John Osullivan

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

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