from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

Obama and Syria: Insights from the President’s G20 Press Conference

September 06, 2013

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In his revealing press conference closing out the G20 summit, President Obama provided the clearest summary yet of his thinking on Syria. Perhaps the most significant points were the following:

*The purpose of any strike must be to defend the chemical weapons taboo: Obama made a clear distinction between Assad’s use of chemical weapons and the ongoing civil war in Syria. The rationale for striking Syria is punishment and deterrence, not tilting the balance in Syria’s grinding conflict. “Syria’s escalating use of chemical weapons threatens its neighbors,” the President said. “But more broadly, it threatens to unravel the international norm against chemical weapons embraced by 189 nations.” Even though Syria is not a member of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), Obama implied, the prohibition against the use of such weapons is now established as customary international law. Failing to respond to Syria’s violations would send a terrible “signal to rogue nations, authoritarian regimes, and terrorist organizations.” They would conclude that there is no consequence for using weapons of mass destruction. Among those “rogue nations” taking note of any international response—or lack thereof—is of course Iran.

*This is not about choosing sides in Syria’s civil war. The President once again insisted that any strikes by the United States and other partners would be aimed at holding Assad accountable and deterring further chemical weapons use, not determining the outcome of the ongoing military struggle between Damascus and the rebels. As in previous statements, he insisted that “the underlying conflict can only be resolved through a political transition,” rather than militarily. Despite its differences with Moscow, the United States still hopes to move forward with the Geneva peace process. In clinging to this two-track approach, the President risks running afoul of Republican hawks in Congress, including Senator John McCain, who clearly envision crippling strikes on Assad’s military as a way to tilt the playing field toward the rebels. Beyond the need to keep GOP interventionists on board, Obama faces a more practical military quandary:  Can he actually bring off the “Goldilocks” scenario he seeks? That is, can he calibrate any military strikes so that they are sufficiently punishing to persuade Assad to stick to conventional weapons without being so devastating that they ensure his swift collapse and/or the battlefield triumph of rebels (many of whom the White House distrusts for their jihadist, anti-Western orientation).

*Paralysis in the United Nations cannot be an excuse for inaction. One of the supreme ironies of the Syrian situation is the spectacle of a Democratic president elected on a platform of multilateral cooperation now espousing some of the “unilateralist” arguments used by his predecessor, George W. Bush.  “There are a number of countries,” Obama observed in St. Petersburg, “that just as a matter of principle believe that if military action is to be taken, it needs to go through the U.N. Security Council.” Obama begged to differ. Although declaring himself “a strong supporter of the United Nations,” he insisted that in certain grave situations it is legitimate to act without the authorization of the Security Council, when the latter is hamstrung by internal divisions. “I would greatly prefer working through multilateral channels and through the United Nations to get this done,” he said, but given that impossibility, the United States had to look to other approaches to “enforcing international norms and international law.” Of course, Bill Clinton also made similar arguments to justify  the 1999 NATO intervention in Kosovo.

*Presidents should take note of public opinion but must not be ruled by it. As the President reminded the press corps, he was elected by the American people to end wars (in Iraq and Afghanistan), not to begin them. He is fully aware that U.S. citizens are exhausted by more than a decade of war and wondering why their country must once again take risks by intervening in another nation’s conflict. The President replied with a couple of apposite historical analogies. In 1940, he recalled, there was little U.S. public enthusiasm for aiding the United Kingdom during the Battle of Britain. But the United States did the right thing in aiding Winston Churchill and his countrymen in surviving the assault from Nazi Germany. Warming to the theme, Obama noted that if a replay of the Rwandan genocide were to occur right now, and the American people were asked whether the United States should intervene, “I think it’s fair to say that it probably wouldn’t poll real well.” But failing to act on this moral imperative would once again consign hundreds of thousands of innocents to slaughter.

*The United States retains special responsibilities as the ultimate custodian of world order. A recurrent refrain of U.S. legislators and citizens, the President acknowledged, is, in effect, why us? Why should our country always have to take the bloody field, while others watch from the sidelines? Obama’s answer was that the world continues to depend on the United States, as the most powerful country in the world, to preserve international law, peace and security. “There are going to be times…where, as is true here, the international community is stuck for a whole variety of political reasons. And if that’s the case, people are going to look to the United States and say, ‘what are you going to do about it?’ and that’s not a responsibility we always enjoy.”  Indeed the “leader of a smaller country” had recently told him, “I don’t envy you because…nobody expects me to do anything about chemical weapons around the world,” whereas “people do look to the United States.” Obama concluded: “And the question for the American people is, is that [a] responsibility that we’re willing to bear”?  The President has already provided his own answer: There is no substitute to American leadership. In the coming days he will be seeking to shore up support from an inward-looking Congress and a war-weary public that the United States—today’s “weary titan”—should continue to shoulder the responsibilities of power.