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Obama unlikely to win support on SyriaHis consensus-building strategy is akin to Bush the First's, but the US, Mid-East and world today are different from 1990Leon Hadar, Washington Correspondent06 September 2013Anti-war critics who compare US President Barack Obama's plans to launch a military strike against Syria to that of his predecessor George W Bush seem to be flabbergasted by his strategy.After all, candidate Obama was running in both the Democratic presidential primaries as well as in the general election against his Republican rival John McCain in 2007 by blasting Mr Bush's decision to go to war in Iraq as part of a strategy to oust then-president Saddam Hussein whom the White House accused of acquiring weapons of mass destruction.In particular, candidate Obama attacked Mr Bush's decision to go to war on the basis of flimsy intelligence about Iraq and lacking strong public and international support. He also criticised the plan by Mr Bush and his neo-conservative advisers for a "regime change" in Baghdad and to try to establish a democratic-liberal system on the banks of the Euphrates and advance an ambitious Freedom Agenda in the Greater Middle East.As president, Mr Obama pledged he would resort to using US military power only when core national security interests are threatened and only after mobilising the support of a clear majority of the American people and establishing a wide and effective multilateral coalition led by Washington.So isn't President Obama now violating his earlier commitments by considering a military attack against another Middle Eastern dictator, Syria's Bashar al-Assad, whose country doesn't pose any threat to America? Is the intelligence that the White House is now employing to justify its war in the Levant more reliable than that that was provided to Mr Bush before the war in Iraq?Mr Assad, like Saddam, is clearly a "bad guy" who represses his people. But if candidate Obama didn't think that justified taking military action against Saddam, why isn't he following his own advice when it comes to Mr Assad?Moreover, more than 60 per cent of Americans, according to the recent opinion polls, are opposed to even a limited "surgical" strike against Syria, while a similar percentage of Americans had initially backed Mr Bush's decision to invade Iraq. And in the case of Syria, even America's traditional ally, Britain, is unwilling to take part in a US-led military action against that country.While such criticism of Mr Obama on the anti-war left and the anti-interventionist right cannot be dismissed outright, it's also important to stress that notwithstanding his harsh attacks against Mr Bush's disastrous military adventure in Iraq, Mr Obama didn't portray himself in 2007 as an "anti-war candidate". In fact, he emphasised several times during the campaign and after being elected to office that he believed that the United States had the right and the obligation to use its military power in a limited way, and sometimes to declare a war against a country that threatened its security.In any case, Mr Obama and his top foreign policy and national security advisers - Secretary of State John Kerry and Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel - have stressed that unlike in the case of the war in Iraq, the current occupant of the White House has no plans to oust Mr Assad or to invade Syria. There would be no "American boots on the ground" and the US would not get dragged into another open-ended military commitment in the Middle East. They want to persuade the American public to back what the Obama administration had described as a series of limited attacks against government and military targets in Syria in order to punish its regime for using chemical weapons and to ensure that it won't do it again.
Mr Obama was not asking Congressional backing to "go to war", as Mr Kerry put it during a Senate hearing on Wednesday, a part of the White House's political strategy to win a resolution from Congress for a military action.Mr Obama and his aides had initially contended that the White House didn't need Congressional approval for a limited military strike in Syria and was planning to launch it over the weekend. But in the aftermath of the British Parliament's vote against participation in such a military operation and against the backdrop of scepticism about the military plans, Mr Obama decided to postpone the strike and ask lawmakers to debate the issue and decide whether to support a strike against Syria.While Mr Obama would not face any strong opposition to the move in the Democratic-controlled Senate, the House of Representatives could pose more of a challenge to him. Among Republicans, who dominate the House, there is a growing number of lawmakers who have become critical of the US military interventions abroad and they could join anti-war Democratic lawmakers in rejecting the White House's strategy, although that seems to be an unlikely scenario - at this stage.In any case, Obama administration officials tend to dismiss Mr Bush's Iraq war analogy and argue that by going after Mr Assad, Mr Obama has embraced an approach more akin to George H W Bush's strategy of carefully building a consensus at home and abroad than Bush the Second's with his slogan: "You are either with us or against us".If that is indeed the case, bombing Syria in the same way that the Bush the First bombed Iraq in the first Gulf war would require more than just the support of the American public and Congress. Bush the First succeeded in forming a large and effective coalition that included Nato, the Arab League and many other military partners.But America, the Middle East and the world today are very different from what they were in 1990. At that time, just as the Cold War was coming to an end the US enjoyed enormous international support and its status and credibility as the world's only remaining superpower was seen to be unchallenged worldwide and in the Middle East where the Soviet Union was gradually losing its influence.More importantly, the decision by Saddam to invade and annex Kuwait was seen as a clear violation of the United Nations' Charter and the rules of the Arab League, and also as a potential threat to the access to the oil resources in the region as well as to America's allies Saudi Arabia and Israel.Mr Assad doesn't pose a similar grave challenge to the international order and to the interests of the US and the West. What is taking place in Syria is a civil war among sectarian and ethnic groups that may affect the balance of power between Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states and Iran and its Shiite supporters.But the ability of the US to affect the outcome of this civil war is limited and it's not even clear that the collapse of Mr Assad and his regime would strengthen US interests since he could be replaced by radical anti-American Islamist forces. More than that, even a limited military strike in Syria could force the Americans to become more involved in the sectarian war there.Even more significant are the consequences of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that not only weakened the US military but also eroded its influence in the Middle East, and make it less likely that Mr Obama could bring Nato and the Arab League into an anti-Assad coalition a la Bush the First's anti-Saddam alliance.At the same time, as the international system loses its post-Cold War unipolar make-up and is becoming more multipolar, other global players such as Russia and China are more willing to challenge US policies in the Middle East, including in Syria, that seem to run contrary to their interests.
It's not inconceivable that Mr Obama, who will be attending the G-20 Summit in St Petersburg, Russia this week, would be able to make a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin - who is Mr Assad's main global patron - to force the Syrian leader out of power. Or short of that, Mr Obama would try to win support from other leaders taking part in the summit for a military action in Syria.Mr Obama's strongest argument in support for such action is the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime, that is a violation of international law. That Mr Obama stated in the past that such Syrian action would amount to "red lines" requiring US response would be the main reason Congress would probably give him a green light to punish Mr Assad. But it is doubtful that would be enough to convince the rest of the world to do the same.
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