President Obama is a true enigma. He falls into the intellectual camp of US Presidents, which in modern times has been predominantly Democrat and largely progressive. He will always be remembered for his incredible achievement in becoming the first-ever African American leader of the USA. And yet...
After seeing off Mitt Romney in last year’s election, Obama should be buoyant. Things hadn’t been good economically for the US in the aftermath of the financial crash and to triumph in spite of all that was fantastic. But we don’t see a confident victor. On the contrary. We are presented with a nervy, vacillating, agonising figure, who has now become embroiled in a developing fiasco over Syria.
A word of advice to world leaders. If you worry that people will cross your red lines, then don’t paint them in the first place.
When the first evidence emerged of Assad’s regime using chemical weapons, the President was desperate to say that it should all be looked into very, very slowly. So the vicious Syrian dictator saw that the famous red line was no trip wire. It was possible, he calculated, to act with impunity.
When the recent attack happened, it was on a scale that no one could ignore, although there was still a period of 48 hours in which there was a fair bit of head scratching and navel-gazing. Eventually, Obama and Secretary of State Kerry were stung into action and decided that something had to be done.
But the political pressure at home in the aftermath of Iraq and Afghanistan is immense. When Obama gives interviews on Syria, he feels obliged to present any potential strike as the defence of American national interests, whereas actually the only logical justification for military action is as a humanitarian gesture and a deterrent to the tormentors of innocent people. Anything he does will be ‘narrow’ and ‘focused’, which could very easily be read as useless. If the missiles strikes when they come fail to destabilise Assad, then they will probably make the situation worse.
The comment threads online from the US are truly fascinating. Beyond the usual crowd of nuts who just hate Obama and everything he stands for, there is a fierce strand of strident isolationism. Why should we sort out other people’s problems? Why do we have to be the world’s policeman? Let them all go to hell.
Well, the reason America has to be the world’s policeman is because there would otherwise be a vacancy. I don’t like it any more than the next person. But no policing means anarchy.
The Russians act as the dozy, corrupt sheriff who pretends he hasn’t seen the crimes committed by his friends in the local saloon bar. The Chinese are pretty distant from a lot of the issues, preoccupied with local territorial disputes, domestic politics, the management of their powerhouse economy and international trade relations. And without those two nations on board, the United Nations is completely bankrupt as an institution. Its Security Council is paralysed by the Russian and Chinese vetoes.
The only solution – as in Kosovo – is a coalition of the willing. But then we find that it’s actually a coalition of the dithering. The UK parliament vote was absolutely extraordinary. While it is perfectly legitimate for MPs to vote against military action and speak up for the concerns of their constituents, Cameron had already conceded that they were NOT voting on the question of military force. He made it easy for them to come out and say in principle that they held Assad accountable for his despicable actions. But they couldn’t even manage that. Cameron looks like a fool and, yes, Miliband looks just a little bit like the ‘copper-bottomed s**t’ they paint him. In the long run, I don’t think either man will gain from what has happened in the past week.
And now, the dithering is catching. Obama – looking for two or three days like a relatively decisive leader who’d stand on principle – has decided that he needs the backing of Congress before giving the order to his troops. There might be another week or ten days for Assad to plan his response to what is now the most telegraphed military operation in history.
Of course, Congress will ultimately back the President. But members will come under immense pressure in the meantime from their constituents, who don’t like the idea of the Syrian escapade one little bit. And the very fact that the whole thing notionally hangs in the balance makes Obama look like the weakest president on foreign policy in over 30 years. Jimmy Carter may be remembered for his terrible misjudgement over the Iranian hostage crisis. But at least he made a decision.