Sunday, September 1, 2013

A smart move by the Commander-in-Chief

In my view, President Barack Obama acted wisely this last week of August, 2013 by taking a cautious step of seeking Congressional approval for his announced intent to take a measured type of military action in Syria as a muscular rebuke of the Syrian government for its alleged use of chemical weapons. It would appear that the earlier action of the British parliament, on Thursday, 08/29/13, of voting against Prime Minister David Cameron’s similar desire to act militarily in Syria probably influenced Obama’s follow-up decision, announced on Saturday, 08/31/13, to go beyond mere consultations with key Congressional leaders on his Syrian military plan. It’s also possible that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin’s reported urging of the US,  earlier on 08/31/13, to hold off military action on Syria (  might also have nudged Obama towards his latest move, namely his decision to go to the people’s representatives in the US Congress to seek for a mandate. (Take note that the Russian government supports the Assad-led government side of the ongoing civil war in Syria, while Obama’s administration backs the rebels). Obama’s stance might also have been influenced by internal factors, such as public calls made by a cross-section of US political leaders and pundits, including a mix of Republican and Democratic members of Congress, on the president to request for a Congressional authorization before acting militarily in Syria.  Obama acknowledged this factor: "over the last several days, we have heard from members of Congress who want their voices to be heard. I absolutely agree. We should have this debate, because the issues are too big for business as usual" (

All of this contrasts sharply with President Obama’s approach to Libya in 2011. Acting in concert with NATO and following an affirmative resolution of the Arab League, President Obama gave the go-ahead for US warplanes and missiles’ pulverization of Muammar Gaddafi’s Libyan war machine merely on the basis of pre-consultations with Congressional leaders but without a prior formal Congressional approval ( In the Libyan case, what started out as a no-fly zone operation, on the part of a US, NATO and Arab League coalition of the willing--ostensibly meant to protect an endangered population of Benghazi’s district of Libya--eventually metamorphorized into a regime change mission. Gaddafi was not only dislodged from office after ruling Libya for 42 years, he also lost his life; and, political power shifted into the hands of the then rebel forces, who until the US intervention, were the underdogs in the military confrontation between internal Libyan insurrectionists and Gaddafi’s government forces.
One notable trait that was evident on the part of Obama, during the Libyan case, was cautious decision-making. It will be recalled that before Obama eventually joined the “no fly-zone bandwagon,” it all seemed much more like a Western European-led pre-occupation championed doggedly by the former French President, Nicolas Sarkozy. In eventually authorizing US military action in Libya, Obama clearly came across as a reluctant combatant. To a certain extent, this model of cautious decision-making is playing itself out now in the Syrian case and admirably so. Although by August, 2011, Obama had publicly advocated that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must go (he said as much about Gaddafi before the US’s decisive air-based military intervention in Libya), he has not rushed into a military action. He has been acting in a step by step fashion.  In June, 2013—several months after stating publicly that President Assad must go and several months after being badgered by Senator John McCain for not siding with the rebel forces--the Obama administration announced a decision to begin a provision of material aid (described as small arms and ammunition) to the rebel side of the Syrian civil war ( Back in August, 2012, Obama announced his now famous red-line on Syria. Specifically, he was reported as saying that “any attempt by Syria to move or use its chemical weapons would change his administration’s “calculus” in the region” (

The closing weeks of August, 2013 saw a disclosure that there had been a chemical attack in the ongoing civil war in Syria—the second such reported use of such weapons in this war but this time on a scale that was considerably larger, producing a casualty rate of over 1400 deaths. In the wake of this second chemical attack, the United States government took the position that the attack was planned and carried out by the government side of the civil war. Secretary of State John Kerry has led a spirited defense of the US position on the reported late August, 2013 chemical attack in Syria. On Friday, 08/30/13, Secretary Kerry strongly laid out the US government position before a nation that appears to be not too eager to plunge into another war after budget-busting US invasions and prolonged occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. While Obama has since pulled US forces out of Iraq, the president is now in the middle of dismantling the 12-year-old US military mission in Afghanistan—the longest in US history, with the last batch of US troops scheduled to leave by December, 2014 ( In speaking to the nation on Friday, 08/30/13, Kerry was mindful of all this history but urged the nation not to be deterred by it:
As previous storms in history have gathered, when unspeakable crimes were within our power to stop them, we have been warned against the temptations of looking the other way. History is full of leaders who have warned against inaction, indifference and especially against silence when it mattered most.
Our choices then, in history, had great consequences. And our choice today has great consequences. It matters that nearly 100 years ago in direct response to the utter horror and inhumanity of World War I that the civilized world agreed that chemical weapons should never be used again. That was the world’s resolve then. And that began nearly a century of effort to create a clear red line for the international community.
And it matters deeply to the credibility and the future interests of the United States of America and our allies. It matters because a lot of other countries, whose policy has challenged these international norms, are watching. They are watching. They want to see whether the United States and our friends mean what we say.
It is directly related to our credibility and whether countries still believe the United States when it says something. They are watching to see if Syria can get away with it, because then maybe they too can put the world at greater risk (

Kerry also addressed a rather philosophical but pragmatic question that hovers over a possible US military action in response to the reported chemical weapons-usage in Syria. Here is how he put it:
Now, we know that after a decade of conflict, the American people are tired of war. Believe me, I am, too.
But fatigue does not absolve us of our responsibility. Just longing for peace does not necessarily bring it about. And history would judge us all extraordinarily harshly if we turned a blind eye to a dictator’s wanton use of weapons of mass destruction against all warnings, against all common understanding of decency, these things we do know.
Obama said as much during his announcement, on Saturday, August 31, 2013, in front of the White House, that he had decided to get the Congress formally involved in the process of formulating policy on a possible US military course of action in Syria. He did not mince words or weaver in his conviction that the situation called for a US military degradation of Syrian government’s war-making capability. He reasoned, most wisely, that although he believed that, as president, he has “the authority to carry out this action without specific congressional authorization, our country will be stronger if we take this course."
Beyond a need to rally the nation behind the president’s quest, there are other compelling reasons for proceeding cautiously. First, in the case of Libya, both NATO and the Arab League were on board. In contrast, in this unfolding case of Syria, NATO seems nowhere to be found, and the usual US ally on such foreign military ventures, namely Britain, has backed out. Second, in its latest reaction to the Syrian crisis, the Arab League stated that the Syrian government was responsible for the chemical weapons attack and called on "the United Nations and the international community … to assume their responsibilities in line with the UN Charter and international law by taking the necessary deterrent measures" ( This can be decoded to mean that the League does not favor a unilateral military action by the United States. Third, in the case of Libya, both Russia and China were supportive, but so far this time, they seem to be in opposition. Fourth, the United Nations’ inspection tour of Syria—in the wake of the chemical attack—is yet to file its report. Fifth, a war is not cost-free. In light of the budget sequestration faced by federal agencies, including the Pentagon, it makes sense to have the law-makers debate both the military and budgetary implications of what might become a new US war abroad even though President Obama has characterized his planned Syrian action as being limited in scope and not open-ended.
The unfortunate blood-letting in Syria once more reminds all of humanity of the imperative of doing all that two disputing sides can muster in order to resolve matters peacefully through compromise. One side can’t have it all. Civil wars, by their nature, tend to be internecine, though the weak side tends to suffer more in terms of human and property casualties, as well as the opportunity costs of war. Once shooting starts and blood begins to spill, it becomes much more difficult to get the influencial elite of the disputing parties to lay down arms and make difficult give-and-take decisions that may re-create viable space for mutual peaceful co-existence in the midst of cultural, racial or religious diversity or all of the above.  It’s thought-provoking to suggest that in peace times, the elite of a society enjoys most of the privileges. Yet, when members of this same elite quarrel over their inability to agree on how to continue to procure the lion share of “the national cake,” the people that eventually bear the brunt of their elite’s inability to govern fairly are the ordinary citizens who, in the first place, received only the least portion of the pie while the going was good.  All too often, a root cause of what ultimately leads to a combustion—that is, a breakdown in national tranquility and stability—is a lingering and an unresolved sense, on the part of one segment or the other of a national population, that national affairs are not being conducted fairly. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, goes a common adage. And so it happens that due to what seems like innate human selfishness, there tends to be an invariably counter-productive and centrifugal tendency,  on the part of a dominant group that finds itself controlling the levers of power within a polity, to become self-absorbed, self-centered, arrogant and insensitive to the rights of other constituent communities of the nation to a proportionate seat at the table of power.
While I was composing this essay and constructing a constituent theme to the effect that world leaders should explore and pursue a means of helping the warring sides in Syria to lay down their arms—at least in the form of a ceasefire—and then have their representatives get onto  a round-table to negotiate a new formula for mutual co-existence in their nation, I was cheered to learn that Pope Francis, Jordan’s King King Abdullah II and his wife, Queen Rania have just called for dialogue as a way out of the internecine civil war (
Since both sides of the Syrian war do have self-admitted powerful external backing (that is, in the main, the United States government backs the rebels, while the Russian government supports the government-side of the conflict), why is it that the emphasis of the external backers is not on getting the warring sides to a round-table--without preconditions--for a negotiated end to the senseless killing of their own people?