The Lowy Interpreter

By Gorana Grgic

For a former US Senator who said he opposed dumb wars, President Barack Obama's recent efforts to mobilise support for a military intervention which would have only modest positive effects, at best (and calamitous ones, at worst), are hard to comprehend.

One of the most striking facets of the Obama Administration's response to the Syrian regime's alleged use of chemical weapons against its own people is the ad hoc nature of the proposed course(s) of action. Unless this really is the strategy (one which escapes the understanding of many analysts), it appears the White House has made a series of diplomatic blunders over the past couple of weeks.

For one thing, because Obama could not count on support from the UN Security Council or even America’s closest ally, it looked like the Syria strike would be another act of the 'imperial presidency'. So it came as something of a surprise that he eventually decided to seek congressional authorisation for the plan to take military action against al-Assad's regime. Some have seen this as a strategic move by Obama. By throwing the ball into Congress' court, potential inaction would make the legislature the instant culprit.

The problem with the dichotomous response of either bombing or backing away has been widely criticised as simply a poor use of the available diplomatic solutions. Which is where the off the cuff remark made by the US Secretary of State John Kerry comes in to play. How is it possible that in the past year, ever since the unfortunate 'red line' strategy emerged, there was no attempt to make surrendering the chemical weapons one of the key points of negotiation?

However, what seemed a plausible alternative was quickly dismissed by the White House as hypothetical policy since, it was argued, Syria would not cooperate anyway. But in another turn of events, in a nationally televised speech President Obama has just committed to seeking diplomatic solution with the P5 members of the UN Security Council in order to seize Assad's chemical weapons. He thus asked for postponement of congressional vote on the use of force, though he did not rule out military action should diplomacy fail.

This confusion has left the Obama Administration in a position where all the options are damnable. The hawks will interpret the return to multilateral diplomacy as weak, and if it fails, the doves will again object to military action.

On the other hand, the US commitment to approaching the negotiating table could, at least in the short run, be interpreted as a win for the Syrian regime, which has temporarily averted a military strike. It could also be seen as an even greater win for Syria's patron Russia, since it managed to elicit a policy change from what was initially the US Secretary of State's verbal slip-up.

While there is no doubt that the heuristic nature of US approach to Syrian crisis might have yielded some unintended positive consequences, one can only hope that the White House proceeds with a clearer strategy in the weeks to come. Otherwise, we are bound to see more surprises.

This article was originally published at the Lowy Interpreter