Reversal on Syria leaves Obama open to rejection that could weaken his authority

Opponents question why US president needs vote on military strike after ‘red line’ has been crossed

US president Barack Obama arrives to deliver a statement on Syria in the Rose Garden of the White House on Saturday. He changed his mind about military intervention in Syria while strolling around the White House grounds with his top adviser, chief of staff Denis McDonough, on Friday evening, NBC News said. Photograph:  Kristoffer Tripplaar-Pool/Getty Images

US president Barack Obama arrives to deliver a statement on Syria in the Rose Garden of the White House on Saturday. He changed his mind about military intervention in Syria while strolling around the White House grounds with his top adviser, chief of staff Denis McDonough, on Friday evening, NBC News said. Photograph: Kristoffer Tripplaar-Pool/Getty Images

Mon, Sep 2, 2013, 11:14

Barack Obama’s surprise move to defer military action against Syria pending the approval of Congress turns an international crisis over the alleged use of chemical weapons into a US domestic political cliffhanger.

The momentum that built up last week, culminating on Friday in secretary of state John Kerry making a passionate case for military action against Syria and calling Syrian president Bashar al-Assad “a thug and a murderer”, stalled on Saturday in the unexpected climbdown by the president.

The Obama administration had seemed ready to take “limited” military action against Assad’s forces. “What are we, we collectively, what are we in the world to do about it?” said Kerry on Friday, emotionally evoking images of rows of dead children killed in the August 21st attack in Syria.

Obama’s abrupt reversal came hours after Kerry spoke. He changed his mind while strolling around the White House grounds with his top adviser, chief of staff Denis McDonough, on Friday evening, NBC News said. Returning from the walk, he called his national security advisers to tell them of his decision not
to act alone and strike targets in Syria but to put it to a vote in Congress.


Influenced by British debate
At a time of deeply divided partisanship, with the president struggling to secure Congressional approval for even routine administration appointments, the decision is unusual and a gamble. It was reportedly influenced by the robust debate in the British House of Commons, after which prime minister David Cameron lost a vote seeking approval for military action.

The Obama administration signalled yesterday that it could still launch military strikes against Syria even if Congress chooses not to support the president, so it prompts the question: why is the president potentially exposing himself to an embarrassing rejection of his strongly argued plans? Such a rejection would undermine his authority and weaken his ability to take military decisions in future.

Referring military action to Congress delays cruise missile strikes from US naval destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean Sea that seemed all but imminent late last week. Congress doesn’t return from its summer break until next Monday so it appears that it will be at least a week before Obama secures the support he wants, if at all. Political representatives yesterday were returning to Capitol Hill to attend briefings on the US intelligence information claiming to show Assad’s forces were to blame.


Questions over leadership
Obama’s decision raises further questions about the president’s leadership on Syria and his decisiveness on a major foreign policy issue, adding to the criticism that Syria has long since crossed the president’s “red line” over chemical weapons use and still he has chosen not to act.

“President Obama is abdicating responsibility as commander-in-chief and undermining the authority of future presidents,” said congressman Peter King, a Republican from New York. “The president doesn’t need 535 members of Congress to enforce his own red line.”

Republican senator John McCain, one of the most severe critics on Obama’s response to the two-year war in Syria, said on a Sunday talkshow that Assad is “euphoric” about the president’s decision, arguing that Obama was now making a definitive “red line” conditional on Congressional support.

“The consequences of the Congress of the United States overriding a decision of the president of the United States of this magnitude are really very, very serious,” McCain said. Selling action against Syria will be easier in the Senate, where majority Democrats are likely to be backed by Republicans who have called for even tough action against Assad than Obama is planning.

It will be a different story in the lower House of Representatives, where the Republicans are in control and there is greater opposition among liberals and conservatives who are weary after a decade of war.