Obama trapped by his own words
Us President Barack Obama, who had received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, moved with some dispatch to wind down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite the continued American military involvement in Afghanistan it is apparent that come 2014, the very substantial presence will dramatically shrink.
Even as he seeks to end America‚Äôs longest war his presidency now confronts the dilemma of what to do with the situation in Syria.
In considerable part, the problem that he confronts in Syria is one of his own making. Had he not in August 2012, while on the campaign trail, publicly stated that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would constitute a ‚Äúred line‚ÄĚ, he may not have found himself in his current predicament. The problem that he now faces is referred to in the international relations literature as ‚Äúrhetorical entrapment‚ÄĚ and refers to how a leader may become boxed into pursuing a particular course of action owing to the expectations generated as a consequence of a particular public statement.
Much, of course, depends on the current negotiations between US secretary of state, John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, about dismantling Syria‚Äôs chemical weapons infrastructure. If these talks end in a deadlock then
Mr Obama will feel compelled to go to the United States Congress to seek appropriate authorisation to use force against Syria.
Whether or not he can obtain the requisite support within Congress remains an open question. Many within the Republican ranks are either genuinely unconvinced that the US needs to act against Syria or simply relish the prospect, given their deep-seated hostility towards his presidency, to find a way to damage his standing through a negative vote. Ironically, many within his own party, also have grave reservations about the use of force against Syria. Their constituents are war weary, they are acutely concerned about the fragile state of the economic recovery at home and they are loath to see the President embark upon another war as he is seeking to roll back the US involvement in Afghanistan.
Nor for that matter are his defence secretary Chuck Hagel and the uniformed military especially enthusiastic about taking on yet another military mission. Faced with budget cuts as a consequence of the Congressional sequester and fearful of stepping out on a slippery slope, they have expressed no great desire to jump into another military foray.
Even if Mr Obama fails to obtain the necessary authorisation, he may ‚ÄĒ invoking the powers that are vested in him as the Commander-in-Chief ‚ÄĒ still instruct the armed forces to carry out an attack against Syria in concert with the French, the only other American ally which has an appetite for and a willingness to use force. Such a decision, though feasible, is fraught with considerable risk. At home, it would certainly damage his relations with members of his own party and it would upset many within his political constituency. Some Republicans, no doubt, would also express displeasure over his decision to override Congress‚Äô wishes and then seek to exact a price in other policy arenas.
Mr Obama, given that he is in his second term, may not be hugely concerned about domestic reactions despite the costs that it may exact on the remainder of his term. However, the external costs to the US should give him pause. He knows that he cannot obtain the support from the United Nations Security Council for military action even if the current effort to dismantle Syria‚Äôs chemical weapons infrastructure fails because of the unwillingness of the People‚Äôs Republic of China and Russia to acquiesce in any such actions. Consequently, just to uphold his original statement about the ‚Äúred line‚ÄĚ he would be acting in a near-unilateral fashion reminiscent of the choices of his predecessor, George W. Bush, whose behaviour he so decried both on the campaign trail and even while in office.
Such a resort to force would result in widespread international criticism and, especially, within much of the Arab world. It may also provoke various anti-American terrorist organisations to undertake attacks against US installations in West Asia and beyond. Furthermore, it‚Äôs far from clear that despite his statement that the US military does not undertake ‚Äúpinprick attacks‚ÄĚ it is unlikely that short of a sustained bombing campaign based upon extraordinarily reliable and accurate intelligence that the currently contemplated strikes would actually eviscerate Syria‚Äôs chemical weapons stockpile.
Might then a limited attack on some military sites, which exacts a sufficiently high price, then deter the Assad regime from ever undertaking another use of chemical weapons as the civil war drags on? There is no clear-cut answer to this question as the regime seems oblivious to the force of international public opinion, enjoys the diplomatic support of Russia, Iran and China and can even count on military assistance from some of them.
The dilemma that the administration faces, sadly, is one of its own making. The best hope, at this juncture, both for
Mr Obama and his national security team, lies in the success of the Kerry-Lavrov meetings and their subsequent ability to enforce any agreement that they reach. All eyes must now be necessarily focused on what emerges from the talks and the steps that ensue thereafter. A breakdown of these discussions may plunge a reluctant President to undertake a military mission which could lead to yet another foreign policy imbroglio that he no doubt wishes to avoid.
The writer holds the Rabindranath Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilisations at Indiana University, Bloomington