President Barack Obama has to contend with a number of changing realities as he considers his options on Syria. These include the U.S. public’s aversion to military engagement, a possible Congressional endorsement, a non-military option as suggested by Russia’s initiative, and the weight of U.S. statements and the consistency of its positions. Obama’s approach so far is in line with his practice of considering and exhausting possibilities before resorting to a final decision, which means that strikes are not out of the question. However, in the battle of images and narratives, Obama may have already depleted much of what remained of U.S. credibility.
In his March 2011 remarks on Libya, Obama set about differentiating, from his perspective, between U.S. standards for intervention in foreign conflicts and those applied by other nations. Values as well as interests shape such decisions, Obama argued, and the United States will not stand idle while the values that it cherishes are violated by tyrants. His address earlier this week on Syria reiterates the same theme, in a forceful plea for the ethical obligation for action against the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons against a civilian population. He invited Americans to empathize with the victims by evocating the possibility of such a horrible death to their own children.
Obama’s address, however, was laden with a serious dissonance. His argument for imperative action did not conclude with the announcement that such action would be carried through. Instead, it was made conditional on two potentially lengthy processes - a determination on the effectiveness of Russia’s initiative and Congressional approval - to underline that the United States acts in unison. Some may have been waiting for a solemn proclamation ; the president instead offered them a conversation. But even if Obama appears to be back-pedaling, he is unlikely to pay a heavy domestic price. But that assessment is dramatically different in the Middle East. There, the damage to U.S. credibility may be terminal.
As anticipated, the Syrian regime and other detractors of the United States and the West are construing developments as Obama losing out to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s cunning. They also insinuate that the promise of a surrender of Syrian chemical weapons is merely a ploy, one that has succeeded in confusing Obama’s policy and preempting his intent to strike. Opponents of the Assad regime, on the other hand, are perplexed by the course of action chosen by the U.S. president. He could have opted for caution in recognizing Assad’s responsibility for the attack, and thus avoided the appearance of being deterred from swift punitive action. He could have, per his constitutional prerogatives, avoided implicating Congress in his decision. And he could have recognized the Russian initiative for what it is : a delaying ploy in line with other such measures aimed at supporting the Syrian regime against its armed opposition. But instead, Obama and his administration made implicit and explicit promises, only to retreat from them.
By focusing on domestic affairs, and in assessing that Asia is of primary importance from a U.S. perspective, Obama may have reduced his focus on the Middle East. Whether on the Israeli-Palestinian question, the Arab Spring, Syria, or Iran, his messaging to much of the region has been burdened with incoherence, grand promises, and even grander letdowns. His seeming determination to strike Syria in response to the August 21 chemical weapons attack offered a temporary reprieve from the continuing diminution of credibility. But the implications of defaulting, once again, are considerable. The United States, it seems, no longer inspires fear in its enemies, nor solace and comfort in its friends.
The approval ratings of the U.S. president in the Middle East are evidently of little importance for his administration. But the cost is the strengthening of a political discourse that equates Obama’s faux-pas with a strategic loss of U.S. power and influence—a self-reinforcing process detrimental to the emergence ofa stable, representative, friendly political order in the region. This, ultimately, will be a loss for both U.S. interests and U.S. values.