What's Obama up to?

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Put your hand up if you think Barack Obama is going to bomb Syria any time now. And put the other hand up if you think this is a bad idea.

I suspect most of you reading this have both hands up right now. I agree with you on the second point – bombing Syria would be an extremely bad idea. It would simply exacerbate the death toll in a conflict that has already claimed more than 100 000 lives and displaced millions of people.

But I don't think it's going to happen.

Here's my take on this. I don't believe Obama has ever had any intention of getting militarily involved in the Syrian conflict.

Think about it – this is an American president who has gone through a systematic process of scaling back on military involvement around the world.

He withdrew from Iraq. He withdrew from Afghanistan. He got involved in Libya briefly as part of Nato, but did not attack that country after his ambassador was murdered in Benghazi.

In fact, Obama has shown himself to be inclined towards precision warfare using intelligence and covert operations and technology.

Witness the ramping up of sifting communications and cyberspace for information during his term of office.

Witness the operation that took out Osama bin Laden.

Witness the ongoing use of drones and the deployment of the "iron dome" missile defence system in support of Israel.

So based on his track record, it would be quite out of character for Obama to be getting involved in Syria.

Yet there is an inordinate amount of media attention focusing not on whether he is going to strike, but when.

Here's what's actually going on. Last year in the build-up to the US presidential elections, Obama found himself on the back foot after his first debate with challenger Mitt Romney.

Romney had positioned himself as a great personal friend of Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu. Obama had been reluctant to get involved in the civil war in Syria, and had resisted calls to impose a no-fly zone or to arm the Syrian rebels. He did, however, release $82 million in humanitarian aid for refugees of the conflict.

Romney made his unabashed support for Syria's neighbour Israel a centrepiece of his campaign, constantly inferring that Obama was unwilling to take hard decisions around the "war on terror".

So in August last year, Obama hinted in a press conference that the US would intervene militarily under certain circumstances. I quote:

“We cannot have a situation in which chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people. We have been very clear to the Assad regime but also to other players on the ground that a red line for us is, we start seeing a whole bunch of weapons moving around or being utilized."

It was the first significant stuff-up that Obama had made in his engagement with the media and no doubt one that he regrets to this day because the words "red line" were not part of his written notes.

The New York Times quoted a senior official as saying the idea was to "put a chill into the Assad regime without actually trapping the president into any predetermined action", but "what the president said in August was unscripted”. Another official quoted by the paper said the “nuance got completely dropped”.

The media seized upon it with glee, declaring that Obama had drawn a red line – use of chemical weapons. If Syria crossed the red line, it would trigger a US military response.

Now, what we do know is that the Assad regime has chemical weapons – they were stupid enough to admit in July last year that they have them but would only use them defensively against foreign invaders and never against their own citizens.

We also know from several independent sources that the rebels also have access to chemical weapons. Diplomatic correspondence leaked to the Christian Science Monitor shows Iran has been warning Washington since July 2012 that Sunni rebel fighters have acquired chemical weapons, and called on the US to send “an immediate and serious warning” to rebel groups not to use them.

Now, it is clear that someone has used chemical weapons against civilians in Syria. It doesn't matter who did. The US Congress controlled by hostile Republicans pounced upon Obama asking him to follow through with his "promise".

I could picture them rubbing their hands in glee at the thought of Obama being drawn into an unpopular unwinnable war, which would almost certainly cost the Democrats the next election.

But Obama finessed it beautifully by doing the unthinkable. He went to Congress and asked them to vote on military intervention in Syria.

Here's why this is important: the US president does not need to get permission to go to war.

The only logical reason for asking the Republicans for permission is that Obama does not want to go to war.

I don't believe the Republicans have the balls to authorise a strike against Syria other than a symbolic drone or two. That would then leave Obama free to work toward a diplomatic solution.

I hope I'm right.1

  • 1. The print version of this article was headlined "Out of character for Obama to attack" which kind of gives it away.