December 13, 2013
Obama in the lions’ den
For the Herald
No way out for US president
No doubt it is most gratifying to be hailed as “the most powerful man in the world” by one’s awestruck compatriots, but on occasion Barack Obama must wish he were just an ordinary mortal whose rhetorical flourishes should not be taken too literally so he could spend more time on the golf course hobnobbing with his cronies. Having inadvertently told the world that Syria’s dictator Bashar al-Assad would be in deep trouble if he crossed a “red line” by using chemical weapons against his foes, he now feels obliged to make good his threats even though he would much rather do nothing. In an attempt to wriggle out of the trap he set himself, he surprised everyone by leaving the matter of what to do to dissuade al-Assad from killing more people by what are considered unconventional means in the hands of Congress and doing his best to drum up support abroad for a punitive strike by saying he represents “the international community”.
Unfortunately for Obama, the ploy only made matters worse by giving the many who either distrust him or simply loathe him more than enough time to manoeuvre in order to make the most of his evident discomfort. He also all but invited al-Assad to move some of his hardware to safer locations and cram potential targets with women and children. After all, if, as Obama, his sidekick John Kerry and many others assume, the dictator recently gassed large numbers of people, he would have no qualms about condemning many others to death if it helped him blacken the reputation of a US president.
While the men and women in Congress may give Obama the go-ahead because they know that their country’s prestige is at stake, much of the “international community”, as represented by the dignitaries who assembled in Saint Petersburg, evidently dislikes the idea of letting the US military, accompanied by the French but hardly anyone else, fire a few warning shots at places held by supporters of the Syrian regime. Our Cristina is not the only national leader who has jumped at a chance to treat the Nobel Peace Prize laureate as just another warmonger like his wicked predecessor, George W. Bush. In international parlance, for a war to be real the US must be involved; otherwise, it is merely a local conflict that, were the State Department up to the job, could easily be resolved through “dialogue”.
This is the view of most European politicians and Pope Francis, who, along with many other people, has taken to talking as though he thought the Yankee imperialists were about to invade yet another peaceful and inoffensive country for their own base motives. The pope’s priority is, or should be, the wellbeing of what is left of the Christian minorities who have been in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East for almost two thousand years but are rapidly being “ethnically cleansed” by their pious Muslim neighbours.
He must appreciate that they are better off under a dictator from another minority, like al-Assad, than they would be under an equally brutal chieftain backed by the Sunnite majority. That is why most Christian leaders fear the rebels, who include hosts of holy warriors attached to or inspired by al-Qaeda, far more than the bloodthirsty Alawite. This being the case, Francis’s pleas for “peace” and a “political solution” could backfire badly. Jihadists who want the US to provide al Qaeda with an air force, as the senator for Texas, Ted Cruz, put it, can only attribute Obama’s wavering to pressure from the Christian lobby, led by the pope, and from the hated Jews, and will be more than pleased to use that as a pretext to set about murdering even more unbelievers.
Al-Assad and, it would seem, Pope Francis, fear that US intervention in Syria could lead to World War III because Iran and, perhaps, Russia would feel obliged to help their friend in his hour of need. To drive that particular point home, Russian warships have crossed the Bosphorus and are currently prowling the Eastern Mediterranean. Others suspect that the US is girding itself to put paid to the Iranian theocrats’ nuclear programme and so is hoping that the ayatollahs or their proxies counterattack, thereby giving Obama and company an excuse to do some regime changing before it is too late. Though such a dramatic outcome still looks unlikely, few have forgotten that World War I was detonated by what, for a couple of days, was assumed to be a minor incident, after which the leaders of the great powers of the time found themselves swept along by the unstoppable tide of events that left much of Europe a wasteland, a catastrophe from which it never recovered.
As things stand, there is no way out for Obama. If he does nothing, he will be damned for his weakness. If he tells his troops to fire some cruise missiles or drones to “punish” al-Assad for allegedly using sarin gas against residents of a Damascus suburb, he will be held accountable for virtually everything that from then on happens in Syria and neighbouring countries. That, as by now he must be fully aware, is the downside of being “the most powerful man in the world”, a role that requires him to be very careful when he opens his mouth and refrain from making statements that, if taken literally, will force him to embark on adventures that could prove far more dangerous than he had ever foreseen.