The whiplash of events last week that led to the agreement with Russia and got us off the hook of a risky military strike against Syria has me wondering whether President Obama was a chess master doing what he had planned all along or simply a beneficiary of dumb luck.
This is the stuff that books piled upon university courses are made of.
One take away could be that it was neither a checkmate nor dumb luck. It was the flexible use of tactics in changing circumstances to support a pragmatic strategy to reach a stated foreign policy goal.
Many of the goals had long been enunciated by candidate Obama: It was no more boots on the ground, a military withdrawal from Iraq, Afghanistan, and ending military meddling in other Middle Eastern countries. If use of military muscle would actually help meet those goals, it should be limited and with an international effort with backing of our allies and neighbors of the region affected. We should work with those who have common national interests at stake in that particular situation, if not in all issues. It was this stated policy that won Obama the Democratic Party nomination over Hillary Clinton, who had voted for military intervention in Iraq.
It was that same policy for which the GOP had criticized Obama as “leading from behind” or “weakening American power and its exceptionalism.” That is until many Republicans about-faced, demanding we should not take leadership in Syria, wait for the U.N., and not use our military might.
So far, Obama is being consistent with Candidate Obama. He is making good on his withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq. An international coalition and limited, but effective action in oil producing Libya worked to bring regime change with no long term use of our boots. Syria is an even better example of Obama’s goals. It was to be a short-term action, though it kept Congress and Assad guessing if it was just a shot across the bow, a pinprick, or actually taking out airfields and means of delivery of chemical weapons. Our missiles off shore spoke to a meaningful strike. The latter appears to have gotten both Russia’s and Assad’s attention because that would have shifted the balance of the civil war to the rebels’ advantage.
Mutual self interest of Russia and the U.S. was identified. We share a common enemy…al Qaeda-like fighters. Neither of us wanted to see them win the civil war, though the U.S. approach was the tricky job of arming the moderate rebels with small arms, while neighboring Sunni nations provided the heavy anti tank supplies. Russia, with its caucus problems, was beginning to fear U.S. military action might jeopardize Assad and the chemical weapons would end up in the wrong hands. A peaceful solution was discussed by Presidents Putin and Obama at the G20 in the week of Sept. 5.
Sending the issue to Congress before the G20 provided a delay to give this a chance to work out, though Obama appeared to miscalculate the intensity of Congress’ opposition and or world opposition to forming a coalition of the willing. If he had taken any lesson from the UK’s parliamentary vote against intervention, it was not to take the issue to Congress and to strike immediately instead. That is reason to believe referral to Congress was a delaying tactic, giving time to meet face-to-face with Putin and to gain his support for a U.N. resolution. While the U.N. deal does not include military consequences if Assad fails to comply, the U.S. has made it clear it reserves the right of unilateral attack and to continue to arm moderate rebels. Our guns are still cocked and pointed.
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