Obama and Cameron on road to Damascus

Ordinary Americans are hugely unsupportive of intervention in Syria. But Obama is politically inoculated; safe from the American electorate and now clearly seeking a political legacy that has thus far eluded him

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Yes, but what about my legacy?
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Dr. James Boys
On 29 August 2013 13:59

A year ago, at the height of the 2012 US presidential election, reports emerged alleging the use of chemical weapons in Syria. The reports were sketchy but they appeared to suggest the use of WMD by the Assad regime against Syrian civilians. The event sparked debate in the international community over the best form of response.

Speaking extemporaneously, President Obama issued his now famed ‘red line’ remark. Despite this, no response was forthcoming from the United States or any other western power. In the months that followed, the US consulate in Benghazi was attacked and the ambassador, along with others, was murdered. To date, there has been no US retaliation beyond mere rhetorical outrage and verbal warnings.

President Obama clearly does not seek international adventurism, having campaigned with a pledge to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan and re-engage with the Middle East. However, neither does he wish to be remembered as a president who stood aside in the face of slaughter.

The White House reports that it is committed to finding a diplomatic solution in Syria, but is clearly preparing to launch a military response. Obama’s ‘red line’ remark inadvertently painted himself, the White House and the international community into a corner, from which it has unsuccessfully sought to emerge. Having pledged action in the face of evidence it has repeatedly sought to downplay atrocities. 

There is, however, no public appetite for action in Syria. A Reuters/Ipsos poll revealed just 9 percent support for intervention in Syria, with 60 percent opposed. This is the lowest support ever recorded ahead of US overseas military action and reveals that intervention in Syria is even less popular among Americans than Congress. It’s that unpopular an idea!

To place these figures in context, 47 percent supported US intervention in Libya in 2011, which was considered low at the time; 76 percent of American supported the Iraq War; 90 percent supported Afghanistan in 2001; 46 percent supported NATO military action in Kosovo in 1999. To intervene now, therefore, would contravene a key element of the Powell Doctrine.

The Obama administration has revealed that it will publish an Intelligence report by the end of the week detailing the August 21 attack. However, its contents have already been revealed and pre-judged by everyone, including the president and vice president, in a clear repeat of events that led to the use of force against Iraq. As Mervyn King of Kings College London has stated, we need to wait for UN Weapons inspectors to report their findings.

Just as in Iraq, both the US and the UK are racing to initiate military action ahead of official reports that they had sought to initiate.

Incredibly, the actions of Labour leader Ed Miliband have had a dramatic impact on the plans to initiate a missile strike this week and have produced a vitriolic response from the UK Foreign Office. A narrow window of opportunity existed that would have permitted US-UK military action ahead of President Obama’s departure for Stockholm next week and his ensuing presence at the G20 in St. Petersburg.

Ed Miliband’s 180-degree turn on support for military intervention has ensured that this window is rapidly closing as the British PM looks unable to muster Parliamentary support for military intervention ahead of any reports from the UN inspectors. Having recalled Parliament, Cameron appears unable to push through a measure that would permit military action, with dissent coming from both his own backbenches as well as the Opposition. 

This leaves Obama, and Cameron to a lesser degree, politically exposed. Having ramped up the calls for military intervention in the last four days, domestic political pressure, it appears, has forced both leaders to back-peddle on previous remarks. This is one thing for Cameron, but quite another for Obama.

Elected as the apparent antidote to George W. Bush, Obama has prevaricated in the face of slaughter in Syria for over a year. He risks initiating military action that commands the support of only 9 percent of the US population. However, Obama is of course, politically inoculated; safe from the American electorate and now clearly seeking a political legacy that has thus far eluded him.

The coming days will reveal much about how he is to be remembered.   

Dr. James D. Boys is an Associate Professor of International Political Studies and a Senior Visiting Research Fellow at King’s College, London. His book, Clinton’s Grand Strategy: US Foreign Policy in The Post-Cold War World will be published by Bloomsbury in 2014. Follow him on Twitter @jamesdboys

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