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 a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Five things we've learned from Labour conference

The party won't split, Corbynite divisions are growing and MPs have accepted Brexit. 

Labour won't split anytime soon

For months, in anticipation of Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election, the media had speculated about the possibility of a Labour split. But the party’s conference confirmed that MPs have no intention of pursuing this course (as I had long written). They are tribally loyal to Labour and fear that a split would prove electorally ruinous under first-past-the-post. Many still expect Theresa May to hold an early general election and are focused on retaining their seats.

Rather than splitting, Corbyn’s opponents will increase their level of internal organisation in a manner reminiscent of the left’s Socialist Campaign Group. The “shadow shadow cabinet” will assert itself through backbench policy committees and, potentially, a new body (such as the proposed “2020 group”). Their aim is to promote an alternative direction for Labour and to produce the ideas and organisation that future success would depend on.

MPs do not dismiss the possibility of a split if their “hand is forced” through a wave of deselections or if the left achieves permanent control of the party. But they expect Labour to fight the next election as a force at least united in name.

Neither the Corbynites nor the rebels have ultimate control 

Corbyn’s second landslide victory confirmed the left’s dominance among the membership. He increased his winning margin and triumphed in every section. But beyond this, the left’s position is far more tenuous.

The addition of Scottish and Welsh representatives to the National Executive Committee handed Corbyn’s opponents control of Labour’s ruling body. Any hope of radically reshaping the party’s rule book has ended.

For weeks, Corbyn’s allies have spoken of their desire to remove general secretary Iain McNicol and deputy leader Tom Watson. But the former is now safe in his position, while the latter has been strengthened by his rapturously received speech.

Were Corbyn to eventually resign or be defeated, another left candidate (such as John McDonnell) would struggle to make the ballot. Nominations from 15 per cent of MPs are required but just six per cent are committed Corbynites (though selection contests and seat losses could aid their cause). It’s for this reason that allies of the leader are pushing for the threshold to be reduced to five per cent. Unless they succeed, the hard-left’s dominance is from assured. Were an alternative candidate, such as Clive Lewis or Angela Rayner, to succeed it would only be by offering themselves as a softer alternative.

Corbynite divisions are intensifying 

The divide between Corbyn’s supporters and opponents has recently monopolised attention. But the conference showed why divisions among the former should be interrogated.

Shadow defence secretary Clive Lewis, an early Corbyn backer, was enraged when his speech was amended to exclude a line announcing that Labour’s pro-Trident stance would not be reversed. Though Lewis opposes renewal, he regards unilateralism as an obstacle to unifying the party around a left economic programme. The longer Corbyn remains leader, the greater the tension between pragmatism and radicalism will become. Lewis may have alienated CND but he has improved his standing among MPs, some of whom hail him as a bridge between the hard and soft left.

Elsewhere, the briefing against McDonnell by Corbyn allies, who suggested he was an obstacle to recruiting frontbenchers, showed how tensions between their respective teams will remain a story.

Labour has accepted Brexit

Ninety four per cent of Labour MPs backed the Remain campaign during the EU referendum. But by a similar margin, they have accepted the Leave vote. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, both long-standing eurosceptics, confirmed that they would not seek to prevent Brexit.

Owen Smith called for a referendum on the eventual deal during his leadership campaign. But with some exceptions, such as Angela Eagle, most of his backers have rejected the idea. Though 48 per cent of the electorate voted Remain, MPs emphasise that only 35 per cent of constituencies did. Some still fear an SNP-style surge for Ukip if Labour seeks to overturn the outcome.

The debate has moved to Britain’s future relationship with Europe, most notably the degree of free movement. For Labour, like Theresa May, Brexit means Brexit.

Corbyn will not condemn deselections 

The Labour leader could have won credit from MPs by unambiguously condemning deselection attempts. But repeatedly invited to do so, he refused. Corbyn instead defended local parties’ rights and stated that the “vast majority” of MPs had nothing to fear (a line hardly reassuring to those who do). Angela Eagle, Stella Creasy and Peter Kyle are among the rebels targeted by activists.

Corbyn can reasonably point out that the rules remain the same as under previous leaders. MPs who lose trigger ballots of their local branches face a full and open selection. But Labour’s intensified divisions mean deselection has become a far greater threat. MPs fear that Corbyn relishes the opportunity to remake the parliamentary party in his own images.  And some of the leader’s allies hope to ease the process by reviving mandatory reselection. Unless Corbyn changes his line, the issue will spark continual conflict. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.