The anti-government insurgency in Syria was given an intoxicating vision of triumph by the words President Obama spoke in August 2011 that were translated, correctly, into the headline ‘Assad must go.’ He had earlier conveyed similar messages: ‘Mubarak must go’ and ‘Gaddafi must go.’ Obama may have entertained the idea that he was playing a benign role in the Arab Spring – showing himself ‘on the right side of history’, as he likes to say. ‘Assad must go’ also sounded as if he was channelling the spirit of George W. Bush; but that impression may have been misleading. Obama has a fondness for debonair or solemnly spoken asides that come back to worry him. In February 2010, at the height of the pressure for government action against the ‘banksters’ who drove the financial collapse of 2008, he answered a question about the CEOs Lloyd Blankfein (of Goldman Sachs) and Jamie Dimon (of J.P. Morgan Chase): ‘I know both those guys: they are very savvy businessmen.’ Obama was trying to prove himself a comfortable insider, close enough to Wall Street to impress the big movers but sufficiently detached to deserve the public trust. It did not work. The comment lost him a degree of public confidence and relieved the culprits of a salutary fear. This summer, after an unsatisfactory encounter with Vladimir Putin, Obama said: ‘I know the press likes to focus on body language, and he’s got that kind of slouch, looking like the bored kid in the back of the classroom.’ That was a remark to file away for your memoirs – if you think it truly witty and worth saving – but improper coming from a statesman in a description of another world leader.

After 56 months of the Obama presidency, there can be no doubt that Barack Obama likes to talk. He thinks Americans and others are eager to hear what he has to say, on many subjects; and in keeping with that perception, he said in August 2012 about the civil war in Syria: ‘A red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilised. That would change my calculus.’ He gave another version, in March, of the same asseveration: the use of chemical weapons by Assad would be ‘a game changer’. These, too, were undiplomatic comments. A clearer invitation could scarcely be imagined by anyone who had an interest in drawing the US into the war. When evidence of the use of chemical weapons in Syria emerged this year, first in March near Aleppo, then in August near Damascus, the forces pressing for American involvement called at once for a change of policy. What exactly are those forces? One of the largest and the least talked of in the US has been Saudi Arabia. If it is necessary to supply weapons and money to jihadists to weaken Syria, and thereby to weaken Iran as well, the Saudis have shown that they are willing to do such things. Turkey and Qatar also support the rebellion for reasons of political advantage; and Israel is interested in prolonging the war, though not in assuring the victory of jihadists. It makes Israel shine more brightly as America’s sole reliable partner in a region sinking into devastation. A New York Times story on 5 September offered this disclosure by a former Israeli diplomat, referring to the jihadist rebels and Assad government forces: ‘Let them both bleed, haemorrhage to death: that’s the strategic thinking here. As long as this lingers, there’s no real threat from Syria.’

After the reports of gassing in March, Obama agreed, for the first time in public, to send US arms to support ‘well-vetted’ groups within the Syrian insurgency. After the August incident, when far more deaths were recorded, he announced his conclusion that Assad had ordered the attack and that US missiles would soon ‘punish’ the infraction by striking significant government targets. At the same time Obama insisted that he did not want to alter the disposition of the war by an exertion of US military might. He had in view nothing more than a deserved punishment. This formulation seemed to betray his continuing reluctance, even as it showed once more that Obama could be goadedto act against his inclinations while justifying the decision in his own moral terms.

Nobody doubts that an attack took place. Nobody yet knows with reasonable certainty who ordered it. Assad had the ability but, since he was winning the war and such a move was plainly suicidal, his arrival at such a decision is hard to make sense of. The rebels are said to lack the ability to use poison gas, though there are reports that they have come into possession of some chemical weapons; but a false-flag operation would have required a degree of successful dissimulation and wickedness that is equally hard to make sense of. The American secretary of state, John Kerry, obscured the issue in late August by asking for UN inspectors and then warning them off because the US intended to bomb immediately. This brought echoes of Bush in Iraq in 2003, and Kerry countermanded his own prohibition; but, surprisingly, he asserted that any findings by UN inspectors would carry no weight with him.

The unclassified four-page intelligence summary he released to the public – according to Congressman Alan Grayson, the 12-page classified document is no different in this respect – speaks from the position of ‘We [the US government]’. The reason for the unusual grammar is that the document does not come from the American intelligence community. The Inter Press Service journalist Gareth Porter, piecing together the vague and generic evidence, the omissions and the grammar delivered by Kerry, reported on 9 September that the absence of the signature of James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, from the Kerry document was a significant detail. Clapper evidently had refused to sign off because the data had been cherry-picked (as Colin Powell’s had been for his UN presentation in February 2003). Kerry gave 1429 as a sure figure for the number of deaths in the August attack, but the figure is unexplained and at variance with first-hand reports: French intelligence estimated 281 deaths and Médecins Sans Frontières 355. The Kerry document was effectively discredited in less than a week, but only below the radar of the mainstream press and policy establishment. On the basis of a tissue of far-fetched inferences and assumptions, in which the most solid datum is a single radio intercept – a recording of a disturbed commander of Syrian forces given to the US by Israeli intelligence – Obama declared his intention to order an attack, and then asked Congress to authorise the use of force under wide discretion: he would be empowered to act in any way he deemed necessary to ‘respond to’, ‘deter’ and ‘degrade’ the military and defensive capabilities of the Syrian government. These are all words without a settled meaning, and they were chosen for that reason. To an amazing degree Obama’s request for authorisation of September 2013 resembles Bush’s request of October 2002.

The talk of ‘punishing’ Assad affected a stance of parental discipline and avoided the language of international law. This was not an accident. An attack on a sovereign state by another state that has not been attacked is a violation of international law. As for punishment, it is something a country may legally enforce on its own citizens, but it does not express a possible relation of one country to another. To make the obvious analogy: a parent may say ‘Go to your room’ to a child, but not ‘You must go’ to an undesirable neighbour. Obama often seems genuinely confused by the requirement that he not cross these idioms with too free a hand. Early in the crisis, he tried to work around the law by a rhetorical stratagem: the United States and its allies, in punishing a gas attack on Syrians which had surely been ordered by Assad, would be ‘enforcing international norms’. ‘International norms’ is a phrase we are hearing a lot. A world without norms (the implication seems to be) is a world in chaos. Given the refusal of Russia to shelve its veto at the UN and take on trust French, British and American assurances that Assad ordered the attack, who will enforce such norms? Who if not the United States?

Many forces within American politics were at work in pressing Obama towards war. A pair of Republican senators, Lindsey Graham and John McCain, have been given extraordinary prominence by the mainstream media as experts on foreign policy. They lead the militarised wing of the Republican Party, in spite of some defections from Tea Party renegades and freelance libertarians. And many Democrats have kept their doubts to themselves because they don’t want to oppose their president. It was only when the House of Commons voted against war that American war policy was made to hesitate. The president and his team were deeply discouraged by that vote. The people and their representatives took a slow breath; and the policy began to be questioned more broadly. What could be the meaning of a ‘limited and tailored’ strike (a characteristic Obama phrase) which would also exact a painful toll?

This self-contradictory presentation was partly owing to another of the forces urging American ‘punishment’, namely the advocates of humanitarian war, and chief among them the president’s national security adviser, Susan Rice. Her stance differs very little from that of her predecessor Condoleezza Rice (no relation), but they developed their inside credentials on distinct paths: Condoleezza Rice as an academic with expertise on Soviet strategy; Susan Rice from a steady ascent in the policy elite with an advertised vocation-of-conscience to prevent ‘another Rwanda’. The domestic campaign for an American attack was marked by a notable innovation from the humanitarian war brokers: messages sent on Twitter by Rice and the US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, to advance through outside influence the aims they were pursuing within the administration.

These are people Obama has recently appointed and expressed admiration for. Yet in obeying them and their recent disciple, John Kerry, he was ignoring other voices in the administration that might have carried tremendous weight. The joint chiefs of staff of the armed forces are opposed to intervention in Syria. The chairman of the joint chiefs, General Martin Dempsey, has said over many months why he thinks such an attack is dangerous. It serves no purpose except to prolong the civil war, and it exposes American regional assets to retaliation, in Afghanistan, Libya and elsewhere. (Susan Rice spearheaded the campaign to enlist the US along with Nato to overthrow the government of Libya. It is possible that Obama still regards the Libya war as a success, but that illusion is not shared by the armed forces or by the foreign service.) Dempsey’s testimony before the Senate and the House of Representatives was given with an efficient demeanour, but it was the reverse of reassuring: in one pointed moment he refused to predict the future effects of a limited attack; while the secretary of defence, Chuck Hagel, seemed to be answering questions in a haze of disbelief. Together, these two formed an impressive contrast with the secretary of state who sat beside them. Kerry seemed to experience a renewal of blustering certitude with every answer he supplied.

Yet Kerry has been only the most peculiarly wired mechanism for the selling of an incoherent policy. ‘I still can’t get over John Kerry bragging yesterday,’ said the conservative radio demagogue Rush Limbaugh, ‘that some Middle Eastern countries have offered to pay for our attack on Syria. I mean, it’s bad enough being the world’s policeman, but who wants to be the world’s rent-a-cop? What is so wonderful about that? … What are we, a welfare case now?’ Maybe the worst trouble of a government in disarray is that it makes people think twice about all its policies.

At the end of August, with or without Britain, the US was poised for war. But public opinion was shifting towards a comfortless scepticism – the ratio of three to two against an attack had risen, by the second week of September, to more than two to one against. It was in the middle of this shift that the president decided to send the question to Congress and ask them to share his responsibility. Congress, however, soon began to reflect the public mood. The referral by Obama suggested that he wanted more time to think, and that he didn’t want to be outdone by Britain in following the procedures of constitutional government; though he added, incongruously, that (unlike Cameron) he wouldn’t be bound by the vote of Congress. This was private ambivalence on public display. But there was an exhilarated mood in those early September days, the mood of a democracy looking at itself. John McCain was accused of recklessness at a town meeting in Arizona by a woman with a Syrian cousin. Senator Rand Paul, the white libertarian from Kentucky, and Congressman Elijah Cummings, the black liberal from Baltimore, reported alike that the people they saw in their home districts were opposed to an attack by almost a hundred to one. The president and his secretary of state, and with them a large section of the policy elite, had approved an effort to overthrow by military intervention a fourth government in the Middle East, after Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. With an unmistakable voice the American people were saying no.

Even so, in the first week of September, Obama and Kerry appeared to stand behind both the ambitious and the minimal versions of their meditated attack. A decisive and damaging strike lasting many days: that was the version apparently offered by the president to Graham and McCain. On the other hand, the strike envisaged by Kerry, in remarks to the British press on 9 September, would encompass ‘a very limited, very targeted, short-term effort … That is exactly what we are talking about doing – unbelievably small, limited kind of effort.’ The confusion didn’t rest there; as recently as his speech to the nation on 10 September, Obama contradicted Kerry and said the attack would not be only a pinprick, adding gravely: ‘The United States military doesn’t do pinpricks.’

On 9 September, Kerry had let fall a remark that turned out to be consequential. The only way for Assad to avert an American attack would be to give up all his chemical weapons for international oversight and eventual dismantling; of course, Kerry added, that isn’t going to happen. But Putin chose that moment to enter the scene. It might in fact happen, he declared, because Syria would submit to international inspection and confiscation of its chemical weapons under an agreement Russia would facilitate; his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, instantly produced a diplomatic plan he had been working on for months. The White House and State Department have done all they could to take credit for the development, but the notion of a concerted stratagem by Kerry-Lavrov is hardly credible. It would mean that the president had purposely embarked on an ordeal that would embarrass his administration, humiliate himself and place the world at the brink of war, for the sake of a surprise he knew was going to be sprung at just the right moment. The unlooked-for rescue by Putin allowed the president to withdraw his request for a congressional vote – this after having made sure the vote would take place on the anniversary of 11 September. He was on the way to defeat in the House of Representatives, and possibly even in the Senate.

On 10 September the president addressed the nation. He used more of his time to justify the attack he was shelving than to explain the new course to which he is now committed, and it was a baffling speech in other ways too: pleading and denouncing by turns, imparting the lesson that love of peace must sometimes involve us in war, reiterating the imperative of building up the United States at home yet taking care to invoke the Holocaust. It closed with a conventional appeal to national self-love: we stand alone in the world, the president said. We are the ‘exceptional’ nation. ‘For nearly seven decades the United States has been the anchor of global security.’ The following day, the New York Times ran an editorial by Putin which expressed his hope that Americans would choose to avoid a wider war. He spoke of Obama considerately. ‘I would rather disagree,’ Putin wrote, ‘with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’s policy is “what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.” It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.’ A dry truth, from a questionable source, but impossible to deny. A nation that supposes itself an exception to the standards observed by others is a good deal like a person who thinks himself an exception.

Another switch by Obama appears unlikely for the time being. But mere passive attendance on the Russian proposals, saying yes to some, no to some and to others ‘We’ll think about it’, will expose his administration to the charge of ‘leading from behind’ (as he boasted of doing in Libya). Diplomacy is relatively new to this president, but now he has no other choice. Nor can he afford to give away the delicate work to the persons who clamoured loudest for an attack. He will have to work hard to counteract the pressure to bomb Iran that never stops coming from Israel and its American lobby. To delegate large responsibilities of government may be compatible with a show of humility – it seemed to work that way for Reagan – but there are settings in which it is an attitude not easily distinguished from irresponsibility. Obama was asked in December 2011 to name a personal fault and replied that the fault for which he would criticise himself was laziness. Again (as with his remarks on Putin and the CEOs), a thing perhaps better left unsaid. But this would be an excellent moment to reform: a time for personal commitment in the making of policy, accompanied by fewer speeches, unscripted remarks and interviews; an occasion for energetic activity with partners besides France, Britain and Israel. If he wants to stand as the equal of Putin in diplomacy and his superior in the practice of self-government, he might use the moment, too, to reconsider the extraordinary secrecy of his own administration in matters affecting security and foreign policy.

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