an excuse for inaction. In other words, he’s looking for a Dwight Schrute to take the fall for his bad idea, and he’s hoping congress will play the part.
Who is tasked to play the part of secretary Pam Beesly, the person who has to formulate a way to rationalize Michael’s incoherent, indecisive behavior to upper management while he’s locked away in his office with the blinds shut (or in Obama’s case, out on a golf course)? Secretary of State John Kerry, of course!
I almost felt sorry for Kerry, as he sat out in front of the cameras over the weekend, trying to explain why the administration’s dramatic change in approach wasn’t a change at all, but was instead “consistent” with the polar-opposite messages coming out of the State Department only days earlier.
Right now, the American public is like CFO David Wallace, face twisted in confusion, trying to make sense out of what exactly is going on. And the people laughing aren’t part of the viewing audience at home, but rather the leaders of countries throughout the world who are witnessing how impotent we’ve become as a nation.
Maybe taking the decision to the legislative branch is ultimately the right one, but how we’ve gotten to this point is absolutely foolish and embarrassing.
I think we all know that the president’s decision had nothing to do with bolstering the importance of the U.S. Congress in key decision-making practices. It had nothing to do with strengthening our country, as John Kerry managed to tell Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday with a straight (and oddly wrinkle-free) face. After all, Obama has taken sharp executive actions on a variety of big issues including Libya, immigration, and gun control, all for the explicit purpose of side-stepping congress. When out on the campaign trail, the president never misses an opportunity to denounce congress for incompetency, right before proudly threatening unilateral actions on policies.
No, Obama decided to take his case to congress because he doesn’t want to take the fall for the ultimatum he carelessly laid out. If congress votes for the United States not to intervene in Syria, Obama will then be off the hook. That’s most certainly his preferred outcome, because he clearly doesn’t want to get involved in the Syria mess. If they vote to grant him authority to take action, he won’t like it, but he’ll know that he can pin partial blame on congress for whatever goes wrong in the operation, or the unintended consequences that stem from it. Heck, with the help of the media, he could probably even find a way to pin all of the blame on congress. It’s certainly worked for him in the past.
There’s no doubt that Syria is a very complex issue. I’m certainly not trying to make light of it. The argument for intervention is a strong one, and the argument for non-intervention is also a strong one. Both come with their own negative consequences, and no one can entirely foresee the extent of those consequences. That’s why it’s extremely important to have a competent, confident leader in the White House who can approach such issues with the direness they deserve. It’s important to have a president that both Americans and other countries can respect during times like these. It’s important to have a president who understands the ramifications of his own rhetoric.
Does anyone honestly believe that Michael Scott fits that bill?
Update: This morning, on September 4th, 2013, President Obama told a reporter in Sweden the he never set a “red line” on intervention in Syria in the first place. This, despite past statements in which he did exactly that. More Michael Scott antics, folks! Give him the Emmy.