Last March, US President Barack Obama spoke about how Syria’s use of chemical weapons would be a “game-changer.” It has, except not quite in the sense that he meant. It has been an event that has confused and confounded the Obama administration.
Whatever your views on the larger issues, it’s hard not to conclude that the administration’s handling of Syria over the last year has been a case study in how not to do foreign policy.
The president started out with an understanding that the Syrian conflict is a messy sectarian struggle that cannot be influenced easily by American military intervention. He was disciplined in resisting calls to jump into a cauldron. But from the start he confused and undermined this policy with loose rhetoric, perhaps egged on by some of his advisors and critics to “do something.”
So he announced just over two years ago that President Bashar al-Assad of Syria had to go. Now a pundit can engage in grandiose speech. The US president should make declarations like this only if he has some strategy to actually achieve them. He did not.
In truth, Obama — and many others — miscalculated. They believed that al-Assad’s regime was near the end, misreading both its strength and brutality, but also the level of support it has from several segments of Syria.
Then, just about a year ago, came the off-the-cuff remarks about a red line on chemical weapons, insufficiently thought through but now publicly stated and definitive. Since then, American foreign policy in Syria has largely been concerned about ensuring that Obama’s threat does not seem empty. It has been a complicated dance.
But what American national interest is being followed? The administration says it is upholding international law. Except, as Fred Kaplan pointed out in Slate this week, the institutions that embody international law and consensus — the United Nations and other international organisations — do not support this action. The US plus France and Turkey cannot be considered the embodiment of international law and global public opinion.
The nature of the strike, we are told, will be short and symbolic — a shot across the bow. In the midst of a civil war in which both sides are in a high-stakes struggle for survival, does anyone think that this will make any difference?
And then, the strangest twist — an unplanned, last minute appeal to Congress, paving the way for further delay, weakening momentum, erasing what little surprise existed, and setting the stage for a potential defeat at home.
I don’t think that this strike, should it eventually take place, will be as damaging as its critics fear. The al-Assad regime will likely hunker down, take it, and move on. It will make little difference one way or the other. But the manner in which the Obama administration has first created and then mismanaged this crisis will, alas, cast a long shadow on America’s role in the world.
Fareed Zakaria is the host of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS
The views expressed by the author are personal