Obama’s Hamlet Act

As recently as two days ago, it looked as if strikes would commence this weekend. Yesterday, though, the president announced that he would seek permission from Congress, which won’t be back in town for more than a week.

This Hamlet act is drawing jeers from friend and foe alike.

David Sanger, chief Washington correspondent for the NYT, says the president is “tripping on his own red line.”

Mr. Obama’s own caution about foreign interventions put him in this box. Horrific as the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack was, it was no more horrific than the conventional attacks that caused the deaths of 100,000 Syrians. Those prompted only a minimal American response — international condemnations, some sporadic arms shipments for a ragtag group of rebels, and an understandable reluctance by an American president to get on the same side of the civil war as Al Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Now the crossing of the red line has forced Mr. Obama’s hand. He says he is intervening to stop the use of a specific weapon whose use in World War I shocked the world. But he is not intervening to stop the mass killing, or to remove the man behind those attacks. “This is not like the Bush decision in 2003,” Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, said on Thursday. “That intervention was aimed at regime change. This is designed to restore an international norm” against the use of poison gases.

It is a major difference. But the limitation on the use of force may also prove a paralyzing one, undercutting the long-term success of the application of American firepower. That has been the chief critique of those who argue that the only thing worse than getting America entangled in another Arab uprising whose inner dynamics we barely understand is to get involved in one and make no difference.

Trudy Rubin, columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, is frustrated by the “dithering.”

Obama’s public dithering is confusing both his allies and his foes. “He seems unable to make difficult decisions,” says Hisham Melhem, the veteran Washington bureau chief of Al Arabiya news channel. “This will embolden Assad and the opposition jihadis and demoralize the secular, moderate Syrian opposition. Obama is gambling with his reputation at home and abroad.”

Why Obama is seeking congressional cover this late in the day is perplexing. He didn’t ask Congress for permission when he backed the NATO operation in Libya in 2011, but he may be feeling lonely after British lawmakers rebuffed their government’s plan to cooperate in the strike.

Now with U.S. ships at the ready in the Mediterranean, there will be days more of debate over should-we, shouldn’t we. If Congress votes no – which is entirely possible – Obama will be humiliated at home and abroad.

What’s so depressing about this whole mess is that the real rationale for any strike on Syria was to rescue Obama’s credibility – especially with Tehran. The use of chemical weapons does violate a hard-won international taboo, and the president has said repeatedly over the past year that Syrian use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line.” Last month’s hideous gas attack came after several previous small ones had gone unpunished; this time the president had to react with more than rhetoric.

The NYT’s Mark Landler offers these insights into Obama’s about face:

President Obama’s aides were stunned at what their boss had to say when he summoned them to the Oval Office on Friday at 7 p.m., on the eve of what they believed could be a weekend when American missiles streaked again across the Middle East.

In a two-hour meeting of passionate, sharp debate in the Oval Office, he told them that after a frantic week in which he seemed to be rushing toward a military attack on Syria, he wanted to pull back and seek Congressional approval first.

He had several reasons, he told them, including a sense of isolation after the terrible setback in the British Parliament. But the most compelling one may have been that acting alone would undercut him if in the next three years he needed Congressional authority for his next military confrontation in the Middle East, perhaps with Iran.

If he made the decision to strike Syria without Congress now, he said, would he get Congress when he really needed it?

“He can’t make these decisions divorced from the American public and from Congress,” said a senior aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the deliberations. “Who knows what we’re going to face in the next three and a half years in the Middle East?”

The Oval Office meeting ended one of the strangest weeks of the Obama administration, in which a president who had drawn a “red line” against the use of chemical weapons, and watched Syrian military forces breach it with horrific consequences, found himself compelled to act by his own statements. But Mr. Obama, who has been reluctant for the past two years to get entangled in Syria, had qualms from the start.

Even as he steeled himself for an attack this past week, two advisers said, he nurtured doubts about the political and legal justification for action, given that the United Nations Security Council had refused to bless a military strike that he had not put before Congress. A drumbeat of lawmakers demanding a vote added to the sense that he could be out on a limb.

Presumably, Obama didn’t expect the British parliament to reject intervention, removing America’s historical ally on the outside of the coalition. That could have been a game changer for two reasons. First, it was a serious blow to the cloak of international legitimacy to an operation lacking the imprimatur of either the UN Security Council or NATO. Second, it might reasonably thrown a splash of cold water into the “we must do something” groupthink. If even the Brits think this is a bad idea, maybe it is.

Additionally, outside experts have had a chance to weigh in on the risks involved. CFR’s Steven A. Cook, who urged serious consideration of intervention in January 2012, argues that the situation on the ground has now deteriorated to the point where an intervention would destroy Syria.

Assad would remain defiant in the face of an attack. It is not as if he is constrained now, but he would probably step up the violence both to exert control within his country and to demonstrate that the United States and its allies cannot intimidate him. At the same time, the regime’s Iranian patrons and Hezbollah supporters would increase their investment in the conflict, meaning more weapons and more fighters pouring into Syria — resulting in more atrocities. And on the other side, Syrian opposition groups would welcome a steady stream of foreign fighters who care more about killing Alawites and Shiites than the fate of the country. This environment would heighten Syria’s substantial sectarian, ethnic and political divisions, pulling the country apart.

The formidable U.S. armed forces could certainly damage Assad’s considerably less potent military. But in an astonishing irony that only the conflict in Syria could produce, American and allied cruise missiles would be degrading the capability of the regime’s military units to the benefit of the al-Qaeda-linked militants fighting Assad — the same militants whom U.S. drones are attacking regularly in places such as Yemen. Military strikes would also complicate Washington’s longer-term desire to bring stability to a country that borders Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Israel.

Unlike Yugoslavia, which ripped itself apart in the 1990s, Syria has no obvious successor states, meaning there would be violence and instability in the heart of the Middle East for many years to come.

Further, as Sanger observes,

[T]he sharply limited goals Mr. Obama has described in explaining his rationale for taking military action now — “a shot across the bow” to halt future chemical attacks, he told PBS — pose risks of their own. If President Bashar al-Assad emerges from a few days of Tomahawk missile barrages relatively unscathed, he will be able to claim that he faced down not only his domestic opponents but the United States, which he has charged is the secret hand behind the uprising.

In the words of one recently departed senior adviser to Mr. Obama, “the worst outcome would be making Assad look stronger.”

Of course, backing out of military strikes that the administration spent days broadcasting to enforce a “red line” that Obama himself drew and has told us has been crossed repeatedly also makes Assad look stronger. Certainly, it makes Obama look weaker. But when all available options are bad, there’s no way to choose a good one. And it’s quite possible that the fallout from backing out of a boldly declared bad policy will be less than carrying out the bad policy. Then again, it’s conceivable that the president will ultimately carry out said policy, anyway, and also look weak and foolish for having hemmed and hawed so publicly.

Related Experts: James Joyner

Image: (Photo: White House)