President Obama’s speech to the nation laid out his plan for a limited attack against Syrian President Assad and his use of sarin gas. He made his case with passion. But in conclusion, he asked Congress to postpone its vote on military action because of an apparent Russian proposal to dispose of Syria’s poison gas in return for the prohibition of U.S. force.
The diplomatic minuet with Russia is not only odd, it is dangerous. For the first time in memory U.S. foreign policy is hostage to a presumptive enemy. If the U.S. agrees to the Russian proposal, Putin will have more influence over the future of Syria than he does at the moment. In fact, the U.S. will be emasculated in the Middle East.
Russian influence will increase with the sale of weapons to Assad and its diplomatic power to assure Assad’s survival. It will be clear to Lebanon, Hezbollah, Iran and various radicals that Russia is the “strong horse” in the region.
President Obama has been outfoxed. He makes the case for limited military action and then says “not so fast. Let’s see what the Russians can do for us.” Either there is a case for military force or there isn’t. Does President Obama believe the Russians are sincere? If so, is he willing to foreswear the use of force in Syria?
The choices now available to President Obama are damaging. If he acts, but doesn’t undermine Assad, he will be seen as ineffectual. If he doesn’t act, the U.S. will be perceived as a toothless tiger sending a signal to Iran that its pursuit of nuclear weapons will not be forestalled. Either there is a “redline” that cannot be crossed or there isn’t.
Is the military strike President Obama referred to limited or not? The president argues our military force doesn’t engage in pinpricks, but what does a limited strike mean? This confusion also yields to Russian interests since Putin will argue that the presence of Russian ships off the Syrian coast limits U.S. military options.
President Obama speaks as if he is the first American president that has advocated peaceful solutions in the Middle East. His reliance on Congressional support as a Constitutional obligation is hypocritical since he avoided seeking this form of approval when the U.S. bombed Libya. It is far more likely that he turned to Congress because he wants justification for not acting or at least placing the burden of a decision on others.
At one point, President Obama said “Assad has to go.” However, if the Russian proposal is accepted, Assad is likely to stay. It is Putin’s play to keep Assad in power and simultaneously ensconce his influence in the region and diminish the role of the United States. Moreover, it appears as if we will be beholden to Russia for taking Obama off the hook. It may well be that Assad might willingly give up his chemical weapons since their effect has already been realized. His Russian allies could compensate for the loss of this deadly weapon through a stockpile of conventional weapons.
The leverage Russia has obtained comes at the expense of a flaccid, ineffective American foreign policy. Syria’s war will be remembered by historians a decade from now as the event that undermined U.S. foreign policy. The inability of the U.S. to define its interests; the contradictory message of the president; the indecisiveness of the administration are conditions inscribed on the policy blackboards of our enemies. Weakness is easily detected. From Tehran to Beijing, from Hezbollah to Moscow, the scoundrels are on the ascendency. U.S. foreign policy has disappeared in the sands of the Middle East. Now the globe is in flux and the relative equilibrium we enjoyed since World War II is shattered.
What will the next generation think or will they be able to think about foreign policy at all?
Herbert London is President of the London Center for Policy Research, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America). You can read all of Herb London’s commentaries at www.londoncenter.org
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