Barack Obama looked like about the most isolated man on earth Friday. At his closing news conference at the G-20 Summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, an apparently exhausted president lamented that all the world’s good and great — from the U.N. to the pope — were lining up against him, and that it was his lonely lot to prevent international law from “unraveling” over Bashar al-Assad’s flagrant use of chemical weapons. “When there’s a breach this brazen of a norm this important and the international community is paralyzed and frozen and doesn’t act, then that norm begins to unravel,” Obama said. “And if that norm unravels, then other norms and prohibitions start unraveling. And that makes for a more dangerous world.”
But Obama’s words are finding few listeners, either abroad or at home. Domestically it is looking more and more that Obama made a potentially devastating mistake in going to a Congress that has thwarted so many of his plans in the past. His own Democrats, as Obama acknowledged in St. Petersburg, are proving at least as much trouble in supporting a resolution to attack Syria as the Republicans. As of this weekend, the president appeared to be losing the vote tally, at least in the House. If any House vote goes against him and he strikes any way, he could face a renewed and distracting (if ultimately unsuccessful) impeachment drive from the hard right. If, on the other hand, Obama backs down from his pledge to attack Syria, he could easily lose all credibility abroad — and with Iran threatening to violate the nuclear “norm.” “I knew this was going to be a heavy lift,” Obama said Friday, again rather wearily.
Administration officials now realize that the biggest obstacle on the Hill is not so much proving what Assad did it as making clear what they will do about it without dragging a war-weary nation into yet another extended conflict. They are pushing all-out to make the case that the president can deliver a limited but effective strike against Assad.
Perhaps, picking up on the president’s words Friday, they would do better to expand the case dramatically beyond Syria. The issue at stake is no longer just whether Bashar al-Assad will be allowed to get away with breaking an international “norm.” It is also what message the world will be sending to Assad’s next-door neighbor and ally, Iran. If Obama is forced to back down on Syria, Iran will get an enormous boost in confidence that no one will dare thwart its stealthy efforts to build a nuclear bomb.
Despite the election of a supposedly moderate president, the latest International Atomic Energy Agency report on Iran, which the organization’s board of governors will take up in Vienna next week, shows that Tehran has continued to build up its nuclear capabilities.
Obama’s in this difficult fix, of course, only because he is in the unenviable position of being forced to enforce multilateralism unilaterally (except for the French, that is). He is trying to shore up the U.S.-led multilateral global system, one that was badly damaged by his predecessor’s unilateral thrust into Iraq and the global financial crisis that Wall Street precipitated on George W. Bush’s watch, and which is in a state of near-dissolution now. History suggests that without the leadership of a dominant power — in this case the U.S., because there is no one else — autarky reins. If “norms” for use of WMD use go, the global system of open trade and peaceful relations may follow.
Perhaps Obama’s greatest frustration was revealed in the comments he made about the irony of being seen as a warmonger. “I was elected to end wars, not start ‘em,” Obama said. “I spent the last four and a half years to reduce our reliance on military power.” Indeed, before being confronted with Syria’s chemical weapons use, Obama had been leading an effort to effectively de-militarize American foreign policy. He stood against some of his senior advisors in avoiding any involvement in the Syrian civil war, despite cries for humanitarian intervention. In a major speech in May at the National Defense University, the president even indicated that he was downgrading anti-terrorism from a war to a police enforcement action. It’s time to narrow and de-emphasize the global war against al-Qaida, Obama said, the better to focus on “nation-building at home,” his favorite theme. American deployments will go back to the meager presence we had pre-9/11, because, Obama said, “the future of terrorism” will be a smaller-scale “threat that closely resembles the types of attacks we faced before 9/11.”
Now even his own military is lining up against him, writes retired Maj. Gen. Robert Scales in The Washington Post. “Go back and look at images of our nation’s most senior soldier, Gen. Martin Dempsey, and his body language during Tuesday’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings on Syria,” Scales wrote in an op-ed Friday. “It’s pretty obvious that Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, doesn’t want this war. As Secretary of State John Kerry’s thundering voice and arm-waving redounded in rage against Bashar al-Assad’s atrocities, Dempsey was largely (and respectfully) silent. Dempsey’s unspoken words reflect the opinions of most serving military leaders.”
The lonely president has one more chance to win over his country and the world, in a prime-time speech Tuesday night. To give Obama a little bit of company, the White House released a joint statement on Syria signed by 10 allies: Australia, Canada, France, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Turkey and the United Kingdom. But the statement fell short of endorsing a military strike, calling only for “a strong international response.”
Sometimes, it’s not so good to be the king, or the president.