Bret Stephens probably thought he was landing a major blow with this criticism:
[Obama’s] preferred method for dealing with disagreement is denigration. If Republicans want a tougher line in Syria, they’re warmongers. If Hillary Clinton thinks a no-fly zone is a good idea, she’s playing politics [bold mine-DL]: “There is obviously a difference,” the president tut-tutted about his former secretary of state’s position, “between running for president and being president.”
Obama’s Syria policy is undoubtedly a mess, but not for any of the reasons Stephens gives. These examples are reminders that his hawkish critics really don’t have anything credible to offer as an alternative. Republicans that threaten to shoot down Russian jets over Syria and want to bomb Syrian government forces are warmongers. They are openly agitating for policies that will take the U.S. to war against one or more foreign governments with potentially grave consequences for our country. Presenting them as irresponsible hard-liners is not an exaggeration or misrepresentation. It is a fact that they don’t like to have pointed out in public. Clinton may not be “playing politics” by supporting a “no-fly zone,” since that position puts her on the wrong side of most Democratic voters, but it’s perfectly true that presidential candidates can indulge in reckless posturing without serious consequences in a way that a sitting president can’t. In Clinton’s case, Obama was trying to soften the blow of dismissing her position as the folly that it is without explicitly ridiculing her. It’s not Obama’s fault if he correctly points out that his hawkish opponents make terrible arguments and endorse insane policies.
The truth is that the mostly hawkish objections to current Syria policy are “half-baked” and always have been. Their preferred policies are ill-conceived, short-sighted, and driven by a bizarre need to take sides in a foreign civil war in which the U.S. has nothing vital at stake. That was true in 2011, and it’s true now. Obama’s failing is not that he has dismissed these arguments out of hand or ridiculed the people making them, but that he has internalized far too many of the criticisms of his “inaction” on Syria and indulged in foolish half-measures in an unsuccessful attempt to placate hawks that will never be satisfied with anything he does. He has repeatedly caved to Syria hawks just enough to sink the U.S. into the mire of Syria’s civil war without any hope of achieving anything. The real shame of Obama’s Syria policy is not that he has mocked his hawkish detractors, but that he has made the mistake of listening to them at all.