Flawed decision-making processes at Pennsylvania Avenue and Downing Street

President Barack Obama is not thrilled to assert American power around the globe.

September 22, 2013 22:27
4 minute read.
British Prime Minister David Cameron.

British Prime Minister David Cameron 370. (photo credit: REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett)

President Barack Obama is not thrilled to assert American power around the globe. His worldview is peaceful, contra Bush. But when Syrian President Bashar Assad crossed the red line by using chemical weapons, Obama decided that this gross human-rights violation justifies intervention for a variety of purposes: to declare loud and clear that this is not to be done; to punish; and to deter.

Once he decided to attack Syria, the first phone call was to America’s closest ally, the United Kingdom.

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Prime Minister David Cameron explained that the British public is not supportive of opening yet another battle zone. Britain is still licking its wounds after Iraq, and is still losing soldiers in Afghanistan. Cameron thus explained that he would need to seek Parliament support.

Obama understood. He told Cameron: Do whatever you need to do. I am not interfering with your business, but do this fast. We need to strike while the iron is hot.

Obama was oblivious to Cameron’s constraints and to the public mood in Britain. He somehow confused the American presidential system, where the president possesses broad powers, and the British system, where the prime minister has to reckon with Parliament to a far greater extent.

Obama did not understand that while he can strike whenever he wishes, Cameron simply cannot; he needs time to orchestrate political support.

Cameron should not have been pushed into immediate decision. This was a major mistake on Obama’s part. It was also a gross political mistake on Cameron’s.

Cameron initiated debate in Parliament. Meanwhile, Labor understood this was a golden opportunity for it to undermine and embarrass the prime minister. Labor knows that the British public is very reluctant to intervene. The prevailing view is: we know when and how war starts. We do not know when it will finish. Thus better not start at all.

Ed Miliband, leader of the opposition, sent an email message to all Labor members, explaining that in a few days there would be a debate in Parliament regarding Syria, and that he wanted a feel for Labor members’ preferences. Miliband asked several questions: first, whether or not Britain should attack Syria, yes or no. For those who answered yes, more questions were asked: whether Britain should wait until the UN special inquiry mission, at that time still in Syria, was allowed to leave prior to the attack; whether Britain should wait until the UN special inquiry mission published its report; and finally, as Assad claimed it was the rebels who used chemical weapons, whether Britain should await confirmation it was indeed Assad who used chemical weapons before attacking the Alawite regime.

EVEN PEOPLE who principally support attacking the brutal Alawite regime would concede that Britain should not be rushed into action before getting concrete assurances Assad was behind the chemical attack. And surely the public would not like to risk the lives of UN officials. Time should be allowed for them to leave Syria.

Cameron, who sought quick affirmation, realized he had made a gross mistake. Unsurprisingly, not only did all the Labor MPs oppose the attack, Miliband was able to convince enough coalition members that quick attack was unwarranted.

Cameron’s motion was defeated. Cameron was humiliated. Miliband gained many brownie points for his political astuteness. It was a political triumph for Labor and very sad news for the Syrian opposition.

Cameron’s miscalculation also affected the Obama administration. As his defeat made global headlines, Obama, too, felt compelled to seek legislative support prior the attack. Momentum was lost. Presidential authority was eroded. Unlike Cameron, Obama did not have to do this, but the circumstances were such that Obama was put on the spot. Again, the president showed short-sightedness, as he did not think two steps ahead and realized only too late that he actually did not enjoy the support of his own party. Facing similar humiliation to that of Cameron, Obama sought a way out, and thus accepted the Russian compromise.

If Obama had served 10 years in the Senate prior to becoming president, and not merely two, he would not have acted so carelessly. Inexperience was a major factor in his flawed decision-making process. This sorry episode testifies also to the political astuteness (or lack thereof) of Obama’s senior advisers, who apparently do not understand British politics, and were unable to assess correctly the legislatures’ mood on Capitol Hill.

THE SYRIAN conflict continues. Assad and the rebels are intent to continue fighting; each side still believes in its own resilience and that it will eventually win. Thus more bloodshed is assured. It would take just one artillery barrage, that might kill a hundred women and children, to prompt Obama to assert his presidential power and launch an attack on the Alawite regime. Nothing has been finalized. This crisis is likely to linger for a long time, and one mistake, one extraordinary tragedy, might be a game changer.

The writer is chairman in politics and director of the Middle East Studies Group at the University of Hull. He is a member of the UK Labor Party.

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