A view on Syria from the US: Obama's enemies scent blood

How did Obama find himself in such a rococo mess, pinned between haters in the House and his KGB rival?

Barely a week ago, when Barack Obama asked Congress to approve the degradation of Bashar al-Assad’s poison gas stocks, he became the hostage of obstructionist Tea Party members hell-bent on his downfall and of his own pacifist base, incapable of voting for war. The vote in Congress was heading for certain defeat. In an effort to rescue his rash gambit, Obama toured the talk shows and was billed to address the nation on television. What could he possibly say to turn back the tidal wave against war?
 
Enter the least likely character to save the US president from embarrassment, Vladimir Putin. A stray or perhaps not so stray remark by Secretary of State John Kerry that Syria could avoid attack if it surrendered its poisongas arsenal triggered a hectic Russian initiative to oblige Assad to do just that. Obama’s broadcast, a forlorn last chance to persuade Americans to live up to their responsibilities, turned out a damp squib: another passionless plea for military action, a delay to the congressional vote, and the granting of time for the Russians to strong-arm Syria.
 
In terms of high drama, no complaints so far. But how did Obama find himself adrift in such a rococo mess, pinned between haters in the House and his KGB rival? When it comes to big gestures it is best to ask questions only if you know the answer. When Obama invited Congress to share in the decision to bomb Syria, he must have known the House would oppose him. Not since he appeared vacant and distracted during his first presidential election debate with Mitt Romney has his judgement caused such consternation and despair among Democrats. What could he have been thinking?
 
The appeal to Congress remains a gamble. Until the Russian deal has run its course and Congress has, or perhaps has not, been asked to endorse military action, the presidency remains in severe jeopardy. A defeat in Congress would amount to a personal vote of no confidence on perhaps the most important decision any president can make: when to act to defend the nation’s safety. In his 10 September address Obama repeated that failure to act in Syria would lead to a proliferation of poison-gas attacks that put US national security directly at risk. As commander-in-chief, he does not need congressional consent to act in such circumstances, so the wonder is he has not already fired the cruise missiles. Which is what most of his allies wish he had done at the beginning of this month.
 
Instead, Obama chose the stony path. Some of his reasoning appears to be constitutional: he believes that the executive has too often ignored the legislature when making decisions about war and he, a Harvard constitutional law scholar, felt obliged to go through the niceties, whatever the risk of failure. Part of the reason, too, was the pivotal stance he took against the Iraq war that set him apart from Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primary debates. He believes Congress should play a key role in going to war.
 
There was, however, a recklessness about throwing the vote to Congress, which, since he lost the House in the midterm elections of 2010, has hampered him at every turn. The president has long lectured recalcitrant members of the House on playing chicken with America’s financial prestige – in order to keep America solvent by lifting the debt ceiling and by passing taxes to fund public spending. The vote for war is a similar test. Would Republicans risk harming America’s international reputation to satisfy their visceral dislike of him? Obama must have concluded that they wouldn’t dare, which is a bet few others would make.
 
By inviting the vote, Obama placed his tormentors in a torment of their own. Lawmakers have not thanked Obama for asking them to share the Syria decision. Americans are suffering war fatigue and the thought of another attack, however surgical, is unpopular in red and blue states alike. Being forced out into the open when opinion is so strongly against war is uncomfortable for a congressman. Best for those hoping to avoid an awkward primary to dodge the issue rather than be seen defying the will of the people.
 
For a couple of days Congress wriggled on the hook. In the Republican Party, mutating from a conservative to a libertarian movement, fiscal hawks now outnumber defence hawks. The old-school neocons and centrists such as John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who have ruled the roost on defence matters for the past decade and are backing the president, have been reduced to a handful. Many Republicans who had happily backed the unnecessary Iraq war are scrambling to find reasons to deny Obama the sanction to bomb Syria. For the sake of their president, Obama Democrats who opposed Iraq from the start are struggling to smother their pacifism and back another war.
 
Obama’s gamble has thrown everything in the air, but at enormous risk to his future authority. When a president finds his fate lies in the hands of the Tea Party and of Putin, he is in trouble. He faces opposition from a majority in the House of Representatives, almost half the Senate, and four out of every five Americans. His broadcast on Tuesday will not have changed minds. Like members of Congress who grabbed the Russian deal to save face, Obama must now hope that Putin can force Assad to keep his word.
 
The alternative for Obama is horrible. A failed Russian deal would reinstate the vote in the House and the Senate. If Congress rejects the measure, Obama will be profoundly weakened at home and in the eyes of the world – unless he bombs Syria anyway. The president might justify such an action by saying that Congress was asked to be wise and was found wanting.
 
Congress may reply that for a president to contradict a clear message from Congress is an impeachable offence. 
Hack or hostage? By mistiming and misdirecting the decision on a response to use of chemical weapons, Obama has put himself at the mercy of Putin.

Nicholas Wapshott’s Keynes Hayek: the Clash That Defined Modern Economics is published by W W Norton (£12.99)

This article first appeared in the 16 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The deadly stalemate

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What Donald Trump could learn from Ronald Reagan

Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement.

“No one remembers who came in second.” That wisdom, frequently dispensed by the US presidential candidate Donald Trump, came back to haunt him this week. Trump’s loss in the Iowa Republican caucuses to the Texas senator Ted Cruz, barely beating Senator Marco Rubio of Florida for second place, was the first crack in a campaign that has defied all expectations.

It has been a campaign built on Trump’s celebrity. Over the past eight months, his broad name recognition, larger-than-life personality and media savvy have produced a theatrical candidacy that has transfixed even those he repels. The question now is whether that celebrity will be enough – whether a man so obsessed with being “Number One” can bounce back from defeat.

Iowa isn’t everything, after all. It didn’t back the eventual Republican nominee in 2008 or 2012. Nor, for that matter, in 1980, when another “celebrity” candidate was in the mix. That was the year Iowa picked George H W Bush over Ronald Reagan – the former actor whom seasoned journalists dismissed as much for his right-wing views as for his “B-movie” repertoire. But Reagan regrouped, romped to victory in the New Hampshire primary and rode a wave of popular support all the way to the White House.

Trump might hope to replicate that success and has made a point of pushing the Reagan analogy more generally. Yet it is a comparison that exposes Trump’s weaknesses and his strengths.

Both men were once Democrats who came later in life to the Republican Party, projecting toughness, certainty and unabashed patriotism. Trump has even adopted Reagan’s 1980 campaign promise to “make America great again”. Like Reagan, he has shown he can appeal to evangelicals despite question marks over his religious conviction and divorces. In his ability to deflect criticism, too, Trump has shown himself as adept as Reagan – if by defiance rather than by charm – and redefined what it means to be “Teflon” in the age of Twitter.

That defiance, however, points to a huge difference in tone between Reagan’s candidacy and Trump’s. Reagan’s vision was a positive, optimistic one, even as he castigated “big government” and the perceived decline of US power. Reagan’s America was meant to be “a city upon a hill” offering a shining example of liberty to the world – in rhetoric at least. Trump’s vision is of an America closed off from the world. His rhetoric invokes fear as often as it does freedom.

On a personal level, Reagan avoided the vituperative attacks that have been the hallmark of Trump’s campaign, even as he took on the then“establishment” of the Republican Party – a moderate, urban, east coast elite. In his first run for the nomination, in 1976, Reagan even challenged an incumbent Republican president, Gerald Ford, and came close to defeating him. But he mounted the challenge on policy grounds, advocating the so-called “Eleventh Commandment”: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Trump, as the TV debates between the Republican presidential candidates made clear, does not subscribe to the same precept.

More importantly, Reagan in 1976 and 1980 was the leader of a resurgent conservative movement, with deep wells of political experience. He had been president of the Screen Actors Guild in the late 1940s, waging a campaign to root out communist infiltrators. He had gone on to work for General Electric in the 1950s as a TV pitchman and after-dinner speaker, honing a business message that resonated beyond the “rubber chicken circuit”.

In 1964 he grabbed headlines with a televised speech on behalf of the Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater – a bright spot in Goldwater’s otherwise ignominious campaign. Two years later he was elected governor of California – serving for eight years as chief executive of the nation’s most populous state. He built a conservative record on welfare reform, law and order, and business regulation that he pushed on to the federal agenda when he ran for president.

All this is to say that Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. By contrast, Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement – which enhanced his “outsider” status, perhaps, but not his ground game. So far, he has run on opportunism, tapping in to popular frustration, channelled through a media megaphone.

In Iowa, this wasn’t enough. To win the nomination he will have to do much more to build his organisation. He will be hoping that in the primaries to come, voters do remember who came in second. 

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war