Last night, just before going to sleep, and after watching President Obama address the nation on Syria followed by several hours of analysis on CNN and Fox, tired and dispirited, I tweeted, “This Obama Syrian mess is a good example of why it’s not a good idea to draw lines in the sand.”
To which someone quickly replied on Facebook, “Fortunately, most of us learned this in elementary school.”
Which brought to mind an incident I actually recall from elementary school where someone drew a line in the Agassiz School schoolyard, Jody McMullen crossed it, a fight ensued, and Jody beat up a kid I no longer remember. But I do remember thinking, Whoa, that line wasn’t such a good idea. We were all about 8.
This post isn’t really about politics. It’s about judgment. For what it’s worth, I consider myself a political independent. I voted for Obama twice, but I might also vote Republican, Libertarian, or (most likely) Green Party, depending on the issues.
Political allegiances notwithstanding, it's astonishing that a politician as adept as President Obama would get himself in this fix by making a threat he didn’t need to make and wasn’t prepared to keep. Because now, make no mistake about it, this "crisis" is less about Syria and chemical weapons than it is about presidential credibility, reputation and legacy. All of which are damaged.
Basically every poll shows that a majority of Americans are tired of war, tired of Middle Eastern entanglements, and highly skeptical of another one. So why would an astute president risk his reputation by putting himself in a situation where he has no good alternatives? He either uses force, which hardly anyone believes will be effective in this instance, or he comes across as weak and vacillating, or worst of all, a person who doesn’t keep his word.
The next several weeks will now be spent with half the world scurrying around trying to determine if Syrian chemical weapons can be located and verifiably surrendered (doubtful)... plus vast amounts of presidential administration time (and spin) spent searching for a face-saving solution.
Effective management, effective leadership, is all about having reasonable options. As a leader, you always want options, you want maneuvering room. When you draw a line in the sand, you immediately reduce maneuvering room.
A person crosses the line and either you shoot or your reputation is shot.
“Line in the sand” negotiation just isn’t a good way to run a business, or a country. It wasn’t a good idea in the Agassiz School schoolyard in 1960. It’s no better today.
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