When President Barack Obama decided Aug. 31 to ask Congress to approve military action for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s Aug. 21 Sarin nerve gas attack in East Damascus that killed hundreds of civilians, he engaged in shrewd political calculation. After running as the antiwar candidate in 2008 and winning the Nobel Peace Prize Oct. 13, 2009, Barack wasn’t inclined toward military action. With reports of minor chemical attacks coming out of Syria in 2011 and 2012, Obama was pushed into drawing his “red line” in the sand. When he warned al-Assad in 2012 about crossing the “red line” regarding using chemical weapons, he painted himself into a corner when al-Assad finally uncorked his poison gas. Attending the G20 in St. Petersburg, Obama got the cold shoulder from Putin and couldn’t persuade too many folks about the necessity of air strikes on the Syrian regime.
Obama faces tough hurdles in the U.N. Security Council with Russia and China opposing any military action. Dispatching at least four Russian warships to the East Mediterranean, Putin ratcheted up the pressure on Obama and Congress to reconsider any military plans. While it appears Obama seeks Congressional approval on his war plans, it’s entirely plausible he knew when he put the matter before Congress he wouldn’t get approval. If the Senate or House votes down the use-of-force resolution, Obama has a way out military intervention. European Union and NATO officials firmly believe al-Assad was responsible for the Aug. 21 Sarin nerve gas attack in Damascus’ suburbs. Even when the U.N. report comes in, it won’t assign responsibility, only confirm the presence of poison gas. EU foreign ministers meeting in Vilnius, Lithuania, asked Kerry to wait for the U.N. report.
Looking ahead to Obama’s nationally televised pitch to the American public Tues., Sept. 10, he’s got an uphill battle with an audience jaded by 13 years of continuous war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Barack has some high hurdles to convince skeptical citizens that Syria’s use of Sarin nerve gas threatens U.S. national security. While it’s horrific and repugnant to American sensibilities, most people think the U.S. should not play world policeman. If Barack argues that allowing al-Assad to get away with using chemical weapons emboldens regimes like Iran and North Korea, his pitch would likely backfire. Barack spent far too much time condemning former President George W. Bush’s preemptive war strategy. Arguing that al-Assad might turn over chemical weapons to rogue states or terrorists also won’t fly, since the U.S.-backed rebels fight along side al-Qaeda in Syria.
Putin called Secretary of State John Kerry a “liar” for testifying in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Sept. 4 that about 15% of terrorists, including al-Qaeda, fight in Syria to topple al-Assad. As a major trading partner of Syria and running the Tartus navy base on the Syrian coast, Putin wants to see al-Assad stay in put. Whatever his reasons, including Russia’s foothold in the Middle East, Putin doesn’t buy U.S. excuses for military intervention. “More and more evidence that the Assad regime is behind these crimes. We can’t just ignore this,” said Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius, agreeing with U.S. evidence but asking Kerry to wait for the U.N. report. Putting the vote before Congress most likely mirrors Obama’s ambivalence about striking Syria. If Congress says “no” Obama will get off the hook, pointing fingers that both liberals and conservatives.
Whatever the repercussions of air strikes, including a possible confrontation with Russia, punting the decision to Congress gets Obama off the hook. House and Senate members must weigh for themselves whether or not attacking Syria is in the national security interest. When Obama speaks to the nation Tuesday, it’s going to be difficult convincing folks that military intervention in Syria improves U.S. national security. With possible reprisals from Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas—and worst yet Russia—public opinion has been running negative on Syria military intervention. Obama’s pitch that intervening in Syria helps deter terrorists and rogue states, like Iran and North Korea, won’t be easy. Polls show that most Americans believe the U.S. has no business intervening in foreign civil wars, especially in the Middle East. Obama’s best pitch involves helping reverse an intolerable humanitarian crisis.
Tossing the “red line” on chemical weapons into Congress’ lap cheapens the presidency while, at the same time, gives Obama political cover should he get a “no” vote in Congress. All indications point to Obama accepting the will of Congress, despite pressure to give more aid-and-comfort to Syrian rebels. Stopping U.S. air strikes puts the Syrian crisis back in the hands of the CIA and other covert operations to beef up rebel forces. If Obama gets a “yes” vote it’s going to go much further than slapping al-Assad on the wrist. Whatever the public mission, the Pentagon will try to shift the momentum-on-the-battlefield, helping rebel groups drive out al-Assad. Anyway Obama pivots in Tuesday’s address, he’s going to have a tough sell convincing the public that al-Assad’s use of poison gas threatens U.S. national security. Talking about preempting future attacks won’t get it done.
About the Author
John M. Curtis writes politically neutral commentary analyzing spin in national and global news. He’s editor of OnlineColumnist.com and author of Dodging The Bullet and Operation Charisma.