It’s 3 a.m. in the White House

Oh how we laughed.

“It’s 3 a.m. and your children are safely asleep”, began the deep, urgent voice in Hillary Clinton’s 2008 TV ad.

“But there’s a phone in the White House, and it’s ringing,” the voice went on, over pictures of a sleeping child.

At the time, then-Senator Clinton was slugging it out for the Democratic Party’s Presidential nomination against young upstart Barack Obama. The ad was supposed to convince primary voters that in a dangerous and unpredictable world, her experience in international affairs trumped his.

Who did you want to answer that phone?

“Someone who already knows world leaders, knows the military, someone tested and ready to lead in a dangerous world,” the ad replied.

That’s why some of us covering the campaign laughed. Was all this experience accumulated during Hillary Clinton’s eight years as First Lady? Okay, she might have slept close to that ringing phone, but surely she had never actually dealt with the calls?

Or was it her time in the interminably slow, endlessly deliberative Senate that meant she was “tested and ready to lead”?  It sounded like a desperate attempt to scare Democratic voters into rejecting the charismatic young man running against her.

Light on experience Mr Obama might have been, but he was also free of the political baggage and controversial Senate votes that weighed Mrs Clinton down.

I’m not laughing now.

Granted, President Obama has faced unprecedented levels of hostility from his Republican opponents. Some in his own party are barely more cooperative. It’s been a long hard slog on the domestic policy front.

And fair enough, on foreign policy, he kept his promise to bring American troops home from Iraq; he’s on course to do the same in Afghanistan. He was decisive enough when he ordered the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden. And when he escalated attacks on suspected terrorists with the use of drones.

But extracting the US from deeply unpopular wars wasn’t that difficult. Bumping off America’s most wanted man was a no-brainer. Dropping bombs from pilotless planes that the American public hardly ever hear about is easier still.

Sometimes though, decisions are not so black and white. And Mr Obama’s consensus-building, consultative style doesn’t work well with the greys.

Egypt was complex and messy. The White House embraced its elections but was never comfortable with the result. It wasn’t sorry to see the Muslim Brotherhood ousted but didn’t like the way it was done. It couldn’t call the military takeover a coup – that would have meant cutting off aid. It fudged and fumbled and lost credibility and influence in the process.

As for Syria, it was already a horrendous mess before President Obama imposed his arbitrary chemical weapons red line. Once Assad’s murderous forces crossed that line, he had to respond. Military action was on the cards. But then, possibly influenced by the vote in the British Parliament, the President shoved the problem at Congress to decide.

Now, suddenly, the focus has shifted to chemical weapons stocks and away from the grinding toll of Syria’s brutal civil war. In short, when the talking and voting is over, nothing much is likely to have changed.

This is not in any way a call for action. On the contrary: it would have been both honest and accurate if, early in the crisis and repeatedly since, Mr Obama had said, “This is all terrible but there’s nothing we can do.”

It’s the lack of clarity and appearance of dithering that’s bothering me – and opinion polls suggest, the American people too. The failure to articulate any policies or even to define simple bilateral relationships with the volatile countries of the Middle East.

Which is not to say that Hillary Clinton would have done it better (though she may yet try).

But back in 2008, she was right about one thing: It is the President’s job to pick up that phone.

Right now, it’s 3 a.m. and all  the callers have been placed on hold.


(For more on who takes the decision to send American forces to war tune in to my World Service documentary “Congress and the Commander in Chief”)

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