Returning last week from a trip through the Near-East and Middle-East region, Syria made the headlines yet again. Already being a mess since the uprising, the alleged introduction of mass-scale use of chemical weapons made Syria even a bigger mess. Then, whilst drawing a red line was in itself a foreign policy mistake, the decision by US president Barack Obama to consult Congress on a president’s decision whether or not to intervene made US foreign policy on Syria a fiasco. It is one thing to avoid being dragged into the conflict. It is another to damage the power of the office and subsequently add a number of less likable options on Syria. What are Obama’s Syria options and which one should be pursued?
One should wonder what the US objectives are in Syria anyways. Actually, pretty limited. Sure, foreign powers do mingle in the conflict and pursue their own interests first than those of the Syrian opposition or government. Not only to secure their own interests, but foremost to block those of competitors. (Al Jazeera mapped handily yet not so accurately the relationships between the states involved). But any real effects are not to be expected, especially since the US democracy-making activities have halted after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, for it has left the American people war weary and Afghanistan and Iraq not that democratic. The civil war is not so much a great power game, rather about local politics and a regional (dis)balance of power.
Despite these lacking US interests in Syria, president Obama has found a way to attach his presidency to the conflict. Foolishly having drawn a red line by the large scale use of chemical weapons, the US finds itself since the chemical gas attack in Damascus two weeks ago obligated to act in a conflict it has tried to avoid for over two years. In a previous article I argued the US had nothing to gain by direct involvement and should refrain from further action, taking a damaged reputation as a trustworthy state in international affairs for granted. Syria is just not worth the effort considering the costs in dollars and human lives. Trying to refrain from action, Obama has found a way out, albeit temporarily and by adding a number of more less likable options on Syria.
It is not in his personal interest to drag the US into yet another highly unpopular war. Seeking the approval of Congress by Obama should then be understood as a means to broaden domestic support and legitimacy for further action in Syria without damaging his presidency. The paradox however is that the power of the office is diminished solely by this consult, whatever the outcome is. Would Congress say ‘yea’, the US decision making process is slowed down in situations where time is crucial when the White House is in need to seek approval for presidential decisions. It is highly unlikely that the president in the future can initiate military action without seeking congressional approval. Would Congress say ‘nay’, Obama finds himself in an awkward position having told internationally to strike on Syria and being held back domestically. The initial options dwindle whilst new options are even less likable.
The odds of Congress telling Obama ‘nay’ are big with doves pleading for diplomacy, hawks who think Obama’s plans do not go far enough, and many a Republican who would like to thwart any of Obama’s schemes, giving Obama the opportunity to back out of action domestically, yet damaging his and the US reputation internationally. Rogue states, such as Iran and Syria will get the message. The US is not committed or politically capable of conducting military missions abroad, what gives them the opportunity to do whatever they want or at least broaden the scope of their respective chemical and nuclear activities. Also not forgetting the China, whose leaders will laugh at the US ambitions in Southeast Asia and prove that the ‘ pivot to Asia’ is mere talk. Refraining from action when Congress would give its approval is an option, though not a realistic one since it would not serve the presidents interests on the domestic and international level, damaging his authority in both spheres. If he should care is another matter.