Obama’s political gamble over Syria

Is Barack Obama taking a massive gamble in asking Congress to back a strike against Syria, and what are his motives? Emily Hohler reports.

President Barack Obama's decision to seek approval from the US Congress before using force against Syria is "not the behaviour of a commander-in-chief who has the courage of his own convictions", says The Times. Before his "loss of nerve", Obama had stated that if President Assad used chemical weapons, there would be consequences; more than 1,400 civilians were killed during last month's gas attack in Damascus."The dangers should the world come to see such threats as empty are hard to overstate."

Obama has therefore taken a gamble that Congress "cannot afford to let him lose". In public Obama has said that any military action would send a stronger signal if endorsed by Congress. In private, his reasoning is "largely political": he wants members of Congress to share responsibility for what happens next.

Pentagon officials say that Obama's stated aim is to use military action to "deter and degrade" the Syrian government's ability to deploy chemical weapons, but that strikes would not target chemical weapons storage facilities because of the risk of environmental or humanitarian consequences, says Liam Stack in The New York Times. Obama also talked of a broader strategy that would "upgrade the capabilities of the opposition", though Secretary of State John Kerry says that there will be "no boots on the ground" and insists that Obama was "not asking America to go to war".

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By asking Congress for authorisation, Obama has "put himself at the mercy of an institution that has bedevilled his presidency for years", says Michael Shear in The New York Times. So far, however, "with a conspicuous absence of enthusiasm and an emphasis on saving face", top officials have been falling in line, says Mitch Potter in The Toronto Star.

House Republican leaders John Boehner and Eric Cantor declared their support following a meeting with Obama on Tuesday. America's other elected chamber, the House of Representatives, "remains a wild card with its Republican majority", but pressure to endorse military action is increasing as a growing range of influential conservatives argue that failure to back Obama will "make the country... an international laughing stock".

Obama is expected to urge world leaders to support a military strike at the G20 summit in Russia this week, says Philip Rucker in The Washington Post, "putting him at odds" with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a key ally of the Syrian regime.

All this "gamesmanship within the US and its allies is appalling", say Ian Bremner and Jon Huntsman in the FT. A "good choice does not exist", but given the options available, a limited punitive strike is the right course of action on moral and pragmatic grounds. America's credibility is at stake, but action is also essential for the future of the region. A lack of resolve will "strengthen the legitimacy of the Assad government" and by extension Iran making "rapid strides toward nuclear breakout capacity" and Hezbollah.

The British 'don't want in'

The British "don't want in", says Tim Stanley in The Daily Telegraph. Parliament knew it was "being asked to vote to give a blank cheque to war", looked at the polls (the latest ComRes poll for The Independent finds Britons opposed to Obama's plan by two to one), and said no thanks. There are a number of reasons: being misled over Iraq in 2003; a lack of clarity over the strategy in Syria; an absence of a clear moral superior in the conflict ("we would be allying ourselves with religious fundamentalists who murder Christians"); and because a "limited attack could prove a propaganda coup for Assad".

Cameron may have assured defeat by "mistiming and carelessly preparing" for the vote, but there is no appetite for military involvement, agrees The New York Times. This is why, adds Andrew Grice in The Independent, David Cameron and Nick Clegg have "rejected growing all-party pressure" for another Commons vote. The person who comes out badly from this affair is Ed Miliband, whose actions were "in his own narrow political interest", says Dan Hodges in his Daily Telegraph blog.

Cameron believed Labour would fall in line because he agreed to Miliband's terms and Miliband said they would. Then the leadership whipped MPs to vote against. It was only after the Sunday papers portrayed Miliband as the "new Neville Chamberlain" rather than the "new Dag Hammarskjld" that Labour stopped officially being "glad" at the vote's result. It was a miscalculation, says Rachel Sylvester in The Times. Miliband tried to define himself against Blair; now the party is having a "collective oh sh**' moment" as it realises it may be responsible for blocking military action against a murderous dictator.

I share Lord Ashdown's sense of shame, says David Blair in The Daily Telegraph. "Only two countries... are now willing to enforce the international prohibition on using chemical weapons and Britain is not one of them The Britain I know would have taken its place in the line against a regime that gases its children as they sleep."

Emily Hohler

Emily has worked as a journalist for more than thirty years and was formerly Assistant Editor of MoneyWeek, which she helped launch in 2000. Prior to this, she was Deputy Features Editor of The Times and a Commissioning Editor for The Independent on Sunday and The Daily Telegraph. She has written for most of the national newspapers including The Times, the Daily and Sunday Telegraph, The Evening Standard and The Daily Mail, She interviewed celebrities weekly for The Sunday Telegraph and wrote a regular column for The Evening Standard. As Political Editor of MoneyWeek, Emily has covered subjects from Brexit to the Gaza war.

Aside from her writing, Emily trained as Nutritional Therapist following her son's diagnosis with Type 1 diabetes in 2011 and now works as a practitioner for Nature Doc, offering one-to-one consultations and running workshops in Oxfordshire.