After Obama’s red line of chemical weapons has been crossed, what now for the U.S. in Syria?

By Jack Thompson

The reports coming in yesterday morning of a chemical attack outside Damascus remind us that the Syrian Civil War is entering a dangerous phase, one not likely to be resolved internally. But what routes can international actors, most notably the United States, take to resolve the crisis?

Now might be a good time to look at President Obama’s options, and what is holding his administration back.

For a long time now, Obama has explained that chemical weapon use in Syria would be a ‘game changer’, yet since the first reports of their use, the US has remained on the sidelines, offering humanitarian aid, but unwilling to step up and engage against the Assad regime. Various ideas are floated around, with those favouring a drawn back approach advocating logistical support and supplying weapons to the rebels, whereas defence hawks, like John McCain (R-Arizona) pushing for a full intervention.

One of the proposed plans involves arming the rebels. There are fears that supporting the opposition could be problematic in the long term. Past ‘freedom fighters’ that have been supported by the US include Osama Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, and Muammar Gaddafi. It would be unwise to strengthen groups that will eventually turn on the West. And it’s not a case of just promising to arm the official leaders, because the major rebel groups are in fact umbrella organisations consisting of various organisations and militias. The varied nature of these groups makes controlling the proliferation of weapons extremely difficult, especially when rebel leaders openly offer to share weaponry and resources with extremist groups.

When it comes to a full intervention however, there are a number of reasons we can attribute to the lack of action. First off, we cannot doubt the Obama administration’s willingness to use force, as seen through its liberal use of drones across countries like Qatar. However, Obama has been very reluctant to use any real intervention policy ever since he won the presidency. US involvement in the Libyan Civil War was drawn back, and part of a wider international coalition. Rhetorical support was offered during the Arab Spring, but by and large the US kept a wide berth. Since the Syrian uprising began in 2011, the administration has done its best to avoid definitive statements that would land them with a military intervention. Why?

Iraq.

The spectre of Iraq looms over the Obama administration, much like Vietnam did with Jimmy Carter. It’s not hard to see why: a trillion dollars and thousands of American lives later there is destabilised region and vast anti-American sentiment, both in the Middle East, and amongst the US’s allies.

Obama wants to avoid his Iraq, for a number of reasons. Firstly, he ran his first election as the ‘anti-Bush’; putting an end to illegal wars that damaged US prospects abroad. He spent the majority of his first term blaming Bush for the state of the country’s finances, for the diplomatic fallout of his policies, for the costly and failed war. To then turn around and intervene in a Middle East country that would likely bog down American troops for years to come would seem like a u-turn for the President. Of course, Syria is not Iraq, but comparisons can be made.

There are also financial arguments to be made. They may not be the most ethical ones to make alongside the daily deaths of Syrian civilians, but on the back of a recession, policymakers have a duty to manage the books. As Republican’s fight to balance the books, it seems unlikely that Obama will commit to another billion dollar conflict, as the money would likely come out of spending cuts at home, and potentially even derail his flagship policy, the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare), which he is battling a hostile congress to get funded. Extensive military action could not come at a worse time for the US economy.

There’s also the legal argument. Iraq was a coalition of a few nations that used questionable evidence to circumvent international law and invade another country. Returning to the idea that Obama is trying to fix the damage done by Bush, it is most likely he would prefer a course of action that is approved by the UN and the rest of the international community, and one that includes a vast amount of participants, where the US is not simply the major player with a few states assisting. However, with Russian and Chinese opposition on the Security Council to any major involvement by the UN, this issue is likely to be moot for the foreseeable future.

Obama is limited by the past, the present and the future. The Iraq syndrome that affects his administration is crippling any productive action in the Middle East, while the financial state of the US means any intervention would potentially mean crippling cuts to government programmes he has been championing. And arming the rebels could have dangerous consequences for the United States in the future, and further military action could enrage other regional actors and destabilise the Middle East.

The longer the US waits, the longer it risks losing key regional allies. Yet are the financial and legal costs too high for America to continue playing the world’s policeman? Have we reached a new time of national autonomy, where international anarchy reigns freely? Are we truly alone?

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Obama Leaves Space for a Comeback

By S.M.Banchard

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© Scout Tufankjian for Obama for America

In the presidential debate that took place last night, there seemed to be a strong sense that someone was missing. That someone was President Obama. Though the president appeared at the Denver, Colorado venue on his anniversary, no less, the president’s normal regal charisma and affluent delivery on the stage was somehow absent.

Instead, during the 90 minutes, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney took an aggressive front on the issues posed to both contenders, not only singling out the misgivings of Obama’s last four years, but also highlighting the intricacies of how his plan differed for the better. Romney, having already gathered a strong reputation for not being afraid to stand out in opposition, even confronted moderator and long time PBS affiliate Jim Lehrer, stating “I love Big Bird,” but that he would stop the subsidies to such publicly funded programs to ensure the reduction of the national deficit.  Romney outlined a plan for more programmes to be run at the state level, citing the dismantling of nationally funded programs like Obama care, which he claimed were unnecessary expenditures increasing the budget.

It was on this point of economic development that Romney, perhaps unsurprisingly, stood out. Romney skilfully framed the problem as a moral issue- calling upon the fears of those American’s that are weary of Obama’s high fiscal spending to drive his point home. The contender stated that it was immoral for his generation, “to spend massively more than we take in, knowing those burdens are going to be passed onto the next generation, knowing they are going to be paying the interest and the principle all their lives.” Romney’s detailed and confident approach left many believing Mr. Romney not only won the debate, but made up substantial ground amidst the past few weeks of media misspeaks.

Where Obama failed was not in the defence of his attacks; but in that he did not attack. In an America that perceives itself to still be treading water amidst a 16 trillion dollar deficit, the scrutiny of the public eye on the current economic state was at its highest. Thus, the confident representation of Obama’s plan was necessary to bolster America’s confidence in its economic future under his authority. Instead, the president focused on Romney’s proposed tax cuts, and questioned Romney as to how the government would pay for such a policy. To the keen economic eye, the president’s juxtaposition skilfully undermined many ethical implications as to who would be responsible for those costs, cleverly bringing in the question of the middle class, a subgroup whose favour both parties find themselves vying for in these elections. However the president’s lack of detail in his follow up to these remarks was an untapped counter to the consequences of Romney’s emotively executed argument for protecting future generations.

Furthermore, there were several hot topic issues of Romney misspeaks that Obama did not confront the Massachusetts governor on, such as drawing on the now famous 47% statement, to hot topics of immigration and abortion. These areas of republican rhetoric have been privy to contentious backlash in the previous weeks, and went untapped as areas of important concern.

In his closing statement, the president spoke of drawing on the American people’s strengths to develop the country’s future. Skilfully, the president focused on how to cultivate these areas of strengths that the debate had not given much focus to, such as developing environmentally conscious energy products, investing in creating jobs within US borders, and perhaps of most importance, closing the budget in a responsible way. Yet the president could have done more to break these points down and bring it home to a nation that already teeters in his favour. His lack of clarity left the public without the ability to take home his own driving points for future policy, giving Mitt the advantage and leaving space in the presidential race for a comeback.