Obama’s Speech on Syria: politically shrewd, but not leadership

Obama’s red line was crossed on August 21st with 1400 dead from chemical attacks in Syria. The UN weapons inspection team has landed and Obama has been briefing US senators all day. The UK has voted not to participate in any military intervention, France is keen to participate, and US military assets are in place. Russia is arguing that the Syrian regime using weapons is absurd, and Iran has declared that if the US attacks Syria it would be the spark for something larger in its “shadow war”. This is the situation as Obama began making his speech this evening.

What commentators missed in the run up to this speech is just what a fix Obama is now in. Elected to end a war in the Middle East, starting another is not an attractive option. Using most of his political capital on domestic issues has also left him vulnerable at home – as senators such as McCain act daily to undermine the President’s credibility. As such when the President argues tonight that a decision would be made by Congress if it will intervene in Syria, the administration was laying down the gauntlet and playing a shrew political game that will only strengthen the President. If Congress says no, the President save face internationally passing political responsibility to the legislature; if Congress says yes, he has a mandate for action based on the democratic values of the US. This is a politically astute move that takes us back to Obama’s Chicago politics. What it is not, is leadership in the Middle East from the executive office of the US. This being said, buying time through this move is in and of itself a good move, that will hopefully allow cooler heads to prevail. What the White House needs is a strategy, it appears they have one at home, but are yet to develop one for the world’s most immediate crisis.

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Oz Hassan is  an assistant professor in U.S. national security at the University of Warwick’s Centre for the Study of Globalization and Regionalization and its Centre for Studies in Democratization. He is currently a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Oz has published widely on U.S. policy in the Middle East and North Africa, European foreign policy, transatlantic relations, civil society development, assistance programs, counterterrorism and counterproliferation strategies, and democratization.

This post originally appeared on 31 August 2013 on Oz Hassan’s blog.

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