Critics interpret Obama’s measure to seek a congressional vote for the Syrian campaign as desperate. But in reality, he is using it to create the best possible scenario for intimidation.
The probability is high that the U.S. will conduct an intervention in Syria. It is also quite possible, however, that this will be quickly forgotten again. For a few days missiles will strike chosen targets; the military balance will remain untouched and the civil war in Syria will continue. Anyone discussing the American reaction to the deployment of poisonous gas in Syria, or the American president’s quest for allies and legitimization of his actions must dismiss the thought that the proposed attack on the Assad regime has direct humanitarian motives.
It is supposed to be a clear statement in defense of an international norm, whose implementation must be of interest to every individual nation. The “red line” that is in question here is not just the one that Obama drew around a year ago – it was only drawn with a weak brush stroke to begin with and everyone knew that Obama absolutely wanted to avoid a military intervention.
The convention against the deployment of chemical weapons is the actual red line; it is one of the few that enjoys nearly universal recognition worldwide and is therefore substantially sharper than the threats spoken up to now.
Obama has formulated this perception as clearly as possible. He posed this question to Congress whose approval he seeks before a military strike: What sense does an international system have if its rules are not implemented? The question of chemical weapons goes far beyond Syria if no one acts in this case.
If Necessary Without Congress, Too
Obama has put his own credibility and the reputation of the U.S. as a world power on the line. At first look, therefore, deferring the decision to Congress might appear to be a desperate chess move due to America’s war weariness and the position into which the president maneuvered himself – seemingly caving in to domestic pressure.
What many have interpreted as weakness, however, is a clever step that maintains the best possible scenario for intimidation. Precisely because it is not a matter of a humanitarian intervention here – that would be a completely different issue – hasty action is not necessary. For starters, Obama has made clear: He is prepared to order the attack, considers it right, and he knows that he doesn’t need the approval of Congress for it.
That so many details have circulated beforehand contributes to the message: It is not a matter of a regime change here. That alone is already important in order to not provoke retaliatory actions from the Assad regime and its allies, who ultimately left the Americans no other choice than to let themselves be drawn more intensely into the Syrian civil war.
The goal of deterring a further deployment of chemical weapons has been achieved thereby for the time being. The word from the White House is that even without the approval of Congress, the U.S. president is willing to order a military strike.
The attempt to legitimatize it democratically is therefore a win in many respects. It is not out of hesitation, but instead taking a chance to lend more weight to Obama’s decision for an intervention. He is right when he says the country would be stronger and the actions of the U.S. more effective if Congress backs his course of action. In addition, he has also won time to organize international support – not only to avoid the impression that the U.S. is going it alone, but also to give the likewise thoroughly risky military action impact in the first place.
Now Talks Are Worthwhile
Naturally the U.S. president is banking on convincing the U.S. Congress as well as other nations of the necessity of the intervention. Achieving both will not be easy, especially after the withdrawal of Britain. Obama will have to present irrefutable proof of the use of poison gas and communicate his arguments in no uncertain terms. It is inconceivable what repercussions an ultimately unilateral military strike would have without international support, and against the will of Congress.
Nonetheless, that will not be the only task for Obama in the coming weeks. The temporary saving of time is also an opportunity to increase diplomatic pressure, primarily on Assad’s allies. Now talks are worthwhile, because the U.S. will want to avoid being isolated by a military strike carried out by them alone. The reckoning is simple: The more support Obama now experiences, the greater the potential to achieve something in Syria by political means.