Enumclaw Courier-Herald


Fair but firm is teacher’s advice | Rich Elfers

Enumclaw Courier Herald Columnist
September 16, 2013 · 4:42 PM

It’s clear that President Obama painted himself into a corner over Syria and chemical weapons.

In the years the president has been in office, he has taken a cautious approach in regard to U.S. involvement in the Middle East. That caution came as a result of two costly and frustrating wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the poor results from the overthrow of Qaddafi in Libya.

Those experiences have made Obama hesitant to get involved in the Syrian Civil War – and for good reason. There are no easy solutions. Whatever our president does now will be criticized, either for being too weak or too forceful.  The consequences of whatever he does will set up worldwide reactions that will extend far beyond the borders of Syria to Iran, North Korea and Russia.

His, and our, predicament over what to do with Syria’s clear WMD violation brought flashbacks to my time teaching high school students for 31 years.  The only difference is the size and potential impact; the problems are the same that any teacher of children must face. I learned two major lessons from dealing with unruly and rebellious students that I feel could be applied to the Syria situation.

First, don’t make promises (or threats) you aren’t willing to act upon. As a teacher I realized that threats to unruly students are only effective if they are followed through on immediately. Threatening and then not acting only encourages more testing by unruly students.

The president made this mistake two years ago when he stated that al-Assad must go. He had no intention of enforcing his edict – and Bashar al-Assad didn’t step down. At this point Obama’s credibility suffered in the eyes of all the dysfunctional, insecure bullies in the world.

Later the president criticized Syria for crossing a redline by use of nerve gas on a small scale, which al-Assad did as a test of Obama’s resolve.  The president threatened to arm the rebels, but didn’t. That sent another message to Bashar that the U.S. wasn’t going to follow through; al-Assad was testing Obama to see what his limits were, and found him to be hesitant – a sign of weakness to a bully.

Recently, 1,429 people were gassed near Damascus, but Assad accused the president of being illogical, pointing out the government side is winning the civil war right now and Bashar argued he wouldn’t put his own people in danger by using nerve gas. At that point other bullies in the world have emerged, smelling blood – Obama’s. Putin, and Iran, began to verbally manipulate what happened, either by challenging the credibility of the gas attack information, or, in the case of Iran, threatening to punish America in retaliation for any future actions.

The second major lesson learned as a high school teacher is: don’t paint yourself into a corner in the first place. Expect the dysfunctional and unruly to act up from the first day of class and be on guard for any signs of testing, because they will come – it’s human nature. If I came down hard, but firmly and fairly, on the first unruly rebel, and then consistently on subsequent challenges, I set the tone for the rest of the term.

As a teacher I knew I could rectify my mistakes in a new term with new students. Unfortunately, Obama doesn’t have the luxury to start again with new players. He’s got to deal with same unruly, troublemaking rulers, probably for the rest of his term in office.

My teacher’s advice to the president is to determine a firm but fair solution and then do it, which he seems to have done. The president’s choice to delay going to Congress and to support a diplomatic solution appears to be that firm but fair solution. It seems to have caused Russia to pressure Syria to give up its poison gas stockpile. If that turns out to be the case, Obama has dodged a bullet.

Russia is now a regional power, not a world power. It didn’t have the ability to back up Syria. Russia was bluffing and Obama called Putin’s bluff by planning to attack Syria. To save face, the Russians quickly agreed to get Syria to give up its WMD stockpile. In Bashar’s case, Bashar probably realized his own life was in danger with a U.S. attack and, like most bullies, he’s a coward at heart. He allowed himself to be interviewed by Charlie Rose, which showed his concern for what the U.S. might do, but he also overplayed his hand by threatened retaliation from all fronts if the president attacked Syria.

President Obama made a choice that appears to be neither an underreaction, nor an overreaction. That happened to me when I had to discipline students, on occasion. Making discipline decisions is always art rather than science. So, although the president painted himself into a corner, he should savor this apparent unexpected victory and at the same time be careful of Putin’s tactic to increase Russian prestige through this crisis.

The only final teacher advice I have to give him at this point is that this testing will continue and may increase from Russia rather than Syria. That’s the problem with being the world’s only superpower: once one problem is solved others will crop up.

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