6:30 AM PDT, September 30, 2013
WASHINGTON -- A rare phenomenon occurred on Capitol Hill the other day when two ranking officials of the Obama administration testified that they had differed with the president they still served over providing arms to the rebels in Syria seeking to oust dictator Bashar al-Assad.
Retiring Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey acknowledged they had joined then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then CIA Director David Petraeus in recommending such aid, which President rejected.
Seldom has there been a more open confirmation of the old Harry Truman adage that "the buck stops here" at the desk of the president. Republican Sen. John McCain, a strong advocate for such arms assistance to the rebels, seemed incredulous. "What this means is that the president overruled the senior leaders of his own national security team," he offered.
It's nothing new that the man in the Oval Office has the final say in such matters. But it's customary for closest aides and lieutenants of the president to keep their opposition to themselves and go along. Panetta later told the Senate Armed Services Committee: "Obviously, there were a number of factors that were involved here that ultimately led to the president's decision to make it (assistance) nonlethal. And I supported his decision in the end."
Other less accommodating presidents -- Lyndon Johnson immediately comes to mind -- almost certainly would have caused heads to roll at such talking out of school. But Obama has simply stuck to his guns so far, limiting aid to humanitarian assistance in Syria while administration sources have expressed concern about arms given falling into the wrong hands.
The caution also reflects the president's general disinclination to be drawn into another war or even any police action abroad as he strives to extricate American forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, the two military involvements he inherited on taking office in 2009. The same concern is seen in the administration's heavier reliance on armed drone aircraft, highlighted last week in the confirmation hearings of John Brennan, Obama's nominee to head the Central Intelligence Agency.
Those hearings have also raised public questions about the morality of the growing drone operation and allegations of indiscriminate killing of civilians, including the possible targeting of American citizens alleged to be engaged in al-Qaida plots. In 2011 such a drone attack killed Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born operative of the terrorists that perpetrated the 2001 attacks on U.S. soil.
Ever since the decision of former President George W. Bush to invade Iraq in 2003 on the basis of faulty intelligence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction posing an "imminent threat" to this country, Obama has steered American foreign policy away from deeper armed interventions abroad.
In initially resisting participation in the ouster of dictator Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, and eventually assisting from a distance, Obama invited criticism for "leading from behind."
At the same time, the American public has become more skeptical about official rationalizations for American involvements abroad, whatever the justifications, in the wake of the unforgotten U.S. invasion of Iraq.
In a Dec. 13, 2003 interview with Diane Sawyer of ABC News, when asked about the fact the alleged weapons of mass destruction were never found, then President Bush replied: "So what's the difference?" The main point, he said then, was "the possibility that he (Saddam Hussein) could acquire weapons. ... That's what I'm trying to explain to you. A gathering threat, after 9/11, is a threat that needed to be dealt with. ... And so we got rid of him."
With the American response to remaining al-Qaida threats more focused now, public opinion at home has become more discriminating in terms of the cost in American lives and treasure expended to maintain U.S. leadership and responsibilities in a world of endless armed turmoil.
So it is reassuring that Truman's assertion that "the buck stops here" also remains as the place where a duly elected president decides how American military might is employed, and at what price to the American people no matter how much pressure is applied by those advising him.
(Jules Witcover's latest book is Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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