Obama's Gamble

[caption id="attachment_55245151" align="aligncenter" width="620"]President Barack Obama meets with members of congress in the cabinet room of the White House on September 3, 2013 (Photo by Dennis Brack-Pool/Getty Images) President Barack Obama meets with members of Congress in the Cabinet room of the White House on September 3, 2013. (Dennis Brack-Pool/Getty Images) [/caption]His closest ally left him in the lurch. The United Nations can’t find its voice. And the Arab League is so faint-hearted that it might as well be on life support.

Is it any wonder then, that President Barack Obama decided to seek help from his long-time nemesis, the US Congress? Bad situations sometimes lead to creative solutions.

The issue, of course, is the latest outrage by Syria’s beleaguered and brutal government of Bashar Al-Assad: its August 21 sarin gas attack on four rebel-held areas of Damascus that caused the horrific deaths of more than 1,400 civilians, including nearly 500 children.

It was, as Obama said, “the worst chemical weapons attack of the 21st century,” and not seen an equal since Iraq’s use of chemical weapons against both its own Kurdish civilians and its Iranian adversaries in the Iran–Iraq War of 1980–1988. It also violated international law, specifically the Geneva Protocol of 1925 banning chemical weapons. For all these reasons, it cries out for a response from the international community.

As the strongest economic and military power on earth today, the United States is widely seen as the default enforcer of this “international community.” So the question becomes: How should Obama respond to the events of August 21?

For the last two years, the US president has done his mightiest to stay out of the Syrian civil war, despite pressures from some figures in Congress, notably Republican senator John McCain. Partly, Obama doesn't like foreign military interventions. As an Illinois state senator he opposed the US invasion of Iraq, and as president he has spent the last several years extricating US troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Partly, too, he fears the United States being incrementally sucked into an interminable and deadly conflict in Syria. In addition, Obama’s poll-conscious White House is well aware that a war-weary US public is massively opposed to any US involvement in the Syrian civil war.

Obama’s response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons is further complicated by the absence, for all intents and purposes, of any “international community” when it comes to this issue. Last week, the British parliament voted against joining any US military operation in Syria, depriving Obama of backing from Washington’s closest ally.

A few days later, the Arab League meeting in Cairo could not muster a resolution that would have given Obama political cover from the region to punish Syria militarily. Instead, it voiced approval for action only under the authority of the United Nations—a highly unlikely scenario.

The United Nations, which should be enforcing international law, has been effectively paralyzed because China and Russia are using their veto powers in the Security Council to protect Syria.

Egypt, once a reliable supporter of US policies, openly opposes a US military strike on Syria, and even Saudi Arabia, which dearly wants to see Assad toppled, did not publicly break with the Arab League’s timid stance.

Given this bad hand, Obama decided to gamble and on August 31 announced that while he believes he has constitutional authority to order a military strike against Damascus, he will wait until Congress has an opportunity to debate the issue and make a decision.

It was a surprising move and an ironic one because Congress has given the US president little cooperation in most matters, be it immigration, health care or the national budget. But Obama seems to be gambling that Congress will help him in this situation. If they authorize a military strike, he can say to the American people that their representatives approved it, despite the risks.

If Congress rejects a US military response, Obama could avoid having to order an attack that will be not be in sync with his personal principles, but also one he fears might draw the US further into the Syrian quagmire. And the “weakness” that his critics accuse him of will also be applied to Congress.

In essence, then, a Congress that has blocked Obama on many fronts to his great frustration may ironically block him again, but to his great relief and political gain.

But that still leaves the question of US credibility, especially because Obama has declared that Syria’s use of chemical weapons would be an unacceptable crossing of a “red line.” There’s a strong current that says that if the US does not respond militarily that the nation’s credibility will suffer.

That argument, to continue the same color pattern, is a “red herring.” If, years from now, there is a real international crisis harmful to US national interests that calls for US leadership, people are not going to say, “Oh remember how the US failed to act in Syria? We can’t rely on it now.” No, new circumstances will demand new responses.

US credibility and US leadership do not always require US military action. There are many ways to show leadership. What is now called for is creative thinking to reach the top priority, which should be to end the agonizing slaughter of Syrian civilians. After that, the aim should be to bring the adversaries to the negotiating table.

Though US politicians—including US presidents—seem to prefer the satisfaction of quick military strikes over the long slog of diplomacy needed to bring wartime foes to compromise, the latter path is the more noble and ultimately effective one. The International Crisis Group has done some of the hard thinking necessary to thrust this effort forward.

As the old saying goes, there is more than one way to skin a cat. And if Washington’s political and military establishment had been willing to go for creative solutions rather than military intervention a decade ago, the United States wouldn’t have made its biggest foreign policy blunder ever when it invaded Iraq.