[featured image: USS Harry S. Truman]
Obama is a President almost obsessively concerned with his legacy and place in history, both in terms of the style and the substance of his Presidency. So in explaining Obama’s decision to refer the Syria attack to Congress, we should by no means dismiss the idea that he really does intend to set a democratic precedent for future American uses of force (rectifying his approach to the Libyan case).
However, there is sufficient reason to think that Obama may also not mind the breathing space that a deferral to Congress affords him, particularly seeing how for months the administration has signaled a desire to free itself from its self-imposed “red lines”. Just consider: if not for delay, why else would Obama have chosen not to recall Congress for an emergency session, rather than opting to simply wait for the end of summer recess?
There are two scenarios that might explain Obama’s decision to delay military action, which just days ago seemed both inevitable and imminent: a minimal scenario and a maximal scenario.
The minimal scenario is heard most commonly. On this scenario, Obama is trying at all costs to get out of the corner he painted himself into on the Syrian front, even going as far as hoping to avoid military action altogether. As such, Obama is understood to have listened to recent expert assessments that a limited, unilateral US strike will only diminish US deterrence and further aggravate the Syrian conflict. Assad, for instance, would likely take his post-intervention survival (on which Obama has emphatically and repeatedly insisted) as a sign of American weakness, only inviting further Syrian brutality to which the US may feel forced to respond, while also doing nothing to deter Iran. Moreover, unilateral intervention would likely permanently anger Russia and China, thus dissipating any hope for a peaceful settlement in Syria, while at the same time leaving the US precariously isolated internationally, especially in the face of the British defection.
Motivated by the minimal agenda, Obama may hope for several scenarios to unfold. The UN investigation report, due out in two weeks, could contain grounds for questioning Assad’s responsibility for the attacks, thus allowing Obama to side with international consensus in foregoing action. Alternatively, Obama could employ coming weeks to achieve an understanding with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, potentially allowing the US to forego military action in exchange for a Geneva II peace conference on terms favorable to the rebels, thereby providing a way for the Americans to save face. Worse comes to worst, finally, Obama could even covertly instigate Congressional skepticism about a US strike, thus hiding his own hesitance behind the democratic process.
But a less-heard possibility is that Obama is in fact seeking a more maximal approach to Syria. On this interpretation, Obama is motivated by much the same concerns cited above: a limited, unilateral strike solves no problems, and only diminishes US deterrence. But unlike in the above scenario, Obama has finally become convinced that, as Vali Nasr has advocated, Assad’s brutality simply leaves the US no other choice than to deal the regime a “mortal wound” and to reluctantly accept a role in reshaping Syria post-Assad. Clearly this does not mean that Obama would go for overt regime-change in Syria– that seems out of the question. But he could choose to err on the side of too much rather than too little force, doing significant damage to Assad’s ability to resist the rebels. This would be a departure from Obama’s record of isolationist caution with regards to Syria, but he may just have concluded there is no happy medium in this regard: either the US abandons its caution and apathy, or it stands to lose vital deterrence.
If such a maximal scenario is true, it, too, allows us to explain Obama’s buying for time. First, a more expansive and ambitious strike clearly would be in need of Congressional support. Second, it would provide time for Obama to build a wider alliance, in particular providing opportunities to “suggest” to Britain that it rethink its obstinacy. Third, finally, on the maximal scenario there may simply be a military logic to Obama’s pursuit of time. On the one hand, Britain has a Trafalgar class submarine off the coast of Syria which Obama may have been counting on in his preparations for war, giving Cameron’s parliamentary snafu not merely diplomatic consequences but military ones as well. More importantly, perhaps, analysts had previously noted that while there are currently 4 US destroyers off the Syrian littoral, Obama had recently allowed the carriers USS Nimitz and USS Harry S. Truman to sail through the Suez Canal and towards the Arabian Sea. Clearly a more expansive US strike on Syria could well benefit from the presence of these carriers, making Obama seek time for them return to the Levant and get battle-ready for action in the Syrian theater. (This latter interpretation is in accordance with recent reports, on which at least the Nimitz has returned to the Red Sea).
Both the minimal and maximal scenarios sound like remotely plausible candidates for explaining Obama’s delaying strategy. Only time will tell which one, if any, will turn out to reflect reality.