Monday, September 9, 2013

Obama's War: When Cynicism Trumps Credibility

by Richard Baehr

Until some insiders break ranks and tell the truth, we will not know why U.S. President Barack Obama changed his mind over launching cruise missiles at Syria last week. 

Until recently, there was speculation that when the president saw the public opinion polls showing that Americans were sharply opposed to a strike, he became nervous about being out there on his own, without the U.N., the British, or Congress, especially if there was a modest risk that things might "go south" after a strike (retaliation against U.S. assets or domestic terrorism). Another circulating theory was that if the British were taking the war to a vote, then Obama, who had been a frequent war critic as a senator, needed to do the same. 

But now a new explanation is gaining currency: that the president simply lost his will to fight because he became afraid of Iranian/Hezbollah repercussions. Unlike the Iranians, the Syrians, the Egyptians, the Russians and pretty much everyone else on the international stage, who understand that the president is an empty vessel at this point, and whose word means little or nothing, Obama may take the Iranian threats seriously.

One Iranian cleric, Alireza Forghani, offered this: "In just 21 hours [after the attack on Syria], a family member of every U.S. minister [department secretary], U.S. ambassadors, U.S. military commanders around the world will be abducted. And then 18 hours later, videos of their amputation will be spread [around the world]."

This Shiite cleric also promised that one of Obama's daughters would be kidnapped and raped. One wonders if the threats not only caused Obama to back off from a unilateral attack on Syria, but also caused anyone in the administration or the mainstream media to challenge their assumptions about the new moderate Iranian leadership and their supposed openness to negotiations over their nuclear program, almost completed at this point. 

The Wall Street Journal, generally considered a more reliable source than ranting Iranian clerics, also reported that there were threats from Iran that the administration was taking seriously: "The U.S. has intercepted an order from Iran to militants in Iraq to attack the U.S. Embassy and other American interests in Baghdad in the event of a strike on Syria, officials said, amid an expanding array of reprisal threats across the region."

There were also threats from Russian leader Vladimir Putin, an ally of the Syrian government, backed up by the movement of Russian ships. Putin has clearly learned since the days of Hillary Clinton's pathetic gift of a reset button (mistranslated no less into Russian) that the Americans are in strategic retreat around the world, and Putin seems eager to reassert Russia into the power vacuum in the Middle East this has created.

There is an argument to be made at this point that Obama really does not care that much if he loses the vote in Congress. In fact, if Congress backs a resolution authorizing the use of force against Syrian President Bashar Assad, however limited, there are clear risks for the president at this point, with little in the way of gains, other than the supposed defense of American credibility in the world. The president has argued that he never set any red lines about the use of chemical weapons by the Assad government but that the international community did, and Congress did, and that he is seeking only to defend international norms. 

The problem is that while 98 percent of the world's population may reside in nations that signed a chemical weapons treaty, that treaty did not obligate any nation to act with force in the instance of a violation of the treaty. 

The U.S. Senate may have signed a chemical weapons treaty, and Congress may have passed the Syrian Accountability Act, but it has not passed any measure requiring action in the case of a violation of such a treaty. The president, revealing his inner pacifist, stated publicly that he had been elected to end wars, not start them. This Syria business, it seems, was a distraction he had not bargained for.

It was of course, the president himself, who set a red line on Syria and the use of chemical weapons, not anybody else. The president ignored earlier violations of that red line, but there is now added pressure to respond after the most recent violation from the humanitarian hawks (such as the Samantha Powers of the world) since the death toll from the use of chemical weapons has been substantially higher, including hundreds of children. 

And then there are those who seem to think that if Congress passes the resolution, and Obama launches one or two days of strikes (even if they accomplish nothing strategically to alter the course of the war), that American credibility will have been instantly restored internationally, and we will now be respected again by the likes of Iran. To say this seems like wishful thinking puts too good a face on it.

The president did not ask his domestic lobbying arm, Organizing for America, to lobby Democrats in Congress this week, but he did ask the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to lobby members from both parties. Moving away from its historic policy of not lobbying on issues that do not directly relate to Israel and its security, or U.S.-Israel relations, AIPAC signaled it was all in and would send 250 top people to visit House and Senate members next week. 

The president has a twofer here as well -- if he wins the vote, he will get credit and leftist anti-war advocates can blame AIPAC and the Israel lobby for once again sending the U.S. to war. On the other hand, if the resolution does not pass, AIPAC looks weak, and its ability to achieve results on issues that actually matter to the community, and to both countries, such as Iran's nuclear program, will be diminished.

A defeat of the resolution is not a bad result for the president if he does not want to take action. The president won re-election by appealing to his base, and he is very uncomfortable taking it on, or forcing it to support policies it always opposes, or at least always opposes if the president is a Republican, especially one named Bush. If Obama has grown fearful of the potential blowback that might result from a short pointless military strike, then why should he take the risk? 

There is also the cynicism angle. Obama gets to blame Republicans in Congress for the defeat in the House if it happens (and as now seems likely), which simply sets him up for the fall battles with House Republicans over the budget, the federal debt limit and Obamacare -- things that actually matter to this White House, unlike the Syrian war or Iran. Greater federal spending, higher taxes, and more redistribution of wealth and income are the things that move Obama, not military action or addressing humanitarian issues abroad. The U.S. has a president who wants a much smaller American footprint abroad, but a much larger government footprint within the country.

The president hoped that he had insulated himself from serious risk of blowback from a military effort directed at Assad for his chemical weapons use, by letting the Syrians and their allies know in advance that we were not seeking to change the momentum of the battle between the regime and its many opponents, nor to remove Assad, nor to hit his chemical weapons depositories (rumored to be the largest supply in the world). Rather, the U.S. communicated in every way possible that its response would be small. 

The Obama administration, in other words, was communicating its utter lack of strategic seriousness. Pinprick strikes were needed to show America's humanitarian credentials, but it was not taking sides in the Syrian civil war. Jon Stewart, a popular comedian, mocked the administration's response, suggesting that the U.S. was now going to war because it did not like how the regime had killed these most recent victims, but the other ways Assad had killed people were acceptable.

It is easy to get the sense today that the president expects to lose the vote in Congress, and tossing the military authorization to it anticipated this outcome. If a majority votes in favor of the limited war resolution in the Senate (60 votes may be required), this will increase pressure on wavering Democrats in the House, who are reluctant to embarrass a president of their party (embarrassing a Republican, especially one named Bush, on a war vote is a different matter entirely). For now, 224 House members have committed to vote no, or lean that way, with only 35 certain or leaning the other way. That is more than enough to defeat the resolution if the leaners stay on the no side. But even if Congress provides a split verdict -- the Senate for, the House against -- the president can abandon the effort and blame House Republicans for U.S. inaction.

Those arguing the hardest for support for American military involvement seem convinced that U.S. credibility will be shot if it does not strike back at Assad. Until last week, the president had behaved as if Congress was an irrelevance in the decision process. The U.N. and the international community seemed to matter, but Congress was hardly mentioned. 

With the decision to throw this to Congress, Obama has damaged American credibility in a far more lasting way than how this vote and U.S. action or inaction in Syria is perceived. For from now on, presidents will assume they cannot simply strike at enemies, but must enter the political process and get congressional support, even for quick actions, thereby removing the element of surprise. If you want to neuter the credibility of U.S. fighting forces and the American ability to matter on the international stage, you could not do more than what Obama has already done.

Richard Baehr


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