Political support for President Obama’s planned military strike against Syria crumbled further over the weekend. It is shades of Munich as a war-weary public in Europe and America opposes military action to discipline Syria’s ruthless dictator Bashar al-Assad. Though he’s clearly on a different page from Neville Chamberlain, Obama is handing the situation with similar ineptitude.
Members of the president’s own party are being deluged with emails and phone calls from Americans who oppose any kind of military action. Even Republican allies who support an attack, like Senator John McCain, are taking a lot of heat in town hall gatherings with constituents.
Democratic Senate majority leader Harry Reid has signalled that he isn’t sure that he has the 60 votes needed to support the president. The Republican-dominated House of Representatives already looks ready to defeat the motion before the House debate has even begun.
More bad news on the diplomatic front: the European Union has said that it wants to see the report of UN inspectors before there is any kind of military action — another excuse to delay. French President François Hollande, who is Obama’s only Western ally willing to take up arms, is now doing somersaults, saying that he too wants to see the report before France acts. True to form, French public opinion is strongly opposed to military action.
Unless Obama can somehow turn the tide when he takes his case to the nation in a televised address on Tuesday, he may soon be in a place no president ever wants to be — forced to take military action against the popular will of Congress and his own people because he is hostage to his own rhetoric, or forced to abruptly reverse course to save his own political skin. Whatever the outcome, this is a moment that will forever define his presidency.
Worse still, America’s friends are fast losing what little confidence they have in America’s ability to lead because of the president’s clumsy mishandling of this crisis — and the worst is yet to come. America’s rivals and enemies are rubbing their hands in glee at America’s isolation. President Putin’s smirk in front the cameras at the G20 summit in St. Petersburg told it all.
Obama was clearly unsuccessful at persuading the majority of G20 leaders that military action is required to deal with Syria’s violation of the chemical weapons taboo. Only a couple of western leaders, like Prime Minister Harper, rallied to his defense — though Harper judiciously refrains from committing Canada to military action.
As more than one pundit has noted, a U.S. military strike (when it does come) will be a strike without a strategy. Although Obama has been at pains to point out that U.S. forces are ready for action, his own chair of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, clearly doesn’t know what real mission is and has pretty much admitted so publicly.
Obama seems to moving towards Senator McCain’s view that a military strike should be intended not simply to deter Assad from a further use of chemical weapons, but to tip the scales toward Syria’s opposition and force Assad to the negotiating table. This is wishful thinking. Syria’s opposition is divided into some 14 different groups. There is no clear dividing line between “moderates” and “extremists.” The most successful arm of the rebel force is the Al-Nusra Front, which is backed by al Qaida.
For negotiations to occur, Syria’s opposition would have to come together — and that has been the problem from the start of this conflict and one of the reasons why Assad still has the upper hand.
Had he intended to act, Obama should have done so sooner and decisively. He could have taken a page from the Israelis, who have attacked Syrian sites to send a clear message that they won’t tolerate Hezbollah’s missile attacks.
The longer Obama vacillates, the worse this situation gets — because nothing now will have any useful effect other than to confirm the futility of American military might. He has no sense of strategy or power.
Quite apart from the clumsy mess created in Syria, the president’s pretzel-like manoeuvres will be seen as weakness by Iran (and others) who pose an even graver threat to global stability.
A bad week with more ahead. Any semblance of leadership — moral or other — lies in the shreds.