President Obama’s decision to seek Congressional approval for a limited US attack on Syria has temporarily put on hold one of the most vexing decisions of his presidency. So far, Obama has said merely that he believes the US should attack Syria—not that it will. He’s said that an attack would be limited in duration and scope, isn’t time-critical, and can be carried out at a time of US choosing. And he has stated that the purpose of an attack would be threefold—to hold the Syrian regime accountable, to deter future chemical weapons use, and to degrade Syrian chemical weapon capabilities. He has also, correctly, cast the decision as one shaped by considerations much broader than the Syrian conflict itself. Those considerations involve the strength of global prohibitions on chemical weapons use as well as US willingness to enforce its own self-determined red lines in relation to weapons of mass destruction. That last one’s an issue that plays globally for the US, not just in the Middle East.
Recently I’ve been trying to revisit a piece of work I did a few years back at ASPI, namely an exploration of Obama’s strategic thinking by an analysis of his speeches and remarks. That report, Obama in his own words, examined his view on US primacy, leadership and the use of force. As his second term is now well underway, it seemed to me timely to repeat the exercise just to see what had changed. At the big-picture level, there’s one particular difference between Obama Marks I and II. In 2009 Obama was a character of loftier ambitions—carefully reasoned ambitions, perhaps, but lofty ones. Remember his Prague speech on nuclear disarmament or his speech to the Arab world in Cairo? Obama in 2013 gives fewer of those speeches. True, the Brandenburg speech was a lecture about the dangers of complacency, and an injunction to make history rather than just study it. But at its core, it turned upon a set of objectives that were specific and limited rather than open-ended and grandiose.
Some of that flavour comes through in his thinking on the Syria case. He’s not proposing intervention to stop mass casualties in a bitter and vicious civil war. Nor is he proposing intervention to change a repugnant regime. He certainly accepts that US military force can’t drive forward a faltering Arab Spring. His objectives are specific and limited. Indeed, some of his agenda is probably even domestic—including making Congress wrestle with the big questions of national security policy during an age of sequestration and declining military budgets.
All in all, the president has had a rough trot in foreign and defence policy since his second-term inauguration. His focus has been increasingly reactive in response to issues both at home and abroad: at home, the sequester and Edward Snowden’s intelligence leaks; abroad, North Korea’s nuclear test, drone casualties, a new set of difficulties with Russia, the toppling of the Morsi government in Egypt and the on-going, roiling crisis in Syria.
But he still wants the US to lead by example, and he still sees global leadership as an exercise employing all the elements of national power. Moreover, he’s still definitely on board with the central theme of his first administration: that only the revival of the US middle class can underpin continued US global leadership in the 21st century. A recent wave of speeches has reinforced that idea, even though the president must know that reviving a middle class is a generational challenge in scope and complexity.
The challenge of Syrian chemical weapons use comes at a horrible time for President Obama. It comes at a time when he’s been winding back the wars he inherited from George W. Bush, and warning—as he put it in his speech in Berlin in June—that the US ‘has to move beyond the mindset of perpetual war’. Obama has tried to move beyond that mindset in his own speeches, which avoid doctrinal rigidities on the use of force and instead turn heavily upon his recounting of the personal tales of those individual US service personnel—members of what he calls the ‘9/11 Generation’—who’ve borne the burden in a time of war. His Independence Day speech (video) is a prime example. Moreover, the tone of his speeches suggest a primary impulse away from intervention. At a Town Hall meeting in Belfast in June, Obama cited W.B. Yeats’ line that ‘peace comes dropping slow’.
Obama knows he leads a country now weary of war. Ever a critique of the ‘neo-con’ version of strategic policy that took hold after 9/11—a policy characterised by Jacksonian interventionism and Wilsonian premises—he’s tried to use careful logic in favour of the limited use of force in the Syrian case to mark out his use of force from his predecessor’s. It’s possible, I suppose, that Congress might not authorise a strike. But I think they will, so it’s worth thinking what that will mean for Australia. I suspect our military involvement will be negligible. As Obama said in his statement on Syria, he already has on hand the options for a limited strike. Politically, a new government will still be finding its feet here in Australia. But even if we do see the Syrian conflict as a case of baddies versus baddies, we can’t be agnostic about Syria’s use of chemical weapons. We should support a limited US strike that degrades Syria’s chemical weapon capabilities.
Rod Lyon is a non-residential fellow at ASPI and an adjunct associate professor at the Griffith Asia Institute. Image courtesy of The White House.