White House aides say President Obama’s drawn-out decision making process on military action against Syria is evidence of a thoughtful, responsible leader. But it could also be the sign of a tortured spirit, a reluctant president who never wanted to find himself in this position in the first place.
While Obama has long spoken out against Bashar al-Assad and the use of chemical weapons, it was the president’s apparent off-the-cuff comments one year ago that may now be most responsible for putting the U.S. in a bind.
Obama’s warning in August 2012 that use of a “whole bunch” of chemical weapons would cross a “red line,” triggering “enormous consequences,” went much further than aides had planned, several told the New York Times earlier this year. Some reportedly wished Obama could have taken those words back.
Now, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who has made ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan his signature foreign policy achievement, is at risk of entangling the U.S. in a fresh Middle East conflict.
Perhaps equally troubling to Obama is the prospect of acting without a robust international coalition. He twice campaigned on a vow to restore an American policy of multilateralism and hailed the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya as a new model for coordinated military action.
The Libya mission, in which the U.S. participated, involved contributions from at least nine countries. The initial air strikes were led by the British and French, with the U.S. providing primarily command support. Some Republicans criticized Obama at the time for allegedly “leading from behind.”
After the fact, Vice President Joe Biden declared the operation a new “prescription for how to deal with the world,” stressing “we don’t have to do it ourselves.” “The NATO alliance worked like it was designed to do: burden sharing,” he told CNN.
Now, the loss of British backing of a strike against Syria is a significant blow to Obama’s vision, setting up two undesirable options: not keeping his word on “enormous consequences” for crossing that “red line,” or going it relatively alone.
“There’s a sense among a lot of people in the administration that there was an opportunity when there was first a determination of chemical weapons use by the Syrian government and we drew that out so long that we missed the opportunity,” said Jon Alterman, a Middle East analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former State Department official and member of the Iraq Study Group.
“We’ve laid down some very specific red lines. … We would be less safe if we said this is intolerable but we’re going to tolerate it. Because when you do that too many times, your friends and your enemies take note and you end up being in a much different world than you want to be in,” Alterman said.
Several top U.S. allies have spoken out in support of action against the Assad regime, but it’s unclear how many would contribute resources to an attack. The French appear most likely to join in.