If politicians would tell the truth…Clinton would have said: “I had sex with that woman”, Berlusconi would have been convicted to lifelong in prison a dozen times by now, and Obama would have admitted he actually does not want to intervene in Syria.
Of course he claims he does, as the world was shocked by the horrendous images of the chemical attack on 21 August – a ‘moral obscenity’ as Kerry put it. Obama’s previous declarations about ‘the Red Line’ that Assad cannot pass – namely the use or movement of chemical weapons. If Assad does cross this line, ‘grave consequences’ would follow.
So, Obama now feels obliged to stick to his promise – if not, he would lose face.
But… He does not like it at all.
It’s not his style; Obama does not believe in the sanctity of American interventionism – quite the contrary. He is aware of the unpopularity of America in many third world nations, especially in the Middle East. Already in the beginning of his first term, Obama made clear he wanted to change that reputation and consequently America’s soft power. Furthermore, he looks at the legacy of American interventionism with a skepticism worthy of Socrates. The bringing to power of several dictators in America’s ‘backyard’, the US training of the muhajideen in Afghanistan that later turned into Al Qaeda, and the latest Iraqi War – coined by himself as a “dumb war” – are all not okay in his book. For these reasons, Obama’s foreign policy has been very cautious. His only humanitarian intervention so far was in Libya, with Khadaffi behaving as a madman that everyone wanted to get rid of, and the European powers taking the lead. Furthermore, Libya’s air defense was poorly maintained, and air strikes were easy because of the sparse population. The Libyan attack was successful and Khadaffi became history quite soon after the invasion. However, in the war’s aftermath, Libya proved to be highly unstable with tribal affiliations struggling for power. The takeover of the American embassy and the killing of three American citizens proved Obama once again that humanitarian intervention rarely succeeds, and that the grievances it causes are often directed towards the US.
Libya already was messy. Intervention in Syria would even be much more problematic for several reasons. Aerial bombings, for instance, would cause much more ‘collateral damage’ because of the densely populated nature of Syria.
And it would also not be so straightforward to ensure a victory. Assad’s army is a great deal more powerful than Khadaffi’s.
And then there’s the situation in the region, of course.
Egypt’s army, despite its long history of US financing, proves to be an unreliable alley, acting as a ‘loose cannon’ – quite literally – against its own population despite 17 phone calls from Chuck Hagel asking them to stop. Moreover, how would it look if the US did turn to Egypt for help?
Another factor coming into play are the two dangerous allies of Assad: Russia and Iran. Both hyper allergic to American interventionism in general – out of fear that they would be next – and having a strong alliance with Assad, they are trying to convince the US not to intervene. Putin pleads to the Congress to vote ‘no’ while asking Obama for a tête-à-tête, and Iran goes further than Russia, stating that US intervention in Syria would have ‘grave consequences’ (Interesting choice of words). With the two nuclear powers backing Assad, Obama has every right to be worried.
Then there’s Israel as well. Israel, still in a strong alliance with the US, has been carrying out small scale attacks on Syria, and would certainly become more involved with US backing. Maybe the pre-emptive strike on Iran that Netanyahu has been dreaming about, might happen after all. Kerry’s attempt at reviving the Middle East Peace Process did not prove as a big enough distraction.
So, the cards that are on the table are clearly not in America’s advantage. Obama realizes this. The fact that he seeks the admission of the congress did not come as a surprise for me. Would the same man that vetoed financial support to the moderate faction of the Rebels out of fear that the radical rebels would benefit from it, really want to take its chances with a military intervention? I don’t think so.
Several news sites speak of a ‘fiasco’ for Obama’s authority in case congress would say ‘no’ to his resolution. I think the opposite: he would welcome it warmly. Seeking the approval of congress was a really smart move. If they would vote ‘no,’ he gets what he wants but won’t be blamed for the US’ inaction, congress will. Plus, he still got to send out a strong message that the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable. In case of a ‘yes’-vote, he would go to war with a reinforced legitimacy, and more autonomy and freedom than he would have had without the permission of congress.
In any event, Obama will be remembered as the president that democratized American foreign policy. Well played.