"The genius of you Americans," the Arab-nationalist and one-time president of Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser, once explained, "is that you never make clear-cut stupid moves, only complicated stupid moves which make us wonder at the possibility that there may be something to them which we are missing."
I've long taken patriotic pride in such statements of befuddlement from foreigners. America is a gloriously complicated thing. We often confuse our national creeds for universal principles. We are a Jacksonian people (that's Andrew Jackson, in case you were wondering) in love with Jeffersonian ideals and legalistically committed to Madisonian mechanisms. Like a guard dog that would rather not leave the porch, we are quick to anger but not necessarily quick to fight and we are just as eager to forgive.
So I am trying very hard to hold onto this perspective as I watch the president of the United States behave in a way you don't have to be a pan-Arab autocrat to think is incredibly stupid.
Where to begin? Perhaps with Obama's initial refusal to support the moderate rebels seeking to overthrow Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, a puppet of Iran and bagman for Hezbollah. Or we might start with Obama's refusal to support the Green Movement in Iran, which sought to overthrow the Iranian regime, which would have been a triumph for both our principles and national interests.
These were odd choices, particularly given his decision to help depose Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, an indisputably evil man, but also a dictator who posed no threat, abided by our demands to relinquish WMDs and whose domestic death toll was a tiny fraction of Bashar Assad's.
"We cannot stand idly by when a tyrant tells his people there will be no mercy ... where innocent men and women face brutality and death at the hands of their own government" was Obama's justification for an attack on Libya -- without congressional approval. But when Assad killed tenfold as many men, women and children, Obama refused to act for nearly two years. And when he finally decided it was imperative to attack Assad -- after the dictator crossed a chemical weapons "red line" drawn by Obama himself -- he suddenly discovered the need for congressional authorization.
Obama doesn't believe he needs authorization from Congress to strike Syria, he just wants it. He's like a kid desperate for a prom date, but too vain to admit it. In Libya Obama had the UN and NATO on each arm, so he didn't bother with asking the dog on Capitol Hill for a date. But now, faced with the prospect of going it alone, he's in effect telling Congress, "Hey, it's not like I need your company, but you'd be crazy not to go to war with me."
Woops. As even Nancy Pelosi's own grandkid now knows, we mustn't call it a war. "The president is not asking you to go to war," Secretary of State John Kerry told Congress. He's merely asking them to authorize a sustained cruise missile attack on military installations to "degrade" the regime's "capabilities."
But, according to Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, no one has asked the military to do anything that might change the "momentum" of the Syrian civil war. This is like saying you're going to attack a runaway car barreling toward a crowd of kids, but do nothing to actually, you know, slow it down. What good does it do to trash the radio and rip out the cup holders on an out-of-control car?
Meanwhile, according to numerous accounts, Assad is moving military assets into civilian areas and civilians into military areas, even as the Obama administration insists it makes no difference militarily to wait for Congress to debate. That's not just stupid, it's an outright lie that will be fact-checked with blood.
I understand the attraction the buddy system has for a man who, as a state legislator, perfected the art of voting "present" on hard questions. But it's hard to see this as anything other than rank political cowardice.
The buck stopped with Truman. For Obama, the buck is kryptonite.
In Stockholm on Wednesday, the president said that the credibility of the world, America, Congress and the international community is on the line. Everybody is on the hook for his red line, except for the one person who actually drew it.
I'd love to see the genius in that argument, but it looks like clear-cut stupidity to me.
(Jonah Goldberg is an editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can write to him in care of this newspaper or by e-mail at JonahsColumn@aol.com.)