Simultaneously venerable yet duplicitous. If the US is to use force to respond to the Syrian conflict, the discouragement of chemical weapons is a worthy ends, yet the means are hardly beyond reproach. It is a bit ironic, indeed, that the US is playing the role of the UN (with Russia, of course as Syria’s ally, debilitating any serious action with its veto power in the Security Council) and enforcing the agreements from the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), one of the few major international agreements ratified by the US. For every supposedly venerable reason to make war, there’s two or three more international treaties the US has not ratified or has ratified yet violates.
Still, President Obama’s decision was a cunning one from a domestic policy and an international relations (IR) perspective.
I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people’s representatives in Congress.
Domestically, his decision to welcome the debate and leave it to Congress to have the final say when it’s his authority ultimately as Commander in Chief is a wise one. Not only does this allow Obama to share responsibility should things go awry, he also creates a difference between himself and his predecessor’s assumption of power. Of course it is also placative for the US war-tired public that he has promised the omission of ground troops. Let’s hope this isn’t him leaving the door open for a drone showcase–yet another controversy (note the date of linked article).
Concerning an IR perspective, Obama walks a tight rope of (supposedly) humanitarian interventionism between warmongering and pure-hearted assistance. Again, Obama is clear in claiming that he desires to have no political impact with the strike than to discourage the CWC breach. According to these statements, Obama has no intention in affecting the outcome of the war, lingering in Syria, imposing the Washington Consensus, or meddling in Syria’s politics to influence their resources.
(It should still be said that the US’ decision to dish out the punishment for international treaty violations is controversially overstepping to put it mildly, let alone absolutely hypocritical as far as international agreements are concerned. The US is trying to exemplify Syria, but does this set the precedent for the US’ responsibility to enforce the CWC?)
Even after Saturday, we have no idea what cards Obama is keeping close to his chest or to what extent the content he has revealed is intended as a cover for undisclosed incentives. But if Obama doesn’t follow through with what he assured on Saturday, that the “… action will be limited in time and scope,” he will be held responsible by not only the international community, but his own Congress and people. And if Obama means what he says, he’s got a hell of a road ahead of him and obstacles to overcome before he’ll be able to follow through.