Why zig-zagging Obama can't be taken seriously on Syria

The West does have a dog in the Syria fight. But it’s on the losing side of the losing side

7 September 2013

9:00 AM

7 September 2013

9:00 AM

President Obama’s decision to seek  the endorsement of Congress for an attack on Syria fits into one or more definite patterns of behaviour, if not strategy. His preference, much praised by the media until recently, for ‘leading from behind’ suggests at least some aversion to risk and responsibility. It also fits into the general zigzag of his Middle Eastern policy since his Cairo speech reaching out to Islam.

Intended to undercut the appeal of radical Islamism, the speech looked appeasing and so encouraged it. Similarly, his turning a deaf ear to the Iranian students who were protesting against the stolen 2009 election, because he was wooing the mullahs after the Cairo speech, had to be followed by support for the liberals of the Arab Spring — which in turn led to his re-defining the Muslim Brotherhood as democratic, until the coup when … but you get the general idea. Obama has to employ reversal as a policy because he is continually surprised by events.

We need not wax over-critical about this latest zig. There is nothing odd or unreasonable in a president seeking advance congressional approval for military action. George W. Bush obtained such approval prior to invading Iraq. Such a request is as much a part of the US Constitution as the Royal Prerogative was part of our own until last week. America’s constitution divides the war-making power between the president, who has the independent power to order military action when swiftness is required, and the Congress, which enjoys the exclusive power to declare war when there is time for deliberation.

Yet he sprung this judgment on himself as well as everyone else. All the President’s men had been telling people that the Syrian attack would be launched without such approval. It was deadlined to start last Saturday afternoon. Then the President allegedly horrified his national security staff by postponing the attack until Congress could pronounce on its legitimacy.

Now, there is something odd and unreasonable when a consultation with Congress over the launching of a military venture is both a solemn constitutional duty and a last-minute bright idea. It can’t be both. More-over, the oddness and unreason don’t end with the consultation. Presidential aides now say off the record that the President may well decide to fire off rockets into Syria even if Congress votes against his doing so. But if a president is constitutionally obliged to consult Congress, that surely implies a further duty to act on its advice. One can imagine a crisis so threatening to the Republic that a president might decide to override a congressional vote. That would presumably provoke a major constitutional crisis. It would make sense only if the stakes were all but existential. That clearly doesn’t apply in the case of Syria.

America has two matters at stake in this crisis. First, it wants to punish the Syrian dictator for breaking the long international prohibition on the use of chemical weapons. This desire is shared by much international opinion otherwise unsympathetic to the USA. Next, because Obama has declared that a breach of this prohibition would invite certain US retaliation, Washington feels the need to demonstrate that it cannot be defied with impunity. America’s closest allies can see the strategic realism underlying that calculation, too. These motives are creditable and realistic, respectively.

But they have drawbacks that arguably negate them. Maybe Syria’s dictator has used chemical weapons, but the evidence is not absolutely conclusive. Nor would it be the first breach of this convention; British intelligence alleges 14 previous such breaches by Assad alone. If not then, why now? Above all, what happens to America’s prestige if Assad survives the attack, continues the war, even gains ground, and employs chemical weapons again? Some of these things are all too likely to happen. Indeed, except for a possible later use of chemical weapons, it seems to be the actual intention behind any American attack that they will happen. The briefing from the White House is clear: they wish to punish Assad, not remove him. To strengthen the rebels, but not so much that they actually prevail. Thus, President Obama has identified a narrow casus belli (though one highly symbolic to ‘world opinion’), and designed a very limited response to it, with the modest likely aim of what … well, apparently of pushing Assad and the rebels towards the negotiating table.

Because Mr Obama was prepared to give only rhetorical support to the rebels for the last two years, he has had to watch impotently as Assad recovered ground in the war and as power among the rebels fell gradually into the hands of anti-western jihadists. The Syrian civil war, like the Spanish civil war, has become a proxy battle with Iran, Russia and Hezbollah supporting Assad versus Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states and the Arab League supporting the rebels. Contrary to the standard view, the West does have a dog in this fight, but the poor mutt looks like being on the losing side of the losing side.

One possible response to this dilemma was outlined recently by the Machiavellian commentator Edward Luttwak in the Washington Post: the USA should covertly support whichever side is losing in the hope of distracting and exhausting both. That, however, is too coldly logical for any western government to support or even endorse (maybe excluding the French). In comparison, the policy of encouraging the Syrians to the conference table with occasional small bombs looks almost idealistic. It certainly has a number of idealistic globalists in its cheering section.

Do they include Barack Obama, however? This tentative policy sounds awfully like the kind of gradualist escalation that the best and the brightest adopted from Vietnam onwards and that the President has spent much of his political life denouncing. It would not be at all surprising if he had recently been having doubts about launching a pointless military rocket attack in pursuit of an unachievable object in contradiction to almost everything he had ever said on the topic. But he was trapped by his own rhetoric, which, as above, had produced unexpected results.

And then David Cameron lost the parliamentary vote. First reactions in Washington were shock, annoyance, a certain contempt, and some astonishment. After all, in complete contrast to the lazily anti-American caricature of Cameron and other British leaders being dragged along behind America’s chariot wheels, Cameron had been urging a tougher interventionist policy on the President for almost the entire duration of the Syrian civil war. He agreed to Obama’s proposal for a military strike, to be sure, but only as a bridge not quite far enough. Now he was being reined in by an anti-interventionist parliament responding to anti-interventionist public opinion. So was Obama’s second reaction to wonder if something similar might be arranged nearer home? He would take a turn around the garden and think about it.

If Congress approves, then the President will have cover; he will be ‘leading alongside’, so to speak. If Congress objects, he will be saved from a policy that looks increasingly like a meaningless gesture that would nonetheless cost lives and what remains of his credit with America’s left.

Given the unexpectedness of the President’s decision to refer a military strike to Congress, Cameron cannot afford to dismiss the possibility that Obama would go along with a congressional veto on it. That is why any second parliamentary vote on Syrian intervention will be wildly premature until Washington has agreed among itself. Even then, such a vote would be a serious mistake. It would confirm the suspicion of provincial Britain that the metropolitan political class holds it in deep but unjustified contempt. As Bill Deedes might have put it: Ukip’s fox has been shot; this would give it the kiss of life.

In the meantime we might reflect on the ‘special relationship’ or, better yet, ‘the Anglosphere’. The special relationship — a diplomatic relationship between states — may or may not be looking slightly tattered, depending on what happens next. But the Anglosphere is the theory that English-speaking states tend to act in common in international affairs because their political judgments are shaped by the same culture transmitted in the same language. So let’s look: in the USA you have conservatives sceptical of a symbolic intervention, neo-globalists anxious to flex other people’s muscles in defence of treaties and liberal principles, governments trapped by their own rash liberal commitments, an overstretched military almost openly opposed to the venture, and a public opinion largely and deeply opposed to it.

When being photographed, President Obama likes to gaze earnestly into the middle distance. His expression often seems to be on the verge of an ironic smile, but it never gets beyond the verge. One wonders what he is thinking behind the sculpted features; but it would be pointless to ask. As the crisis demonstrates more every day, Mr Obama is what Bismarck called Napoleon III: ‘a sphinx without a riddle’. As a result, he is sinking, sometimes mute, sometimes trite, ever deeper into the Syrian and Egyptian sands.

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  • CraigStrachan

    Any attack on Syria would be schizophrenic, in that it would be intended to deter Assad from using his chemical weapons, without degrading his custody and control of them. Imagine if, as a consequence of a U.S strike, sarin gas were to fall into the hands of al-Qaeda?

    No, best leave bad enough alone.

    • TruthBeatsLies

      And you honestly imagine Al-Qaeida hasn’t got sarin et-al “in his hands” already…???

      • CraigStrachan

        I’ve seen nothing to suggest they do.

  • Roy

    The first news reports to come from Syria after an outburst of American rocketry will include pictures of women and children killed and wounded. Eye witnesses will state categorically that schools have been hit, hospitals levelled, and a distinct flavour of gas involvement. Thus, like the Israelis, they will find themselves on the defensive from tactics well known in this part of the world. They fight dirty, and neither party, cares one way or the other if Americans come to grief.

    • Bonkim

      See no evil, speak no evil, and hear no evil – ignore everything you see and hear, and keep silent – but bomb like hell – the noise will silence the onlookers.

    • chan chan

      Yep, pretty much. Assad will be moving missile batteries onto the rooftop of ‘The Damascus Disabled Kiddies with Cancer Orphanage’ as we write. Look for their bodies on the news within a day or so of the American operation starting…

      If you don’t think he’s going to do that, you should check into the nearest mental home.

    • Augustus

      John Kerry, apparently, doesn’t seem to know that the Al Nusra rebels merged with the Free Syrian Army a couple of months ago. Al-Qaida and the FSA are now one and the same. Not only do they seek the extermination of the Alawites (Assad’s sect) but also all Christians. So much for ‘moderate opposition groups’. The fact is, if America does facilitate Assad’s downfall, they will almost certainly have to put in ground troops to secure the WMDs. And not just a few thousand, but 75 thousand has been estimated. I don’t think the American public is going to like this one bit.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    What do Ron Paul, Rush Limbaugh and Pat Buchanan have in common? They`re all calling the chemical weapons attack in Syria a false flag. And guess who supplied the weapons? Say it isn`t so, Dave.

    How long can the UK MSM sit on the story of the year?

  • Bob339

    We were duped into invading Iraq on the basis of dubious evidence. True purpose? Help Israel. Now they have tried to dupe us into attacking Syria for the exact same purpose and on the basis of equally dubious evidence. Stay the hell away from the middle east. They hate us and we do not understand them. Saudi Arabia, Dubai, the rest of the emirates have the wherewithal to restrain Assad without helping Al Qaeda.

    • chan chan

      “we do not understand them”

      Speak for yourself. They’re a doddle to understand, just like their totalitarian political ideology.

  • Steve Rodriguez

    I think the Anglo-sphere is largely intact culturally; the problem is the American government has been infused with leftist utopians with little talent, competence and experience to handle foreign affairs. Carter on steroids. Europe, Canada and Australia already lack the public will, and military resources to maintain global order, and they usually snipe and complain about American imperial actions. However, when we become like THEM, quasi-socialist, left-wing, and with African communist roots, then instead of balance in our deliberations we only get the left wing side, which is scared, confused, hesitant and not knowing how to exert power. hence, our current disaster.

  • Treebrain

    Why would the West want to support Sunni Muslim fanatics affiliated to al-Qaeda and including foreign jihadis who are killing Christians?

    Assad and Hezbollah defend Christians, not kill them!

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    When the French refused to back the US in its Iraq misadventure, the US media labeled them “Cheese eating surrender monkeys” and childishly renamed French fries as Freedom fries. Which cast the Brits in the role of chief henchman. Now the French are gungho for attacking Syria (and presumably Iran) while the Brits are dragging their feet. Those that don`t learn from the mistakes of history are doomed to repeat them.
    Fool me once, shame on … How does that go again?

  • TRAV1S

    Obama will discover that all those military targets he wants to bomb will turn out to be wedding celebrations.

    • Ridcully

      Apart from the ones that turn out to be baby-milk factories.

  • Terence Hale

    Why zig-zagging Obama can’t be taken seriously on Syria. A strange thing happen to me the other day: a fly one my computer. I implemented the usual fly killer, it didn’t work. So I took a hammer and didn’t hit the fly but misst but my computer was damaged my computer which gave me the information that Mr. Obama. And now I have no information of what Mr. Obama is doing

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Vladimir Putin calls John Kerry a liar. You have to assume Vladi is holding all the aces. Or at least four.

  • kingkevin3

    I’m amazed no one has mentioned this lot in all of this.

    who has the most to gain

    And neither does anyone seem to want to mention this at all.

    no not assad but the other loonies

    So let’s put two plus two together and ask ourselves, Wem zum Vorteil?

    Thanks to the internet and not the mass media it’s now possible for people to get a somewhat more nuanced view of what is going on in the middle east. America’s foreign policy has been guided by the israeli’s for sometime now, and this is just an extension of that. APAC has tremendous influence on the exercise of american foreign policy but you wouldn’t know it if you just read the european press.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    “Check. Your move Barack.”
    And don`t rely on Vladi pulling your chestnuts out of the fire.

  • Mike

    Obama suffers from ‘foot in mouth’ syndrome its as simple as that. His aides should keep him on a leash and never let him speak off script !

  • dodgy

    …America has two matters at stake in this crisis. First, it wants to punish the Syrian dictator for breaking the long international prohibition on the use of chemical weapons. …… Next, because Obama has declared that a breach of this prohibition would invite certain US retaliation, Washington feels the need to demonstrate that it cannot be defied with impunity…

    I looked through the article for the real reason for this stupid attempt to justify a rapid bombing, and couldn’t find one.

    However, I do know that Russia delivered a number of SS-300 missile systems to Syria last May. These are very effective modern AA missiles, and could take down aircraft over both Israel and Saudi Arabia. They will be operational some time before December.

    If I were Israel or Saudi, I would have been hammering on America’s door for the last few months, and calling for them to invent an excuse to take those missiles out. Any excuse.

    And here we have a very poor excuse that seems to have been created to justify just such a bombing attack. I wonder why no newspapers have commented on the surprising convenience…?