Obama faces risk from Syria response perceived as weak
‘Red line’ comment last year ensured foes would view failure to act as sign of weakness
By declaring last year that Dr Bashar al-Assad would cross a “red line” that could trigger a US response if he used chemical weapons, US president Barack Obama ensured that foreign foes and allies - as well as his Republican political rivals - would view any failure to respond as a sign of presidential weakness. Photograph: Joshua Roberts/Reuters
Most Americans want no part of a US military intervention in Syria, but there is a growing sense in Washington that President Barack Obama would face more political risks from a weak response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons than from an attack on Bashar al-Assad’s government.
As Obama’s administration builds a case for a likely military action in Syria, several analysts said such a move probably would not have lingering negative consequences for the president at home - as long as the intervention was short-lived.
By declaring last year that Dr Assad would cross a “red line” that could trigger a US response if he used chemical weapons, Mr Obama ensured that foreign foes and allies - as well as his Republican political rivals - would view any failure to respond as a sign of presidential weakness.
“Obama has to consider the implications for other policy areas if he fails to act,” said William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who was a domestic policy adviser to President Bill Clinton. “Doing nothing - that is what would be devastating.”
After the chemical attack near Damascus last week that killed hundreds of Syrian adults and children and injured many more, Mr Obama “doesn’t have that luxury,” of inaction, he said.
Mr Obama, who has long been wary of any involvement in Syria’s civil war, and US allies yesterday appeared to be carefully laying the groundwork for a co-ordinated military response.
Polls show large majorities of Americans, weary of more than a decade of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, strongly oppose a US military mission in Syria. A Reuters-Ipsos poll last week found about 60 per cent of Americans are against US intervention in Syria, while just 9 per cent support it.
More Americans favour intervention if Syria has used chemical weapons, but even that support has dipped as the situation in Syria has deteriorated, according to the poll.
However, US military action typically sparks a surge of at least short-term support for their president’s actions, as Americans rally around the troops.
“My prediction would be that public opinion would swing very quickly to support the military action in Syria,” said Ipsos pollster Julia Clark. “The danger for Obama is if it becomes more prolonged.”
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers have been sending mixed signals on Syria, arguably giving Mr Obama more room to maneouvre.
Republicans, led by Senator John McCain of Arizona, have criticised Obama for moving too slowly and called for a strong military intervention.
Mr McCain suggested yesterday that a brief attack by cruise missiles, aimed more at sending a message to Dr Assad than altering the course of Syria’s civil war, could make the situation worse by allowing an emboldened Dr Assad to claim that he had withstood an assault by the Americans.
Mr Obama faces the decision on Syria just as Congress prepares to return to Washington next week to renew a lingering budget fight over government spending and the federal debt limit.
Some Republicans are threatening another government shutdown if Democrats don’t agree to deeper spending cuts, or to delay funding for the president’s healthcare overhaul.
The intense focus in Congress on domestic policy issues means the impact of any short-term military action in Syria could be limited.
“It’s one of those things that, however tragic, won’t have any lasting political impact one way or the other,” Republican strategist Rich Galen said of a short-term US intervention in Syria.
“We are locked in a cycle of domestic turmoil, and politically that will overwhelm everything else.”