Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Thursday, September 12, 2013

How Obama Bungled Syria - Badly

Calvin Coolidge makes a comeback in the 21st Century

In my last post on Syria, I made an assertion that, as a risk-averse leader, Barack Obama would sit still and do nothing about Syria. Now, his "Calvin Coolidge" moment has arrived, with Russian President Vladimir Putin coming to the rescue, proposing that Syria's Bashar al-Assad place his chemical weapons under "international control."

I ask you to quickly vote to bomb Syria and at the same time
 to postpone the vote so we can pursue this diplomatic path.

Putin's proposal came after a very bizarre spectacle earlier this week, when on September 10, Obama gave a panned speech on Syria, in which he gave the impression that he didn't even know what he was trying to do about Syria. On one hand, Obama justified his non-intervention stance, declaring that the United States "cannot resolve someone else's civil war through force, particularly after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan," in spite of more than a hundred of thousands people killed in the Syrian conflict. On the other hand, he made the case to the American people to intervene in Syria after a chemical weapon attack that killed "over a thousand people." Then again, he also asked the Congress "to postpone a vote to authorize the use of force while [the United States] pursue this diplomatic path."

This capped a very confusing two weeks after the revelations of a major gas attack in Syria, in which Obama had already painted himself in the corner, then tried so hard to escape responsibility from his infamous "red line" statement, notably by arguing that it was not HIS red line. While this is technically correct, he previously said he would get the U.S. act to punish any violation of his red line, though today he grounds the case for military force on affirming and upholding international norms, and... oh well, you get the point.

So what went wrong?  Here's how Obama bungled the Syrian issue badly.

First, he loss precious momentum by dithering since the beginning of the uprising. Despite reports that tens of thousands people were killed already, Obama decided to do nothing, which made his later case for military intervention--that the United States had to get involved after a chemical weapon attack that only killed a couple hundreds of people--difficult to swallow. Yes, there's a global taboo against the use of chemical weapon. Still, the fact that the deaths from chemical weapons is only a small fraction of the total number of deaths in Syria already made Obama's too late case for intervention simply unpersuasive.

No wonder Nick Kristoff remarked in Twitter:

Second, in the time he dithered and did nothing, the situation on the ground got worse. Al-Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al-Qaeda, has gotten involved in the civil war and actually now plays a major role in the rebellion, muddling the entire situation. At this point, there is actually genuine concern whether keeping Assad on the top is actually the lesser of two evils, considering one alternative is an Al-Qaeda run Syria, where minorities get persecuted.

So simple!

With the situation unclear whether the rebels are the good guys or not, considering the presence of Al-Nusra, it is not surprising that Senator Ted Cruz would declare, in his opposition to the intervention in Syria, that "the United States is not Al Qaeda's air force."

Granted, hindsight is 20/20. There was actually a real chance that Assad could be toppled in the beginning of the uprising, a chance that made intervention seem rather unnecessary. And there was of course a sense of war fatigue after the disastrous Iraq and Afghanistan adventures that made Obama hesitate from intervening in Syria.

Yet it is mind boggling the Obama Administration has responded so reactively--rather than pro-actively--to the developing situation minute-by-minute events in Syria. It is evident that the administration does not have any plans or strategies on what it would do should the United States actually intervene with force.

Third, Obama and his surrogates badly managed the domestic politics of striking Syria. Some of his supporters badly politicized the issue. When Obama asked the congress for authorization to intervene in Syria, Obama hand David Axelrood tweeted:

My former colleague, Bob Kelly, might disagree with my assertion here, as he wrote in his Twitter account back then:

We might disagree on whether it is a constitutional requirement for the president to ask permission from Congress (the debate on War Powers Act is still ongoing), but then again, Obama didn't even bother to ask for permission when he intervened in Libya before. Even John Kerry made the claim that Obama could still bomb Syria even if the Congress votes no.  Not surprisingly, many on the right suspected that Obama simply wanted to avoid blame should things go wrong with America's intervention in Syria, as James Taranto noted:
President Obama has confirmed the suspicion that his decision to ask Congress for authorization before using force in Syria was a political ploy. "I'll repeat something that I said in Sweden," he said this morning (U.S. time) at a press conference in St. Petersburg, Russia. "I did not put this before Congress, you know, just as a political ploy or as symbolism."

Our credibility in this case is "unbelievably small."

As expected, there's little enthusiasm from the Republicans to support Obama's adventure in Syria. Worse, not only was Obama unable to persuade the Republicans, he could not even persuade the doubters in his own party, which in turn, makes it very difficult for Obama to get any authorization (if it comes to that) from Congress.

Fourth, the sad thing is, had Obama decided to simply shoot some missiles at Syria after the revelations of the chemical attacks, he probably could have avoided much of this mess. His critics might cry foul and both Russia and Iran might lodge protests, but all of that wouldn't lead to very much. The international norms against using chemical weapons would have been upheld. Putin might seethe, but maybe eventually shrug it off as a tit-for-tat move in response to the Snowden Affair.

Now, however, with Obama seemingly open to Putin's proposal of having Assad's chemical weapons under international supervision, which has almost no chance to work, he is squandering more and more political capital and weakening his already weak case on intervention. At the same time, he looks beholden to Putin. Putin, on the other hand, managed to use this opportunity to lecture the United States on the folly of intervention, which led to this observation:

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