Yesterday White House officials told members of Congress yesterday that there was “no doubt” that chemical weapons were used in Syria. Citing intercepted communications of Syrian officials and evidence of movements by Syria’s military around Damascus before the attack, the Obama administration looks to be coming down on the side of military intervention in Syria.
But it appears that Obama officials may be standing more alone in this conclusion than they ever expected.
Within Congress, there are a number of key players who remain unconvinced that military action is the prudent way forward. Most notably, Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee Carl Levin – a traditionally staunch ally of the President – suggested that the administration should wait for the results of the UN investigators complete examination of the attack area before taking any action.
House Speaker John Boehner sent President Obama an open letter demanding answers to 14 questions, which the President will surely not answer to his satisfaction, if at all. This will pave the way for further House opposition, an arrangement Obama is not unfamiliar with at this point, but one that certainly does not suggest an easy path to intervention in Syria.
There’s also the letter from 116 members of Congress – including 18 Democrats –saying that Obama “would violate the separation of powers that is clearly delineated in the Constitution” if he struck Syria without Congressional approval.
Adding insult to injury, UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s loss last night in Parliament – wherein his own party voted against his interventionist wishes – suggests that if Obama went ahead with the strike he would appear, to put it bluntly, to be a dictator. Cameron had far more conviction than Obama in arguing for the strike, but members of his parliament said no and he’s respecting their wishes. Imagine if Obama went ahead without even asking Congress? It would be a PR nightmare for an already unpopular president.
To be sure, France has still not changed its position on striking Syria. French President Francis Hollande is still in favor of “firm” punitive action and has said that France would still participate without Britain. But going to war with France by our side and without the UK surely does not send the right message about the US’s intentions in Syria.
To no one’s surprise, Russia and China are vehemently against any intervention. As two of Assad’s strongest – and most powerful allies – the Russian regime has gone so far as to accuse the rebels of being responsible for the chemical weapons while the Chinese continue to caution the West on “rushing to conclusions”.
I am, of course, against rushing to any conclusions as well. And I do not mean to advocate for or against a military strike in this article.
I will say, though, that Obama’s “red line” from last summer has clearly been crossed with no clear response, reaction or policy prescription from the administration. This needs to be addressed and dealt with immediately.
And to the larger point of this piece, it is crucial that we are aware of just how isolated the US is becoming in the foreign policy space. Losing UK support – our key ally – is a major blow to Obama that potentially sets the tone for a tumultuous future of relations between two countries with a rich history of supporting one another.
And while anxiety left over from when the US was “absolutely sure” there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq is certainly understandable, the fact that Britain is “drifting towards isolation” as Richard Haass argues in the FT this morning, does not bode well for the impending conflict in Syria and beyond.
There has been a lot of ink spent analyzing how – and why – Obama has so few friends in Washington. This latest episode highlights that this clearly isn’t just a problem at home.