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
Once he decided to attack Syria, the first phone call was to
America’s closest ally, the United Kingdom.
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
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
Obama did not understand that while he can strike whenever he
wishes, Cameron simply cannot; he needs time to orchestrate political
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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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