By Paolo von Schirach
September 7, 2013
WASHINGTON – From a purely political vantage point, Obama’s plan to punish Syria for its flagrant violation of a century old ban on the use of chemical weapons looks like a really bad idea. The mission is ill-defined, its benefits unclear, the possible repercussions unknown. And this is just the beginning.
America is against it
The real problem is that American public opinion is mostly against such a military engagement. Simply stated, the country has had enough of wars in Muslim countries. Obama’s arguments about upholding international law may sway some experts. But the public is not convinced. Yes, if we let this open violation go unpunished, this may encourage others to follow suit. Still, the public does not make distinctions between this or that weapon. As far as the average American can see, Syria is a mess, with no good guys. With a death toll that exceeds 100,000, plus millions of refugees, why do we have to engage now? Why the “red line” on chemical weapons?
Public relations campaign not doing so well
Well, President Obama and his national security team are trying to do their best to convince America, (and the rest of the world via the forum provided by the St. Petersburg G 20 Summit), that the use of chemical weapons in any conflict must be regarded as a game changer. I personally agree. It is a game changer. It used to be a strict taboo. Clearly, if we let this action ordered by Assad go unpunished, the century old ban is no longer a taboo. I do not want to imagine a world in which any and all weapons will be used by states and non state actors, such as terrorist organizations.
Still, be that as it may, and even recognizing that President Obama is “right”, the political climate is dead against him. The country is against it. Half the Congress is against it. Even law makers who may be inclined to support the President are confronted with vociferous constituents telling them to vote “No”.
And Obama did not get much help in St. Petersburg. So, far the only country committed to a military response is France. Others would support the US, but not militarily. Well, not much of a coalition.
Russia’s version treated as credible
In the meantime, Russia, a sorry-looking, semi-impoverished ghost of a former Super Power holds its ground, shamelessly supporting a thug like Bashar al Assad,; in fact portraying him as the embattled legitimate leader of Syria who is engaged in a life or death struggle against al Qaeda. If you follow Putin’s argument, Assad is the good guy, America wants to support al Qaeda’s attempt to overthrow him. Do we really want to live in a world in which this ridiculous distortion is accepted as the generally accepted narrative? Do we really want an Orwellian world in which second-rate autocrats tell you what is true and manage to carry the day?
Opposition notwithstanding, America will have to act
That said, at this stage, America will have to act. I cannot think of any “retreat scenario” that will make Obama and the US look good. If, after having proclaimed the absolute necessity to respond, America will do nothing, this country will become a joke. Likewise if, for fear of further antagonizing public opinion, Obama settles for a modest, totally symbolic military action, the world would see through that, and there would be loss of American prestige.
The only way forward should be a robust military action that would really hurt Assad –and I mean hurt him badly. Of course, the more powerful the blow, the larger the number of civilian casualties. Inevitably America will be accused of yet another senseless act that resulted in the killing of women and children. I can see the headlines.
Still, having gone this far, President Obama cannot retreat, unless he wants to be regarded as a lame duck President even before the end of the first year of his second term in office. As for America, after suffering such a blow, it would take a new President and many years to reassert our credibility in international fora. In the meantime, other rogue regimes and terrorists, no longer fearing any retribution, will be inclined to be more daring. Not a good prospect.