He was about to launch a military strike against Syria. Instead, a startled world saw US President Barack Obama undergo a very public road-to-Damascus moment. He had rediscovered the religion of congressional authorization—and that, without a doubt, is a good thing.
The decision to ask for an enabling vote from the US Senate and the US House of Representatives, before attacking the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons that intelligence sources say killed some 1,400 Syrians, was couched in anodyne terms, but in truth Obama’s rationale was rankly pragmatic. Having drawn a line in the sand, beyond which Assad could not cross without provoking an American military response, Obama found himself isolated, with a war-weary American public unable or unwilling to sympathize with him.
But the blinding light which struck him, and caused the scales to fall from his eyes, emanated all the way from across the Atlantic: the unexpected defeat in the British Parliament of Prime Minister David Cameron’s resolution in favor of military action against Syria.
The close but decisive vote will have important consequences in the months to come for Cameron’s government, but its impact on the Obama administration was immediate. It was, to use a favorite term in American political rhetoric, a game-changer.
The White House has scrambled since then to convince both House and Senate that attacking Syria for engaging in illegal chemical warfare was in the United States’ national interest.
One answer was proposed by US Secretary of State John Kerry, easily the loudest voice urging military action against the Assad regime. He told the House foreign affairs committee: “We need to send to Syria—and to the world, to dictators and terrorists, to allies and civilians alike—the unmistakable message that when we say ‘never again,’ we actually don’t mean sometimes, we don’t mean somewhere, we mean never again.” In other words, it was all about US credibility. (This would make the long-suffering Syrian people mere collateral damage, even in rhetoric!)
A second but related answer came all the way from Sweden, where Obama is currently visiting. The American commander in chief said: “My credibility is not on the line, the international community’s credibility is on the line and America and Congress’ credibility is on the line.” In other words, attacking Syria was important to the United States because it would restore or preserve the credibility of both the United States and of the US Congress. (This is an unsubtle rationalization that is absurd on its face.)
A third answer was suggested by Kerry when he spoke before the Senate foreign relations committee. The opposition to Assad, he said, “has increasingly become more defined by its moderation, more defined by the breadth of its membership, and more defined by its adherence to some, you know, democratic process and to an all-inclusive, minority-protecting constitution.” He added: “And the opposition is getting stronger by the day.” The implication is that a military strike against the ruling Syrian regime would strengthen the position of the moderates in an increasingly brutal civil war. (This might be wishful thinking, though. US intelligence officials themselves suggest that there may be as many as 1,200 rebel groups in Syria, and that the most effective ones are the extreme Islamist forces.)
We find it worrying that that same Senate committee approved additional language asserting that it was “the policy of the United States to change the momentum on the battlefield in Syria”—an interventionist thrust that allows the United States considerable leeway for interpretation. It is, of course, possible that both chambers of Congress will end up granting Obama the authorization he desires, even though, at this point, and despite a few signal victories for the White House on the political battlefield, the final votes are too close to call.
But this is what should encourage members of that same international community Obama sought to implicate: It shouldn’t be easy to launch military strikes against other sovereign countries.
The situation in Syria is dire; the chemical attack contemptible. But because there is no guarantee that an American military attack will not worsen the situation, the slower Obama is to pull the trigger, the better for everyone.