Which Way Now? The US/UK Dilemma Over Syria

A year ago, at the height of the 2012 US presidential election, reports emerged alleging the use of chemical weapons in Syria. The reports were sketchy but they appeared to suggest the use of WMD by the Assad regime against Syrian civilians. The event sparked debate in the international community over the best form of response. Speaking extemporaneously, President Obama issued his now famed ‘red line’ remark. Despite this, no response was forthcoming from the United States or any other western power. In the months that followed, the US consulate in Benghazi was attacked and the ambassador, along with others, was murdered. To date, there has been no US retaliation beyond mere rhetorical outrage and verbal warnings.

President Obama clearly does not seek international adventurism, having campaigned with a pledge to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan and re-engage with the Middle East. However, neither does he wish to be remembered as a president who stood aside in the face of slaughter. The White House reports that it is committed to finding a diplomatic solution in Syria, but is clearly preparing to launch a military response. Obama’s ‘red line’ remark inadvertently painted himself, the White House & the international community into a corner, from which it has unsuccessfully sought to emerge. Having pledged action in the face of evidence it has repeatedly sought to downplay atrocities.

It appears clear that the second term Obama administration’s new foreign policy team, including Secretary of State John Kerry, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power and Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel, are having an impact. These new personalities are clearly bringing their different perspectives to bear on Obama, as revealed by his public announcements. There is, however, no public appetite for action in Syria. A Reuters/Ipsos poll revealed just 9% support for intervention in Syria, with 60% opposed. This is the lowest support ever recorded ahead of US overseas military action and reveals that intervention in Syria is even less popular among American than Congress. It’s that unpopular an idea! To place these figures in context, 47 % supported US intervention in Libya in 2011, which was consider low at the time; 76% of American supported the Iraq War, and 90 % supported Afghanistan in 2001; 46% supported NATO military action in Kosovo in 1999. To intervene now, therefore, would contravene a key element of the Powell Doctrine.

The Obama administration has revealed that it will publish an Intelligence report by the end of the week detailing the August 21 attack. However, its contents have already been revealed and pre-judged by everyone, including the president and vice president, in a clear repeat of events that led to the use of force against Iraq and as Mervyn King of Kings College London has stated, we need to wait for UN Weapons inspectors to report their findings. Just as in Iraq, both the US and the UK are racing to initiate military action ahead of official reports that they had sought to initiate.

Incredibly, the actions of Ed Miliband have had a dramatic impact on the plans to initiate a missile strike this week and have produced a vitriolic response from the UK Foreign Office. A narrow window of opportunity existed that would have permitted US-UK military action ahead of President Obama’s departure for Stockholm next week and his ensuing presence at the G20 in St. Petersburg. Ed Miliband’s 180-degree turn on support for military intervention has ensured that this window is rapidly closing as the PM looks unable to muster Parliamentary support for military intervention ahead of any reports from the UN inspectors. Having recalled Parliament, Cameron appears unable to push through a measure that would permit military action, with dissent coming from both his own backbenches as well as the Opposing Party.

This leaves Obama, and Cameron to a lesser degree, politically exposed. Having ramped up the calls for military intervention in the last 4 days, domestic political pressure appears has forced both leaders to back-peddle on previous remarks. This is one thing for Cameron, but quite another for Obama. Elected as the apparent antidote to George W. Bush, Obama has prevaricated in the face of slaughter in Syria for over a year. He risks initiating military action that commands the support of only 9% of US population, but if he backs down having insisted upon the involvement of the Syrian regime in the WMD attack, he will be faced with a major internal problem.

Here are a few choice quotes that may give a clue as to why this is:

  • ‘American political leaders interpret society-wide silence as an indicator of public indifference…’ (xvii)
  • ‘No U.S. president has ever made genocide prevention a priority, and no U.S. president has ever suffered politically for his indifference to its occurrence. It is thus no coincidence that genocide rages on.’ (xxi)
  • ‘American leaders did not act because they did not want to.’ (508)
  • ‘One mechanism for altering the calculus of U.S. leaders would be to make them publicly or professionally accountable for inaction.’ (510)
  • ‘The United States should stop genocide for two reasons. The first and most compelling reason is moral. When innocent life is being taken on such a scale and the United States has the power to stop the killing at reasonable risk, it has a duty to act. It is this belief that motivates most of those who seek intervention.’ (512)

These are not the quotes of a wild-eyed outsider, but of the current US Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, drawn from her Pulitzer Prize winning book, ‘Problem From Hell.’ Having recruited Power to the administration and promoted her at the start of his second term, how could Obama not be influenced by such thinking? Having accepted a position in an administration, how could Power remain in post if the US did not act? Power referred to the crisis in Rwanda as ‘The Problem from Hell.’ She is, undoubtedly, discovering that governing is a lot harder than it appears from the cheap seats she used to enjoy shouting from in the 1990s…

George W. Bush’s Third Term Continues…

A year ago, at the height of a campaign for re-election, Barack Obama inadvertently crossed a line. Going off-message and beyond his own agreed upon boundaries, he muttered that chemical weapons use by Syria would represent ‘a red line’ which, if crossed, would result in ramifications.

Ever since, the administration has desperately sought to put that genie back in the bottle and has proved singularly unable to do so. For a president renowned for his rhetorical skills, Obama had once more demonstrated his lack of ability when it came to speaking off the cuff and perhaps revealed the lack of experience that many had raised when he first announced for the presidency after a little more than 2 years in the Senate.

Having made the statement, however, the White House has prevaricated on the issue ever since. Not wishing to get involved in a foreign deployment during the campaign, they hedged and weaved, even in the face of increasing atrocities. Holding statements were issued, as Press Secretary Jay Carney was forced to perform semantic somersaults to continue his justification of in-action in the face of international condemnation.

Even as late as Friday night the president appeared to stake out two positions in a single interview on CNN. Insisting that ‘core national interests’ of the United States were at stake in Syria, while failing to commit to an engagement that he believed could be ‘expensive, difficult and costly…’ (Note the double reference to the financial implications of any intervention?)

The US called for UN weapons inspectors to be granted access to a variety of sites, including the location of the most recent tragedy. After days of prevarication, the Assad regime yielded over the weekend, only for the UN team to come under sniper fire as they sought to investigate the situation.

Having been denied access to the sites for days, governments in Europe and the US downplayed the decision to grant access as being too little, too late. Before the inspector’s could conduct their work, therefore, their efforts were being sullied.

Sound familiar?

Clearly, this weekend, something appears to have changed in Washington.

Secretary of State Kerry has declared Syria’s use of chemical weapons to  be ‘undeniable’ despite the apparent lack of any new evidence and the total lack of time for the UN inspectors to have reported back anything of value. Kerry has spoken of ‘real and…compelling’ evidence that the Assad regime was committing ‘a moral obscenity’ that ‘should shock the conscience of the world.’ But where is the evidence of this?

Clearly deaths have occurred, but what new evidence does the White House have today that it lacked a year ago?  Kerry has announced that President Obama will shortly ‘be making an informed decision about how to respond to this indiscriminate use of chemical weapons.’ Yet it was apparent a year ago that such incidents were occurring, so what has changed?

If anything, public support has declined. Polls indicate 9% of Americans support intervention, a decline from a figure of 30% only recently. Indeed, a Syrian intervention is even less popular with voters than Congress, not an easy feat to achieve. There is no domestic constituent pushing for intervention and when was the last time you heard reference to a shadowy ‘Syrian Lobby’ on Capitol Hill?

What is at stake here is the Moral Authority of President Obama. Elected as the apparent antidote to George W. Bush, Obama has proven to be a profound disappointment to liberals who felt he would restore something that had been lost between 2001 and 2009: Moral Leadership.

However, as he expanded drone use, failed to close Gitmo, expanded the war in Afghanistan and failed to respond to atrocities in Syria, he appeared to many to be merely continuing Bus’s policies. His time in office had become, in some circles, Bush’s Third Term.

However, even now, in threatening to intervene, such a parallel continues: An American president using the use of WMD as a pretext for engaging in a Middle East nation, with little to no domestic support and without the approval of the UN Security Council is a scenario all too familiar for those with memories that extend back just ten short years.

George W. Bush found himself caught between Iraq and a hard place due to his own rhetoric. Barack Obama has backed himself into a corner with his red-line remarks. In both cases lives have been lost as a result. All too easily we forget the power of speech and the implications of action and inaction. What happens next in Syria, will reveal the true distinction between the current and the previous occupant of the Oval Office.