I wrote previously about the philosophical reluctance of President Obama to use US power unless key US interests were at stake. Martin Indyk's excellent talk at the Lowy Institute last Thursday gave us more insight into the way Obama views the Middle East in general, and Syria in particular. It reaffirms the view that, in Indyk's words, the US is not as interested in playing the 'great game' over Syria as it was in the past, when more vital national interests were at stake.
If anyone needs a reminder about how Obama viewed the Iraq invasion and the motivations of those advocating it, they should re-read the speech he gave in 2002 before he was even in Congress. It must be cold comfort for him to have been proven so right but it reinforces the notion that he is extremely judicious about the use of military power and suspicious of those who seek to use uncertain intelligence to pressure him into war.
But as Martin Indyk also pointed out, Obama is a big advocate of non-proliferation. And it is largely through this prism, rather than a fight for geopolitical influence, that he views problems such as Iran and Syria.
Obama has been right to be prudent in his approach to Syria so far. The Assad regime is a brutal one, but it has held on and has more internal support than many credit it with. The opposition is not in a fit state to be considered a viable alternative, and Obama's regional allies are largely clueless; they look to the US to politically solve a problem they have made more complicated by eschewing regional unity.
Obama's greatest mistake to date has been one of language, in particular the term 'red line'. In August 2012 he stated that:
We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region, that that's a red line for us, and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front, or the use of chemical weapons. That would change my calculations significantly.
He left himself little wriggle room in the minds of the public or the Syrian opposition once reports emerged that such weapons may have been used. Some serious weight is being put on the President to intervene militarily by drawing parallels between Syria today and Saddam's use of chemical weapons against Halabja in 1988. Others argue that Syria in 2013 is anything but Halabja in 1988.
The problem is that intelligence is rarely clear-cut when so many actors with so many agendas are circling around the issue. Israel started the current round of discussion via an IDF general making the claim of chemical weapons use at a security conference; there have been media reports featuring dodgy Syrian defectors and even a recent claim that chemical weapons are being given to Hizbullah. On the other hand, there are also media reports questioning the accuracy of the claims. Others urge caution about extrapolating from pieces of indeterminate evidence.
More recently, the UN, the one body that has any hope of being considered unbiased, has cast doubt on the evidence it has seen regarding the use of chemical weapons. What's more, a senior UN official stated yesterday that there is evidence that the rebels, not the government, have used sarin. Other reports are that victims of a previously claimed sarin gas attack have tested negative by Turkish medics.
All of this misinformation, disinformation, rumour and innuendo makes it virtually impossible to establish the facts, so President Obama is entirely right to limit his involvement in the morass that is Syria.
In last week's press conference he was pretty clear about his thoughts regarding intervention:
And what we now have is evidence that chemical weapons have been used inside of Syria, but we don't know how they were used, when they were used, who used them; we don't have chain of custody that establishes what exactly happened. And when I am making decisions about America's national security and the potential for taking additional action in response to chemical weapon use, I've got to make sure I've got the facts.
At the moment Obama is obfuscating, as he must until he has established the level of certainty a commander-in-chief needs. What weapons were used? By whom? When and how were they employed? Was it centrally directed or the work of a local area commander? Or a battlefield mistake?
It costs nothing to make a claim but the US is the one everybody looks towards for action. Obama will have his 2002 speech fresh in his mind when he decides how much weight to place on the intelligence reports, and how to react to them. In the meantime, he is trying to ensure that this is an international problem, and not America's alone.
Photo by Flickr user A6U571N.