Is it really so surprising that U.S. President Barack Obama now wants to let Congress decide about a strike against Syria’s regime? After all, he has rejected a military deployment for more than two years although Bashar al-Assad brutally put down the protests of the opposition, although millions of Syrians fled their homes and even the country, although parts of the armed resistance urgently requested support.
Instead, Obama sent America’s ambassadors in Syria to Hama early on to stand in solidarity with the protesters, supported diplomatic efforts and relied on the rationality of the Syrian regime — and its most important allies. In vain: Russia’s President Vladimir Putin still continues, disastrously, to act as a great international adversary of Obama, refusing any rational solution to the problem regardless of what [Obama] says. Because of Putin’s veto power, however, the U.N. Security Council cannot decide upon any intervention according to international law — no no-fly zone and no limited bombing.
An Unclear Central Question
In addition, the allies of the U.S. are split over how to proceed in Syria. The Germans traditionally hesitate, attempt to be mediators and offer potential threats in the best case. In Great Britain, the parliament has rejected a military strike; in France, President François Hollande faces a hefty controversy. Only Turkey and Israel remain; Obama understandably doesn’t want to rely on them alone.
Particularly, one central question is unclear: What can one even achieve by a military intervention, whether by missile attacks or by farther-reaching measures? The political, religious, ethnic and social conflicts in Syria cannot be solved by force, but rather only with a lengthy diplomatic process that includes regional powers like Iran and Saudi Arabia.
“I'm Opposed to Dumb Wars”
Ten years ago, the then completely unknown politician Barack Obama criticized the Iraq campaign of George W. Bush with the words, “I am not opposed to all wars. I'm opposed to dumb wars.” In his five years in office, he has only relied on military measures in two cases: with a short-term buildup of troops in Afghanistan that significantly weakened the al-Qaida terror network before the pending withdrawal of American soldiers, and with the air strikes in Libya decided upon by the U.N. Security Council, meant to hinder a massacre of the opposition — and yes, not quite according to the mandate, a dictator was removed.
In Syria, on the other hand, not the slightest prospect exists that the people would be helped by an intervention in the long term. It might instead lead to an escalation. Unfortunately, Obama placed himself in a tight spot when he threatened a military strike if the Syrian army used poisonous gas, a reaction that he himself would probably call “dumb” if he weren’t the president today. In the face of his skepticism towards military deployments, in the face of the resistance in his own country and the reticence of the allies, it would be logical to engage Congress. If dumb, then at least together! Together, they may decide for a military strike to preserve the reputation of a major power, proving it is capable of acting.
U.S. No Longer Sees Itself as Fully Responsible World Police
Nevertheless, it remains a fundamentally new orientation of U.S. policy. The U.S. under Barack Obama continues to emphasize its role as a leading world power, but no longer sees itself fully responsible for playing the role of world police. In order to continue to exert the international influence that America has had since World War II, the country must first solve its own massive problems at home. Priorities for Obama are the consolidation of the budget, the reform of immigration law and the implementation of health care reform; the fights against poverty and racism, for more social equality and for reasonable weapons legislation. The list could easily be continued. America is a fragile empire — and the president knows that.
Obama, nonetheless, is not an isolationist. The U.S. military remains present worldwide, secures supplies of raw materials and is generously financed in spite of some cutbacks. But the president is finally discarding the significant neoconservative idea that has endured since the end of the Cold War of a U.S.-dominated world order. He calls for the nations to bear the responsibility for freedom, peace and justice together.
A conflict such as the one in Syria just cannot be solved with a military intervention. Only the lengthy path of diplomacy, often paved by many deaths, remains. That may sound illusory at the present time, but there is no other chance. The G-20 summit offers the next opportunity for it.