- By Kori SchakeKori Schake is a fellow at the Hoover Institution.
President Barack Obama has turned to Congress for support and legitimization of the military attack his administration is contemplating against the Syrian government. The White House was smart to reverse itself, seeing that nearly 80 percent of Americans believe he should seek congressional support and nearly that proportion is skeptical of intervention in Syria. It’s judicious politics for him to win the argument and share responsibility for military action in defense of an "international norm" that does not directly affect our war-weary country.
The president asserted he did not require congressional authorization for action in Libya because he had a U.N. Security Council mandate. Syria is shaping up to be the mirror image: The president is seeking domestic support because he cannot attain international backing.
It’s never a good thing when our government’s policy is indistinguishable from Onion parodies of its policy. The unforced errors — setting red lines and then allowing them to be crossed, Gen. Martin Dempsey defending the president’s inaction in Syria just before the president decides action is necessary, undercutting the U.N. by announcing our intelligence findings in advance of theirs, torrents of leaks, the president’s public vacillation — are alone enough to make one marvel at the breadth of our power that the United States can remain so influential while being so ineffectual.
These latest turns of the Obama administration’s Syria policy do more than confirm the administration’s strategic illiteracy; they refute the president’s broader claims about the international order and how America should engage that order.
The president’s National Security Strategy outlines Obama’s vision of a world in which countries refrain from the use of military force without approval of the United Nations Security Council. Whether they believed their policies would be so attractive that countries would not object or they believed U.S. power should be restrained when it could not gain approval, the president is now in the position of wanting to use military force to uphold an international norm and being refused an international mandate from the United Nations, from the relevant regional organization, the Arab League, and even from that most reliable ally, Britain.
Another central element of the administration’s doctrine is that cooperation with adversaries can foster better foreign-policy outcomes. This idea formed the basis for the Russia reset and included rejecting regime change as a U.S. objective in Iran and elsewhere, hesitance about democracy promotion efforts, and a tendency to whitewash depredations — think Secretary Hillary Clinton equivocating about China’s human rights record or declaring Bashar al-Assad a reformer while he was already killing Syrians. Now the administration finds its policy preferences shackled by the very adversaries it has been courting: Russia, China, Iran. The White House seems surprised to find hostility enduring, didn’t bother to understand the deep roots of opposition and conflicting interests, and didn’t build the bases for preserving our autonomy and limiting their latitude.
And then there’s leading from behind. The administration celebrated putting others at the forefront, our role on the margins of effort (even as the White House took credit for what others achieved). But that requires others willing and able to do so. It’s worth noting that only NATO among international organizations has supported action against Syria; Europeans continue to be the allies most likely to run risks to uphold norms and law. They were perhaps winnable constituencies, if the president had expended the effort to win them. Obama having such faith in his ability to persuade is disinclined to engage in the retail work of building support. With Britain out and many allies unwilling to act for the very reasons the Obama administration has trumpeted to justify its own inaction, NATO’s support will have little practical effect. Having taken for granted the support of staunch allies, the administration cannot even count on them.
"Smart power" in which the administration put such store has been buried in the grave of urgency. When pressed to "do something," the something the White House evidently selected is plinking military targets specially selected not to have strategic resonance. Far from identifying a political end state and then having the interagency fill in the diplomatic, economic, intelligence, and military means to achieve it, the Obama administration is using military force as an end in itself.
The president is thus left in the circumstance of arguing for the very approach he condemned in his predecessor: identifying a systemic threat to the international order that the international institutions will not address, adversaries aligned to preclude the trappings of legitimization, asserting that the will of the American people itself constitutes adequate allies, regional organizations divided, and scrambling to drum up a "coalition of the willing" in which the overwhelming burden will fall to the United States to use military force whose effects could very well either be wholly ineffective or worsen the threats to our country.
There’s a wonderful passage in Shakespeare’s Henry IV in which Glendower claims to have the power to "call spirits from the vasty deep." Hotspur deflates him by answering, "Will they come when you do call?" The Obama administration believed in "the international community." The mess Obama finds himself in on Syria suggests the international community doesn’t believe in him.