by Prof. Abraham Ben-Zvi
When U.S. President Barack Obama decided to strike Syria as a punitive measure, he must have thought about fellow Democrat Jimmy Carter and his ill-fated presidency. Carter's helplessness when pro-Khomeini revolutionaries seized the U.S. Embassy in Teheran and held 53 American diplomats hostage for 444 days made his entire administration look weak. This also had a direct impact on his re-election campaign and contributed to his colossal defeat in the 1980 elections.
It is safe to assume that the lessons learned from this bungled ordeal have not been lost on Obama as he deliberates his actions over Syria. Had Obama shied away from a proper response to Damascus' use of chemical weapons that so brazenly crossed the red line Obama delineated so clearly only a year ago, he might have inflicted irreparable harm to his presidency and his legacy. He would have run the risk of becoming a Carter lookalike, primarily because he would have shown reluctance and weakness on his Middle East policy.
Obama may have set the bar too high by making the use of chemical weapons a trigger for U.S.-led military action. His statements lacked a single face-saving caveat that would have allowed him to climb down from that tree. With mounting and incriminating evidence on display, Obama's credibility is now on the line.
Although the American people are very much against any sort of military intervention (overwhelmingly so), Obama is boxed in and inextricably linked to his statements from last year. They are essentially binding.
As far as Obama is concerned, the need to project strength as a determined and still-relevant world power trumps his basic aversion to military force. He believes that this approach will restore his image in Moscow, Beijing and Teheran.
Although one of Obama's campaign pledges was to pivot from war zones and refocus on socio-economic issues, the White House has suddenly been thrown into the Syrian bloodbath without solid support from the general public.
On the one hand, he has to make sure to preserve his image and prestige in the eyes of friends and allies. On the other hand, the American people are against going into another Middle East war. Those two forces can only be overcome thorough a strategy that focuses on damage control. In a few days, we will find out whether he has managed to obtain his goals by entering a new, more successful period, in his presidency.
Prof. Abraham Ben-Zvi
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