ABC The Drum

President Obama's uncertainty and mixed messages over what to do in Syria have damaged American credibility and highlighted the limits of Washington's power in a post-Iraq world, writes

As many as 110,000 people have died since Syria erupted into a civil war in early 2011.

During that time, Barack Obama has made many assertive, prestige-committing moves against the Assad regime. Yet he has prevailed nowhere.

Two years ago, the president called for regime change in Damascus. A year ago, he warned that any use of chemical weapons would cross a "red line", hence raising the likelihood of US intervention. And in recent weeks he has been calling on the US Congress and the American people to give him authorisation to use military force against the Syrian dictatorship in response to the chemical weapons attack on August 21.

And yet today, the President called for a diplomatic pause to the congressional votes on whether to authorise military force in Syria.

As I put it on ABC24 a few hours ago, Obama is a bit like the weak cowboy who has walked into a gunfight at the OK Corral, fiddled endlessly with his holster, but either turned down a back alley to hide or pulled out an air pistol and shot himself in the foot.

The result is that American credibility and prestige have been dissipated and squandered with irresponsible abandon. The Russian proposal to encourage the Syrians to hand over to the UN the very chemical weapons they had until recently denied having amounts to a lifeline to Obama and at the same time makes President Putin look like a peacemaker.

Never mind that it is in Moscow’s interest for the Assad regime to win the civil war, in order to help maintain Russia's strategic presence in the Middle East. And never mind the ineffectiveness of the Russian plan. After all, it surely stretches credulity to think Syria can dispense with its chemical weapons in the middle of a civil war when it took Gaddafi eight years to dismantle his weapons program when Libya was at peace.

The potential diplomatic breakthrough should not disguise the fact that a serious, full-scale and open-ended US intervention was never on. The national interest does not require it. The public and political support does not exist. Nor does the international support at the United Nations Security Council.

Moreover, the conflict itself, as Tony Abbott made clear during the last week of our election campaign, is morally ambiguous: yes, Assad is a brutal tyrant; but far from being modern-day minute men, many rebels are linked to powerful and sinister groups of West-hating Islamist fundamentalists, including al Qaeda.

The point here is the Syrian episode highlights the limits of American power and influence in the post-Iraq war world. And Obama knows this.

In recent years, he has attempted to define a new US role in a way that reflects the nation's limited resources and changing circumstances. And although he has failed to articulate a doctrine that clearly matches resources with aspirations, and brings commitments and power into balance, the reality is that he is withdrawing troops from long wars in the Middle East that have cost America dearly in blood and treasure.

In fairness to Obama, up until recently he has instinctively accepted that Syria, however tragic its plight, justifies a cautious response.

Like many Democratic and Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill — and Tory and Labour parliamentarians in the British House of Commons — he appears to recognise Talleyrand's wise advice "Above all, gentlemen, not too much zeal", which shows a profound distaste for busyness and foreign policy meddling.

As Obama warned only a few weeks ago: "Sometimes what we've seen is that folks will call for immediate action, jumping into stuff, that does not turn out well, gets us mired in very difficult situations, can result in us being drawn into very expensive, difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment in the region".

This is especially the case when none of the supporters of a military strike against Syria — from French socialists to Washington neo-cons to liberal hawks — has a clear sense of the mission.

If the case for war amounts to merely a punitive strike against Assad's stockpiles of chemical weapons, what are the prospects of retaliation?

If the mission is to topple the regime, can we be confident that the scores of insurgent groups fighting against the dictator won't be as nasty or even worse in power?

Will intervention ease the suffering in Syria, or prolong and exacerbate it?

Given that the political objective remains perilously unclear, there is much to be said for a policy of restraint and caution.

The problem, however, is that Obama has been all over the place on the question of how to respond to Syria's civil war.

Prestige and credibility, as any observer of international relations will attest, are important foreign policy tools: they can be a useful substitute to power.

But in Syria, they have been diminished. The result is that instead of prestige being an effective substitute for force, increasingly Obama has been forced to threaten to use force to justify the need to restore credibility.

That is no way to run foreign policy of the world's most powerful nation.

As leading commentator George Will has argued:

"People who talk incessantly often talk imprecisely, and Barack Obama, who is as loquacious as he is impressed with his verbal dexterity, has talked himself into a corner concerning Syria and chemical weapons.

This is condign punishment for his rhetorical carelessness, but the nation's credibility, not just his, will suffer.

His policy is better than his description of it, and his description is convoluted because he lacks the courage of his sensible conviction that entanglement in Syria would be unwise."

This article was originally published at ABC The Drum