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.

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.