President Obama’s volte face on launching an attack on Syria has little to do with his desire for a peaceful solution to the country’s civil war and everything to do with the ongoing crisis of his administration, which is marked by a lack of public support for military action.
Obama must have thought he had appointed a seasoned veteran as secretary of state when John Kerry, a former presidential candidate and a fluent French speaker, succeeded the experienced Hillary Clinton. But Kerry’s bungling last week saw Obama’s war plans unravel at a rate of knots.
Support in Congress for military action was already in doubt when Kerry said in London that a strike would be “unbelievably small” by comparison with Iraq’s “shock and awe” onslaught in 2003. Republicans prepared to give Obama the benefit of the doubt on Syria, rapidly backed away from lending him their votes in the Senate on the grounds that such an attack would make America look weak and stupid.
Before that, the House of Representatives was showing an overwhelming majority against an attack, driven on by opinion polls showing over 60% of the public against military action. By all accounts, Kerry bungled a second time when he suggested that if Syria destroyed its chemical weapons stocks, a deal could be reached with the Assad regime.
While the State Department and the warlike UN ambassador Helen Rice – she was for “regime change” in Syria – desperately tried to dismiss Kerry’s remarks, Obama breathed a sigh of relief. He quickly took up Russia’s support for the idea and, as we know, a deal of sorts has been struck and the vote in Congress abandoned.
The fact that the autocrat Putin, who runs a ruthless regime in a Russia dominated by oligarchs, where opponents often find themselves jailed, could embarrass Obama politically by writing an opinion piece in the New York Times about the need for “consensus” and referring to the Founding Fathers of the US constitution, only rubbed salt in the wound.
More about that later. Just to say, however, that the latest poll shows that just 36% say they approve of Obama’s handling of the Syria situation, while 53% disapprove. There is overwhelming support for the US-Russia deal, however.
Meanwhile, the sense of crisis surrounding the administration deepened when Obama accepted former US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers' withdrawal from the race to be head of the US central bank. He was among the front-runners to succeed Ben Bernanke as head of the Federal Reserve.
Summers was known as Mr Deregulation under president Clinton, with some now holding him responsible in part for the financial collapse of 2007-8. He was also in favour of switching off the Fed’s printing of money sooner rather than later, which sent markets into a spin. Democrats also opposed his nomination because in 2005 he suggested that women had less innate ability in maths and science than men. Ironic, then, that the job looks likely to go to current Federal Reserve vice-chairman Janet Yellen. She would be the first woman in the role.
Back to Syria. The Putin-Obama deal is intended to reinforce the status quo while putting any political solution to a destructive civil war on the back burner. Russia can keep its ally Assad in power, ridiculing any suggestion that the regime would use chemcial weapons when it is quite capable of doing so and the UN report suggests it did. Moscow can keep selling arms to Syria and retain its naval base, while maintaining its historic sphere of influence in the region which dates back to Tsarist times. Obama is relieved that he didn’t suffer defeat in Congress for a military adventure that could have easily sparked a wider Middle East war.
In all this, the right of the Syrian people to self-determination, free from the malign influence of Russia, the United States, Saudi Arabia and other states with their own agendas, is never mentioned. Major power politics has prevailed once again over the interests of ordinary people. However, as the events in Washington show, the American people have found their anti-war voice which makes you optimistic that the old order can be challenged.