President Obama on Saturday, in a stroke of political genius, turned a no-win situation into a can’t-lose situation — at least for him. But it remains to be seen how his decision to defer on Syria affects this nation as its tries to be the world’s top cop going forward.
It was Obama who made this mess with his comments more than a year ago that if Syria crossed a “red line” and used weapons of mass destruction on its own people during what is now a two-and-a-half-year-old civil war that has killed more than 100,000 people, that this nation would respond with its military might. The evidence is sufficient that Syria used chemical weapons on Aug. 21 to kill about 1,429 people, including more than 400 children, so Obama’s hand appeared to have been forced.
But on Saturday, Obama went before the nation to say that while he was prepared to order military action, first he wanted a nod from Congress. It seems clear that Obama was concerned about the political cost of a military attack on Syria — as well as the possibility of an escalation of violence that could become a demerit when historians grade his presidency.
Few people outside of the Middle East understand the Syrian conflict, which pits some of this nation’s enemies, that is terrorists, against President Assad’s government. So a strike by the United States could be interpreted as this country enlisting with the remnants of those who are responsible for 911. Right now we have enemies killing each other.
There are additional wild cards. Will an attack make Israel more or less safe? Iran is a neighbor of Syria, and heavily involved in that country. Also, why is there such strong sentiment to attack Syria for chemical-weapons use by some of those critical of our war on Iraq, which used chemical weapons to kill far more people?
Polls show that Americans, war weary from more than a decade of Middle East mayhem and the deaths and disfigurements of thousands of our soldiers, are squarely against intervention in Syria. They can’t understand how our intervention is going to stem any violence, save a single life, and won’t just stir up additional anti-American sentiment when the photographs emerge of collateral damage — innocent Syrians caught in the line of our fire.
It appears certain that Congress will eventually authorize some kind of military strike and that will follow. But it’s effectiveness is questionable, especially since we have shown our cards by saying any action would be limited.
With his decision to defer, Obama has weakened the presidency, not only for himself, but for those who come afterward. There remain rogue nations that take seriously this country’s warning that this action will trigger this reaction.
Going forward there will be less clarity when we issue such warnings. That will make this nation’s impossible task of being the world’s top cop even more complicated.
If only Obama hadn’t drawn that red line.