War in Syria: Barack Obama has run out of friends

In passing the decision on Syria strikes on to Congress, the President has decided it's better to look like a coward than a hypocrite.

Yesterday, in an announcement that took pretty much all news networks and commentators by surprise, Barack Obama took precisely zero military action in response to Syria's highly-publicised recent use of chemical weapons.

For even the first few paragraphs of his speech, everyone still assumed there would be Tomahawk missiles in the air within hours.

“In a world with many dangers, this menace must be confronted. Now, after careful deliberation, I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets,” the President said. “I’m confident we can hold the Assad regime accountable for their use of chemical weapons, deter this kind of behaviour, and degrade their capacity to carry it out. Our military has positioned assets in the region. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs has informed me that we are prepared to strike whenever we choose.”

So far, so Desert Fox. But then, the President changed tack.

“I’m also mindful that I’m the President of the world’s oldest constitutional democracy,” he said, in one of the more awkward non-sequiturs of his speaking career. “I’ve long believed that our power is rooted not just in our military might, but in our example as a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. And that’s why I’ve made a second decision: I will seek authorisation for the use of force from the American people’s representatives in Congress.”

That's right: despite not technically needing the approval of his legislature to take military action, Obama is magnanimously seeking it anyway. This would be a big deal even if there wasn't an enormous elephant in that particular room, but of course there is, in the form of David Cameron's catastrophically embarrassing failure to achieve the exact same vote, despite – in theory – having a much tighter constitutional hold on his legislature than Obama.

But the US president has run out of friends. The UN is completely gridlocked by Russia, while the UK, America's usual ally in such adventures, now isn't on board either. Nobody, not the Arab League, not NATO, not the war-weary American public nor even the war-eager hawks in the Republican party for whom limited missile strikes don't go far enough; nobody, except suddenly belligerent France, is on board with the President's plan.

That being the case, Obama has decided to duck acting unilaterally. Instead, he is betting on his own ability to sell the war to the people, and therefore to Congress, in just nine days. If he succeeds, of course, he can go to war without being accused of riding roughshod over Congress, and international law. He cannot be accused of acting alone.

But if he fails, it will be a catastrophe for his credibility at home and abroad.

This is Obama's own fault, really. He talked himself into a corner with his 'red line' ultimatum, and has found himself cornered between two versions of himself: one, a year ago, laying down the sanctity of international law on chemical weaponry; and the other as a candidate in 2008 waxing lyrical on how the primacy of Congress should be respected in warlike matters. The latter position makes going to war alone, without Congress, the UN, a national mandate, or even the British along for the ride, unpalatable. So, with his position on chemical weapons staked out in 2012, but no support, and mindful of what he said about similar decisions as a candidate in 2008, he has taken the less lonely option. He has chosen to look like a coward, instead of a hypocrite.

Is that entirely fair? Was this cowardice? To some extent, yes. To the Syrian rebels who had been expecting air support, it looks like when the crucial moment came, America blinked. After more than two years of inaction, their disappointment is unsurprising.

One thing is certain: Obama is not really acting out of concern for constitutionality. Remember, he had no such misgivings about not consulting Congress when he took action in Libya two years ago. But then, he had UN backing for that; this time he faced standing alone. So he passed the buck.

Which is not to say that, paradoxically, shoving the responsibility for this decision on to Congress wasn't in its own way a brave move. After Cameron's humiliation in the Commons last week, Obama will be acutely aware that a losing vote now, after he so clearly staked out his own position, would be worse than embarrassing: it could be seen as a de facto vote of no confidence in his administration. The stakes could not be higher.

With Congress away for the Labor Day holiday, he has until 9 September to make his case. Obama would not have taken this risk unless he had reasonable confidence that he is going to succeed – but the American legislature is notoriously unpredictable, obstructive, and – in the case of the House of Representatives – controlled by the Republican party. There are factions who are going to make his job difficult: libertarian Republicans and dove Democrats want to leave Syria alone to fight its own civil war; and on the other side, interventionist Republicans like John McCain think targeted strikes don't go far enough.

Coward or not, the President now has a hell of a fight on his hands - before an American shot has been fired.

Barack Obama in the Rose Garden on August 31. Photo: Getty

Nicky Woolf is reporting for the New Statesman from the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

Photo: Getty Images
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Cameron needs to decide what he thinks about Russia

David Cameron's words suggest one thing, his actions quite another.

David Cameron needs to decide whether he takes Russia seriously.

He certainly talks a good game, calling Vladimir Putin to account for crimes against Ukrainian sovereignty and for supporting the wrong side in Syria, claiming credit for bolstering the post-Crimea sanctions regime, and demanding that Moscow’s behaviour change. And the new Strategic Defence & Security Review, published last week, puts Russia front and centre among the threats Britain faces.

The problem is, his government’s foreign policy seems calculated to make no one happier than Putin himself.

At fault is not a failure of analysis. It has taken Whitehall 19 months since Moscow annexed Crimea to develop a new Russia policy, replacing the old aspirations of “strategic partnership based on common values”, but the conviction that Russia be treated as a significant threat to the U.K.’s security and prosperity is solid.

Five years ago, when the coalition government published the last Strategic Defence & Security Review, Russia was mentioned once, in the context of rising global powers with whom London could partner to help solve planetary problems, from nuclear proliferation to climate change. The new SDSR tells a very different story. Russia gets 28 mentions this time around, characterised as a “state threat” that “may feel tempted to act aggressively against NATO allies.” Russia’s annexation of Crimea and instigation of a separatist civil war in eastern Ukraine are mentioned in the same sentence with Assad’s chemical weapons attacks on Syrian civilians and the rise of the Islamic State as key examples of how the world is becoming a more dangerous place.

How that threat will be countered, however, is not a question Whitehall can answer: it is a question for Westminster, and it gets to the heart of where this government sees its place in the world, and in Europe in particular. What Whitehall cannot say – but what the politicians must recognise – is this: the best bulwark against the Kremlin is a strengthened European Union, with more integrated markets and the force to push a concerted foreign policy in the Eastern Neighbourhood. And that recognition requires Cameron to decide whether Putin poses a greater challenge than Nigel Farage.

The SDSR is right to note that the danger of a military confrontation with Russia is remote. Just in case, the Government has committed to bolstering aerial defences, contributing to NATO’s rapid reaction capabilities and maintaining the sanctions regime until a full settlement is reached that restores Ukrainian sovereignty. These are all reasonable measures, which will go some distance to ensuring that Moscow understands the risks of further escalation in the near term. But they do nothing to address the longer term problem.

From a hard-security perspective, Russia is a nuisance. The real danger is in the threat Moscow poses to what the SDSR calls the “rules-based order” – that system of institutions, agreements and understandings that underpin stability and prosperity on the European continent. That order is about more than respecting national borders, important as that is. It is also about accepting that markets are impartially regulated, that monopolies are disallowed and political and economic power reside in institutions, rather than in individuals. It is, in other words, about accepting rules that are almost the polar opposite of the system that Russia has built over the past 25 years, an order based on rents, clientelism and protected competitive positions.

Russia, after all, went to war over a trade treaty. It invaded Ukraine and annexed part of its territory to prevent the full implementation of a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement that was designed to make Ukraine function more like Europe and less like Russia. From Moscow’s point of view, the European project is a very real geopolitical threat, one that promises to reduce the territory in which Russia can compete and, eventually, to increase the pressure on Russia itself to change. In somewhat less pernicious ways Moscow is seeking similarly to derail Moldova’s and Georgia’s European integration, while working hard to keep Belarus and Armenia from straying.

This is not a problem of vision or diplomacy, a failure to convince Putin of the value of the European way of doing things. For Putin and those on whose behalf he governs, the European way of doing things carries negative value. And unless the basic structure of politics and economics in Russia shifts, that calculation won’t change when Putin himself leaves the Kremlin. For the foreseeable future, Russia’s rulers will be willing to go to extraordinary lengths to prevent the widening of Europe, at the cost of instability and dysfunction in the region.

European willingness is another question. A chorus of euro=sceptics both left and right have demanded that Europe stop provoking the Russian bear, leaving the Eastern Neighbourhood countries to fend for themselves – sacrificing Kiev’s sovereignty to Moscow in order to bolster their own sovereignty from Brussels. Cracks, too, are emerging in the centre of the political spectrum: as French President Francois Hollande pledged to work with Moscow to fight ISIS in Syria, Prime Minister Manuel Valls declared that such an alliance would necessitate the lifting of sanctions on Russia, thus trading stability in Syria for instability in Ukraine.

As a member of the EU, London has a role to play. Together with Berlin, London could exert pressure on Paris and keep the margins of the political spectrum marginal. London could through its weight behind a common energy market, forcing Gazprom to play by EU competition rules. London could bolster anti-corruption systems and ensure that ill-gotten gains have no safe haven in Europe. London could insist on the legitimacy of the European project from one end of the continent to the other.

Instead, London is threatening Brexit, relinquishing any leverage over its European allies, and seeking EU reforms that would eviscerate the common energy market, common financial regulation, the common foreign and security policy and other key tools in the relationship with Russia.

In their February 2015 report on EU-Russian relations, the House of Lords raised the question of “whether Europe can be secure and prosperous if Russia continues to be governed as it is today.” To be sure, Europe can’t change Russia’s government and shouldn’t try. But by insisting on its own rules – both in how it governs its internal markets and in how it pursues its foreign policy – Europe can change the incentives Russia’s government faces.

The question, then, to Cameron is this: Whose rules would Westminster rather see prevail in the Eastern Neighbourhood, Europe’s or Russia’s?

Samuel A. Greene is Director of the King’s Russia Institute, King’s College London.