One thing about America’s imminent intervention in Syria is painfully simple: this is a no-win situation for the US. A good choice does not exist.
Given the options available, a limited punitive strike in reaction to Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons use is decidedly the correct course of action – both on moral grounds as well as from a pragmatic perspective weighing US national security interests. The use of chemical weapons was in fact a game changer, and the issue goes well beyond the war raging in Syria. This is when American leadership matters: there is no one else left standing who can deliver a reminder that weapons of mass destruction won’t be tolerated, however awkward and belated that reminder may be.
On this story
- David Gardner An American shot across the bows will not help Syria
- Georgy Mirsky Moscow won’t hand Syria to the west
- Edward Luce Obama’s credibility rests on strikes
- Editorial Striking at Syria without a strategy
- Richard Haass UK drifts towards isolation
With the stakes so high, it is appalling – albeit unsurprising – to witness the political gamesmanship at work within the US, and among allies who are shirking support for strikes. Domestically, many are prepared to remain on the sidelines or come out in vocal opposition, not because they think it is better policy to do so, but rather to make political hay or take easy shots at President Obama. Look at House Speaker John Boehner’s letter to the president and the Congressional constituency clamouring for Mr Obama to wait for a vote of approval.
Even the British are now prepared to look on and watch after a clear political miscalculation by David Cameron (who supported the strikes). In an unexpected twist, the House of Commons voted against striking Syria, largely on the back of scepticism about military action from the Labour party. Call us cynical, but Ed Miliband, Labour leader, may have voted against the government’s motion allowing action in part because of the political advantages inherent in weakening Cameron with a public display of his tactical ineptitude.
And it’s particularly easy to come out against Mr Obama’s stance, simply because it has been so publicised. Mr Obama is clearly telegraphing his coming actions so as to reduce the risk that limited strikes lead to retaliatory escalation or an expanded American role in the Syrian civil war. The downside? Mr Obama’s open-book game plan gives opposition and allies alike plenty of room to score points without changing the overall policy trajectory. American allies like Saudi Arabia and Qatar implicitly support the strikes, but Mr Obama’s position has given them wiggle room to remain on the sidelines and stay mum, knowing full well that America will still follow through with strikes.
Perhaps politicians feel entitled to make political hay out of a crisis that was born out of political rhetoric. It was Mr Obama himself who set the redline with offhand remarks last August – even his advisers didn’t anticipate the comments that are now forcing his hand. In doing so, Mr Obama made it easy for the British to remain on the sidelines; we should have anticipated that our allies’ support was not a foregone conclusion when we first put this policy into place. After all, it’s very hard to lead from behind when our allies are even further behind us. And from a humanitarian perspective, the redline feels arbitrary – why punish Mr Assad for killing a thousand people with chemical weapons, when 100,000+ deaths have gone unanswered?
On the contrary, it’s very clear what is at stake for national interests – America’s credibility itself. That’s because this goes beyond Syria in two fundamental ways. First, we must act because we said we would. The world will judge our capacity to respond in future situations by the resolve we show here. This isn’t about neocon pre-emptive war. It’s about standing up for values that will define global development in the 21st century.
Second, it matters for the region. Make no mistake, any lack of resolve by the US will strengthen the legitimacy of the Mr Assad government and by extension Iran and Hizbollah. And with all the blustering about Syria, the latest International Atomic Energy Agency report indicating Iran’s rapid strides toward nuclear breakout capacity was swept under the rug with little media attention. This is the true American priority in the region, and it is imperative that a broken redline on Syrian weapons of mass destruction use doesn’t blur the line regarding Iran’s.
Mr Obama’s blunder last year in setting the redline is no excuse for undermining America’s national interests now. Even if this were pure politics, going forward with the strike is still the right thing to do; if anything, it is even more compelling, from a perspective of upholding America’s credibility and putting the US in the best possible situation with regard to Iran’s sprint for nuclear weapons capability. By squabbling and speaking out against it, our allies and our politicians are undermining the message that the strikes will send.
All our elected officials, democrats and republicans, need to come together. Those speaking out against the policy may be scoring easy points – but at America’s expense.
Ian Bremmer is President of Eurasia Group and author of “Every Nation for Itself.” Jon Huntsman was the governor of Utah from 2005 to 2009 and the US ambassador to China from 2009 to 2011.