Having asserted that the use of chemical weapons constituted a red line, the crossing of which by Bashar al-Assad would lead to violence against him, President Obama rendered it more pink. Instead, the US Congress would get to make up his mind.
To paraphrase Hamlet, another entitled politician with a dad complex, a war against Syria is nothing either good or bad, but a Republican Congress makes it so.
Defenders of Obama’s indecision argue the president is seeking greater legitimacy for military strikes on Syrian targets, that he is being unBush and building a consensus at home before acting abroad.
Those critical of his new strategy see a commander-in-chief incapable of decisive action despite much consequence-threatening rhetoric. Obama, they say, is a man who can talk the talk but not walk the walk of international morality.
If Congress votes yes to military strikes and the UN does not, Obama can plausibly claim his actions are something more than unilateral. Having France on-side will also help but hardly represents the righteous anger of the international community.
If Congress says no, Obama will have cover to not act – something he may well prefer given Great Britain has gone missing in action.
But the Congressional path to legitimacy invites many more problems than it solves.
If Congress narrowly votes yes, Obama has established the precedent that it is up to the legislature to make war; the president is merely the agent or clerk of local politicians.
If Congress votes no, Obama will be exposed for the greatest miscalculation of his presidency. Instead of swift action against Assad to assure him of American anger and resolve, he will be obliged to act with neither congressional nor UN approval, in a tiny alliance of nations.
He will have out-Bushed Bush – a president who, in defiance of his caricature, made war in Iraq in defence of UN resolutions, with the explicit backing of Congress, in a huge international coalition.
To expose himself to the depredations of his Republican opponents on a matter of war and peace – not mere healthcare – reveals a president apparently deficient in basic political skills and nous.
He is now reliant on capacities he has not displayed in four and a half years in office: the persuasion and cajolement of Congressmen whose political ambition is to see him fail.
Why would he do this? One answer is that he has been victim to the bad advice of a young White House staff. He needs the wise counsel of a Horatio and has not got it. John Kerry has been essentially countermanded by politically naïve liberal internationalists.
A second answer is that he simply cannot make up his mind what to do about Syria. This explanation is at least more forgivable. There are good and bad arguments for launching strikes.
I cannot pretend to know what will follow an action which is too light, too excessive or just right. Assad will surely organise Obama’s target sites so as to maximise the death at US hands of as many Syrian men, women, and children as possible – a strategy the Syrian leader has been able to pursue because of Obama’s delay.
America will be fighting alongside groups that it has spent the years since 9/11 seeking to scatter. It will inevitably emboldened them whilst also killing Syrian civilians – the gassing of which was the cause of Obama’s anger.
A disaster may ensue following US strikes. But there is a disaster on the ground already. Intervention at least affords the opportunity for leverage over what comes next.
America has rarely fought alongside only morally pristine allies. In World War Two it joined forces with Stalin’s Russia – the great destroyer of people and Hitler’s ally from 1939-41.
Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, heroes of progressive liberalism, decided an imperfect regime in South Vietnam required protection from a far nastier North. As a consequence, South East Asia did not fall wholesale into the communist camp.
President Reagan guaranteed victory for the fathers of the Taliban, the sponsors of the men that flew the planes into the World Trade Centre on September 11. His support of the Mujaheddin against Moscow in the 1980s precipitated the collapse of the USSR.
President Clinton reasoned that the Kosovo Liberation Army – by most definitions an Islamist terrorist group – was a lesser evil than Slobodan Miloševic and supported the former against the latter in 1999. Kosovo was liberated and NATO credibility assured.
Because the US privileges democracy does not mean it cannot support decidedly undemocratic forces if its own national interests are at stake.
What are those interests in Syria? The containing of Iran (Assad’s sponsor) and sticking it to Russia (his chief arms supplier). A military strike, done right, will advance those interests far more than staying out and hoping for the best.
Presented with the opportunity of swift action, Obama, like Hamlet, baulked. He wanted to act in such a way so as to guarantee legitimacy, legality and military success. Such things rarely align.
Equivocation for Hamlet does not save lives but costs them. While he waits for sufficient grounds to act innocents die all around him. The final scene is a bloodbath with Denmark under occupation by Norway. The current US intellectual-in-chief would be well-served buying a ticket to see it.