President Obama’s credibility on the Syrian crisis lies in shreds after he announced at a hastily convened press conference on Saturday that he would seek Congressional authorization for a military strike on Syria.
That the president would set for himself the same trap that snared UK Prime Minister David Cameron, who was rebuffed by Parliament when he sought approval for military action, is truly bizarre — even though some are calling this a victory for democracy. And if Congress gives him a green light sometime next week when it reconvenes — by no means a sure bet — Obama won’t be off the hook if things go badly.
Once again, the president is making critical policy decisions on the fly. Having set the “red line” himself in a casual, off-the-cuff remark at a press conference, President Obama finds himself boxed into a corner of his own making. After sounding an immediate alarm and signalling his intent to deliver, he and his administration have been backpeddling ever since in the face of Congressional questioning — some of it from Democrats — and tepid public support.
Americans obviously are chastened by the recent follies of military intervention and skeptical of anything carrying the label “intelligence.” Many rightly question what a punitive strike will accomplish. Others wonder what the retaliatory consequences might be, and fear that any punitive action might be the beginning of yet another costly, inconclusive war. And the U.S. has major problems on the home front that are of much greater concern to most Americans.
We should be under no illusions. If Obama orders military action, it will be to save his political skin. It won’t change anything on the ground. Nor is it likely to serve as “warning shot across the bow” at this point because the Syrians know that Americans and their allies don’t have the stomach for a real fight. Rhetorical denunciations and “red lines” opposing the gassing of civilians are one thing; consensus on how to react is quite another. The legacy of inept political and military interventions in recent decades haunts decision-making across the board.
The U.N. Security Council is, once again, neutered by sharp divisions between the U.S., the U.K. and France on one side and Russia and China on the other. The vaunted R2P doctrine lies in tatters. Memories of “intelligence” about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq hover menacingly over the entire debate.
With no real semblance of western or global leadership apparent on Syria, Canada was prudent to refrain from making a blind military commitment. Equally prudent was Ottawa’s decision to concentrate exclusively on humanitarian assistance in Syria.
The instinct to punish the use of chemical weapons is understandable — but the civil war in Syria has been going on for more than two years and has taken a far larger toll in civilian deaths than the ghastly attack in Ghouta. And yet, the international community has been unable to respond effectively to this crisis from the outset. This is a symptom of a more deep-seated, global disorder.
A political/diplomatic solution is the only viable answer to the Syrian debacle. It would enlist not just the British and the French, but also Russia, China and Syria’s neighbors. The Russians will have to be seduced, but that is not an impossible task. Russia fears instability in the region if the Syrian conflict continues and further fans the flames of Islamist extremism in its own backyard. Asian countries, including China, are far more dependent on Middle Eastern oil than North America and have a major stake in the region’s stability. Syria’s regional neighbors also have a strong interest in seeing this war end.
But there seems to be an acute shortage of the leadership and diplomatic skills needed to bring such a solution forward. Syria and Iraq were artificial, colonial creations held together respectively by the brutal regimes of the Assads, father and son, and the late, unlamented Saddam Hussein. Both are now crumbling under the weight of internal sectarian strife, aided and abetted in large part by Iran — the real (and potentially most lethal) ticking time bomb in the region. A political solution calling for looser federations for each country — or for outright independence along sectarian lines, as Henry Kissinger and others have suggested — may be the best (or least bad) outcome.
But the credibility of U.S. leadership has rarely been as low as it is today. As events in Egypt continue to unravel, the U.S. is more disengaged than ever. Having responded to the Arab Spring in a feeble manner from the outset, it finds itself without influence and desperately trying to twist the definition of a coup in order to sustain sales of U.S. military equipment. However, Egypt has other, regional benefactors who have deeper pockets and few qualms about democratic principles.
A quick but limited strike into Syria is unlikely to accomplish much more than the Clinton administration’s lobbing of cruise missiles into Tora Bora did in 2001. Prolonged disarray in Syria seems inevitable. The G20 gathering in St. Petersburg later this year promises to be a decidedly chilly affair — and not just because of the onset of Russian winter.