“We don’t want the world to be paralyzed. And frankly, part of the challenge that we end up with here is a lot of people think something should be done and nobody wants to do it. And that’s not an unusual situation, and that’s part of what allows over time the erosion of these kinds of international prohibitions unless somebody says, ‘No.’”
– President Barack Obama, August 30, 2013
“This kind of attack threatens our national security interests, further threatening friends and allies like Israel and Turkey and Jordan, and it increases the risk that chemical weapons will be used in the future. … I have said before, and I meant what I said, the world has an obligation to make sure that we maintain the norm against the use of chemical weapons.” – Secretary of State John Kerry
The world watches and wonders what the United States will do about Syria. Many people are critics in advance. Two groups have arguments we know well. The anti-war left considers military action to be wrong headed. It will hurt civilians more than it will stop the Syrian government, it again risks US moral authority, and is likely to do more harm than good. Some see the US as simply doing Israel’s bidding.
On the right, the critics are all over the place. Obama is doing too much, Obama isn’t doing enough, what Obama plans to do reflects incompetence (though I’m not sure how they know what he plans to do) and all this is Obama’s fault anyway. These are the same people who were indignant about “blaming America” for global problems when a Republican is President, but with Obama, well, all the world’s problems can be laid at his feet.
So what should be done about Syria? President Obama and Secretary Kerry are both correct in their statements. Yet this does not mean that the US should take military action. Indeed, one could argue that if the US acts unilaterally or with few willing participants, as was the case in Iraq, this would undermine the effort to create international action to support important norms like the prohibition on the use of WMD. If the US fails, then Syria has shown the US (and UN) are impotent. If the US succeeds then the rest of the world figures the US will handle everything, so why bother?
There is also concern that the UK’s desire NOT to participate makes it even harder for the US to act – and criticism of Obama for not being able to get Cameron on board. The reality is quite different; Cameron is facing hostile public opinion from a country that still thinks it was duped into supporting the US in Iraq and doesn’t want to get fooled again. Moreover, China and Russia, also angry about past US unilateralism, wants to make sure they give no “blank check” like they were fooled into giving on Libya.
President Obama is in a tough position. This may be a case when WMD was clearly used (unlike Iraq) but the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have weakened both the US strategic position and moral authority to a point that the US is no longer a unipolar power, and no longer able to inspire fear or respect. That’s been true since 2003, when American policy makers were shocked that the French, Germans and Russians would conspire against the US to embarrass the Bush Administration in the UN. Obama has regained some of what was lost, but with public opinion world wide against intervention, there is no reason for other countries to join us.
Right now President Obama should recognize that unilateralism is a no-win situation. He should reject military action against Syria if he doesn’t get Congressional and international support. He should reject the kind of thinking that has defined US Presidents and foreign policy for most of the Cold War and beyond. He needs to act in a way that recognizes the way the world has changed since the 20th Century. Does that mean Assad will “get away” with murder? Yes. But Saddam used chemical weapons in the 80s and the US blocked UN action against Iraq. That doesn’t mean its a good thing, but its also not as damaging to the US as Secretary Kerry suggests.
If the US does nothing and chemical attacks continue, pressure will be on the international community, not the US alone to find a way to act to support international law and strongly held norms against WMD. I’m not sure what Obama is thinking. You can’t believe leaks to the press or reports – that is as likely disinformation as information.
But now is the time for the President to continue the US policy shift from “our way or no way” to leadership in forging an international community willing to act together. That will require patience.