A Congressional Time Bomb – Obama, Syria and Signing His Own Death Warrant
News broke this morning that Obama has decided to push back the Congressional vote on Syria, to explore “all avenues of diplomatic resolution.”
Thanks to Russia’s get-out-of-jail-free card, which took the form of a promised negotiation with Bashar al-Assad to hand over his country’s chemical weapons arsenal, the American President can now table the vote to use military force against Syria.
Many are sceptical about the seriousness with which Putin and Assad may approach this mediation, though. It’s not like either have them have a brilliant diplomatic track record. In which case, stalling the vote in Congress may have a time limit.
This is worrisome principally for reason that, bringing the vote to Congress seems increasingly like Obama signing the death warrant for his own government.
Syria has been a thorn in the side of all major world leaders since the crisis began in 2011. With its strategic location, nestled between Israel, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey and Lebanon, no one doubted that it would play an integral role in the Arab Spring, but ongoing turmoil has left everybody wincing at the thought that one of the superpowers might announce the necessity of international military intervention. In the wake of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the world is a bit gun-shy (to use an obvious pun) about using volleys of missiles as a plaster to cover deep wounds.
The promise of this announcement has increased global tensions. Russia and China, despite protestations (read: sophistry) to the contrary, have shown every sign of supporting the Assad regime. The rest of the world have concentrated, ostensibly, on mounting human rights violations and found the Syrian government to be more at fault.
With such dangerous divisions, the Syria situation has tested the diplomacy of the world’s leaders considerably. In half-heartedly fighting the British corner, David Cameron has ended up looking a bit silly, though he may well have been playing a very clever game. On the surface, he has supported Obama, but defeated in parliament on a vote that could have sanctioned joining a US-led intervention, he is now saved from having to use his country’s limited resources on another war in the Middle East.
Sure, there is the usual joke circulating about the decline in British power and influence – a joke that the Putin administration saw some mileage in (the “small island” jibe was meant to leave David Cameron smarting) – but as a nation that suffered years of cartoons depicting Tony Blair brown-nosing George “Dubya” Bush, this feels fairly insignificant.
As one would expect, the onus has fallen on Obama to make the most difficult decisions. And the world has been watching with bated breath as the American President has headed further and further towards an impasse of his own creation.
Last year, Obama suggested that the use of chemical weapons would signal a call to arms in the West, ratifying the need for intervention.
On August 21, a chemical attack in Ghouta, a Damascus suburb, left over 1,000 dead, including a horrifying number of children. Although Assad attempted to credit the rebel forces with the offence, experts seem to be certain that the blame lies with the Syrian government.
By drawing his “red line” in the sand, Obama set an ultimatum that was arguably more challenging to his own government, than it was to Assad.
Following Ghouta, he found himself faced with an almost impossible decision: either back down from his original promise and lose face globally, allowing Assad to call the bluff of, for all intents and purposes, the most important country in the world; or proceed with the invasion, risking all the threats of repercussions and at the same time losing his government the support of an American nation that is by and large opposed to instigating any further war.
Understandably, Obama decided to avoid using presidential privilege straight away, in favour of taking the motion to Congress and hoping to muster support. Achieving backing from the Senate and the House of Representatives could bolster him against the inevitable backlash that military action would inspire.
The problem, though, is that this presents Obama with another potentially damaging outcome. At this point, many see a lose in Congress to be synonymous with a vote of no confidence in his whole administration.
If the negotiation between Putin and Assad fails, as seems inevitable, the President may be forced (by his own hand) to revisit the Congressional vote. Congress, however, doesn’t seem to be the only body in need of convincing.
In a picture of bitter irony, Obama has found himself on the wrong side of a battle that has the potential to lose him his presidency. In other words, it is not entirely clear that this is a conflict he even wants to start, so it’s a tough pill to swallow that failure to set the machine of war in motion could sound the death knell for his government.
The world has lost its appetite for war, and Obama knows it. The scaremongering that proliferated post-9/11 might have persuaded even the most conscientious of fence-sitters into supporting military action, but after years of little achievement and countless deaths, these tactics don’t have the same effect.
As Obama is painfully aware, something must be done and it is probably up to America to do it. Military action is something. It is the expected, machismo response and America’s go-to move. In an age, though, where the after-effects of this sort of move have seen the West negotiating with the terrorists they once pledged to eradicate and no satisfying resolution in the countries that America sought to “save”, no one is keen to pull the trigger that could start this whole process again from the beginning.
To object to military action is not to advocate non-interference of course. As Gary Younge says in his Comment is Free article, pretty much everybody who isn’t a psychopath is certain that “the use of chemical weapons is abhorrent…the Syrian regime is brutal…[and] those who claim the principles of human solidarity and internationalism should not sit idly by while the killing continues.”
But the thing that the world is beginning to realise, and Obama as well, only perhaps too late in the game, is that the expected, machismo response just doesn’t have the currency it once used to have.
Last night’s decision to delay the motion to begin military action in Syria may just have spared Obama’s presidency its life.
The other options: voting in a war that he isn’t convinced he even wants to have; being voted against, losing face and having to submit to the idea that others know best; or, worse still, proceeding with a war that Congress has vetoed, would surely have spelled out the end.
Nobody is particularly confident about what “avenues of diplomatic resolution” really exist. But at least Obama may now have granted himself the time to pursue them.
He was heralded as the modern President – the man who could take America beyond the confines of the gratuitous, single-minded, predictable machismo behaviour that typified the Bush administration. So, though he joins every humanitarian across the globe in their compulsion to appease the increasingly atrocious Syrian situation, to jump so quickly to military action seemed disappointing and unworthy.
Although, unhappily, his stalling behaviour is being designated as “weak and indecisive”, it may well be the key to bringing about a new, diplomatic America – a country that sees the long game and doesn’t leap to war as the inevitable solution to every dispute – and breathing fresh life into a government that came alarmingly close to death’s door.
Words: Natasha Bird