President Barack Obama had hoped for a quick, convincing strike on Syria, but growing opposition and Great Britain’s stunning rejection of the attack has thrust him into the uncomfortable position of go-it-alone hawk.
Just how Obama, whose career sprung from the ashes of George W. Bush’s Iraq policy, got to this extraordinary moment in his presidency is a tale of good intentions, seat-of-the-pants planning and, above all, how a cautious commander-in-chief became imprisoned by a promise.
Obama seems likely to bull ahead with air attacks despite an impact and popularity that will be, at best, limited — an unsavory outcome marginally better than packing up his Tomahawks and going home, which would deal a humbling blow to U.S. prestige and embolden the Assad regime.
It’s a dilemma first-term Obama — who warned author Bob Woodward in 2010 that “once the dogs of war are unleashed, you don’t know where [they are] going to lead” — was careful to avoid.
But second-term Obama, tethered to his August 2012 “red line” pronouncement on Assad’s use of chemical weapons and eager to shed his lead-from-behind image, now runs “the risk of looking weak any way this turns out,” in the words of one former adviser who cited the limited impact of any missiles-only strike.
“Obama’s caution has served him well in the past, but he’s completely abandoned it, and he’s paying for it now,” said Daniel Kurtzer, who served as Bill Clinton’s ambassador to Egypt and George W. Bush’s ambassador to Israel.
“On two occasions, the rhetoric has gotten ahead of the policy-making process. Once when the president talked about chemical weapons being a game changer and a red line,” Kurtzer said. “Then [this week] when Obama and [Secretary of State John] Kerry made remarks that point clearly in the direction of some kind of military action — even though he hasn’t decided what he’s going to do and he hasn’t found a coalition.”
Ari Fleischer, Bush’s press secretary at the start of the Iraq War, couldn’t help but gloat late Thursday when the British House of Commons rejected Prime Minister David Cameron’s call for airstrikes. “Bush’s attack on Iraq was multilateral. O[bama], who attacked Bush for being a unilateralist, will make a unilateral attack on Syria,” he tweeted.
Senior Obama aides dismissed the idea that the red line comment bound them to a policy they would otherwise never pursue. “I think that even if he hadn’t said there was a red line there would be a lot of pressure to act… this guy [Assad] is a butcher,” said one longtime adviser to the president.
“But,” the adviser added, “given that his leadership is being tested, the stakes are very high for him.”
Obama’s hallmark as a politician has been an ability to preserve his options through a calibrated rhetorical ambiguity, a style that has infuriated opponents (John McCain likened debating him to “nailing Jell-O to a wall”), but gave him the flexibility to react quickly to changes in circumstance.
In Syria, by dint of circumstance and his own actions, his options have essentially dwindled to two: Shoot or hold fire.
The process of gearing up for the attack has been painfully slow, with a steady procession of leaks — some rogue, some apparently orchestrated — that have detailed possible times for a strike, and specific ships and bases that would be used.
Opponents of a strike, who warn of unintended consequences that could precipitate a regional conflict, have cheered the delay. Nonetheless, it could force Obama to up the intensity of his attack, according to experts.
“Every moment that passes makes this easier for Assad,” said Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a Washington think tank.
“The U.S. is going to have to hit Assad harder, because the regime has moved all this stuff around,” he added. “It may not be as effective… this is a time when us action is justified and it needs to happen sooner rather than later.”
Colin Kahl, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for the Middle East from 2009 to 2011, put the administration’s logic for pressing ahead in three words — “superpowers don’t bluff.”
But there’s a difference between avoiding a bluff and starting a brawl. During the Libya crisis two years ago, Obama proceeded with extreme caution, and ultimately decided to adopt a supporting role to direct assaults by the British and French air forces.
“The ghosts of Iraq haunt this administration very much in their decision making. It’s why they’re reluctant to become too deeply involved in an expansive mission in Syria,” Kahl said. “They’ve been reluctant to use military force overtly in Syria, but it’s not because they don’t have a [military] plan.”
What’s less clear is whether Obama had a commensurate political strategy here or abroad.
Prior to a round of briefings on Thursday, congressional leaders in both parties described Obama’s strategy to explain the rationale for the strike as inadequate and improvisational. The administration’s decision to consult with leadership on a non-classified conference call, they said, was an afterthought designed to provide the White House with cover.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) — an Obama ally and former Democratic National Committee chairman — told CNN Thursday that the administration needed the “full weight “of congressional leadership before signing off on an attack, joining about 150 members of both chambers to raise questions about an attack.
There also seemed to be some confusion about Obama’s strategy for providing a rationale to the American people, who oppose any action by a three-to-one margin in recent polls.
On Wednesday, administration officials told POLITICO that the president had no intention of addressing the American people directly prior to an attack, but would probably deliver a statement once a strike was underway.
By Thursday, as calls for greater transparency grew on the Hill and in the media, Obama deputy press secretary Josh Earnest left the door open for some kind of Obama statement prior to any possible action.
So far, Obama’s most expansive remarks came in an interview with PBS Wednesday, where he downplayed the challenges and cast possible airstrikes as a “signal” to Assad to abandon the use of chemical weapons and an effort to prevent terrorists from seizing stockpiles.
Obama told PBS there was little doubt Assad had been responsible for the attack and his aides promised to release more proof publicly by week’s end, despite claims by Assad and his allies in Russia and Iran that nerve agents may have been deployed by rebels hoping to draw Western powers into the conflict.
“We have concluded that the Syrian government in fact carried these out,” Obama said. “And if that’s so, then there need to be international consequences.”
That contention was being challenged on Thursday. The Associated Press, citing unnamed sources, questioned the administration’s claims that there was proof Assad’s troops had used Sarin nerve gas or other toxic agents on its population. An administration spokesman denied that was the case, and promised the report that would prove Obama’s case decisively would be released soon.
Yet even as senior administration officials were selling Congress on the merits of a strike, Obama’s cause was dealt a body blow by Cameron who greatly underestimated the vehemence of opposition to another Mideast military campaign — however small — led by the United States.
The House of Commons vote had a sins-of-the-father quality, hobbling a pair of leaders all too aware of the legacies of their predecessors George W. Bush and Tony Blair, who spearheaded the deeply unpopular Iraq invasion.
“Isn’t the real reason we’re here today, is not because of the horror of these weapons and the horror exists – but because the American president foolishly drew a red line and because of his position now, he’s going to attack or face humiliation?” asked Labour MP Paul Flynn during a raucous Thursday debate closely monitored by the White House.