ON Saturday, President Obama declared, “I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets”. But he went on to say that he had also made a second decision and that was “to seek authorisation for the use of force from the American people’s representatives in Congress”.
While it was known that Obama had been ambivalent about the use of American military force this decision came as a surprise, especially since his faithful secretary of state, John Kerry, had been making the case for an attack on Syria. Also, the US intelligence community had pulled out all the stops to put together a dossier to convince the world that not only had chemical weapons been used but that they had been used by the Assad regime which alone among the warring parties possessed the means of delivery.
The president’s decision was accompanied by an impassioned call for the American Congress and the international community to recognise the imperative need for action, saying, “What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price? What’s the purpose of the international system that we’ve built if a prohibition on the use of chemical weapons that has been agreed to by the governments of 98pc of the world’s people and approved overwhelmingly by the Congress of the United States is not enforced?”
It was rather odd that such a plea should be made when only a few days earlier reports in the American media had shown through the publication of official documents that not only had the Americans been aware of the use of chemical weapons by the Iraqis against their own Kurds and then against the Iranians but that they had provided the Iraqis with the satellite data on Iranian sites that were then subjected to chemical attack by Saddam.
(Readers might wish to see ‘Exclusive: CIA Files Prove America Helped Saddam as He Gassed Iran’ which appeared last month on the website of Foreign Policy).
Apparently the Reagan administration decided that it was better to let the attacks continue if they could turn the tide of the war.
In any case, at this time it seems certain that this plea will fall on deaf ears. The hearings that congressional leaders have scheduled this week will bring only limited support for the president’s position because under international law it is clearly untenable — there is, as the vote in the British parliament showed, no international support for such action, and domestic public opinion is opposed to military involvement when they have ‘no dog in the fight’.
It is unlikely, in any case, that many congressmen will be influenced by the hearings since what the experts have to say has been well publicised in the media over the last few days.
The president’s eloquent call for congressional support is also not likely, according to most observers, to find resonance in Congress. Those, like Senator McCain, who support action want it to be such as would effect regime change.
This the president has ruled out saying “our action would be designed to be limited in duration and scope”. Others will oppose it because they will reject anything that Obama proposes.
Yet others, like much of the world, will reject it because they will not accept the president’s assertion that this would be a vote “for our national security”. But most will reject it because of the apprehension that it will lead to a further entanglement in what Obama himself has described as “someone else’s war”.
Therefore, unless I am reading the signs entirely incorrectly, the congressional vote, which will take place shortly after Congress reconvenes on Sept 9, will be negative and even though Obama may say that legally he would still have the authority to order an attack it would clearly be political suicide for him to do so.
Obama’s current uncomfortable position follows essentially from the mistake he made of labelling the use of chemical weapons as a “red line” without thinking through the actions he would have to take to maintain credibility in case Assad did cross the “red line”.
He has belatedly recognised that the cost of maintaining credibility by attacking Syria in the present international ambience would be higher than even the world’s sole super power could bear and has chosen to have Congress share the blame for what the Syrian news media has gloatingly called “the beginning of the historic American retreat”.
Despite its economic woes from which it is slowly recovering and despite its dismal experience in the Iraq and Afghan conflicts from which it is seeking an exit the US remains the world’s sole superpower.
And yet in the absence of international support it finds the cost of military intervention in “someone else’s war”, no matter how noble the cause, too high. Too high because involvement in yet another war would not only impact American interests in other parts of the Middle East but would bring to a halt the slow recovery of the American economy from the debilitating effects of the last two military interventions.
It has forced Obama to talk of “pursuing a political resolution that achieves a government that respects the dignity of its people”.
For smaller, less powerful countries, there are lessons to be learnt. The consequences of proposed policies must be carefully thought through. There must be a readiness to change policies when costs become too high and no considerations of prestige or regional standing should be allowed to stand in the way of such correction.
Seeking to determine or dictate the course of events in an ongoing or incipient internal conflict in another country is hazardous because the power one has is limited. In Pakistan’s case, this would suggest a further rethinking of our policy towards Afghanistan, towards the Afghans who have exploited the shelter they found on our soil and lastly towards the interests of other regional powers in Afghanistan.
The writer is a former foreign secretary.