Obama — saving face

After all the heightened drama,war noises, and threatening talk emanating for the last several weeks from Washington of mounting punitive attacks on Syria for Damascus’ alleged úse of chemical weapons (CWs), President Obama seems all set to accept a so-called compromise engineered by Moscow in cahoots with Bashar al-Assad whereby the Syrian govt will surrender its stock of CWs. This is about as plain a face-saving ruse as one can invent when finding oneself, as Obama did, in an impossible political situation. The American people by a decisive majority (59%) have said they do not accept even proven CW-use as provocation for war against Syria. Following the public’s mood, the White House discovered that the US Congress too had stiffened in opposition, and not all the political canvassing and badgering has moved both these sets of opinions an iota. Obama may have saved his face but he is, as a consequence, much reduced. Indeed, many American political pundits have even ventured that this political defeat means the beginning of the phase of Obama’s tenure in office as a lame duck president. And he still has another four years to go!

The fact is the success in hunting down and killing Osama bin Laden apparently filled the US President elected the first time around on an anti-war plank with visions of himself as a great commander-in-chief who relies on instinct to achieve military glory. Except, the American people have had enough of wars on the thinnest of pretexts and will not anymore countenance deployment of the US military to swat flies that turn out to be a nest of gnats. The failures in fighting the al-Qaida-Taliban in Afghanistan and assorted sunni and shia outfits in Iraq has, perhaps, cured the US of believing that there are any more such things as “small wars”. “Small wars” in the Philippines and in the Caribbean in early 20th Century made the reputations of presidents such as Teddy Roosevelt. In initiating similar adventures George W Bush departed a diminished president and Obama is on track for a similar denouement, if he doesn’t mend his ways.

Moreover, assuming there was a popular will for another war, this time in Syria, which could have gotten out of hand with Russian missile destroyers and Russian personnel manning the S-300/S-400 anti-aircraft batteries to blunt the first wave of the expected USAF attack sorties, and the Chinese flotilla of three missile destroyers also in the mix, apart from Britain and France, a reluctant set of NATO allies, and no great support elsewhere for any aggressive American action, where is the money to prosecute the operations? A minimum of a billion dollars a month for the Syrian theatre at a time of deep defence budgetary cuts makes for daunting circumstances. It persuaded Leaders from Obama’s own Democratic Party to counsel caution. Ironic isn’t it that in the event the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, showed Obama the way out?

So, in the wake of all this, it is status quo ante — Bashar Assad stays on in Damascus with renewed Russian military support. Israel which had hoped to ride on Obama’s desire for war by launching missile strikes on Syrian targets, has perforce to back down. And the Syrian rebel army is left, as they should have expected, to the tender mercies of Assad’s forces with tepid materiel assistance trickling in but not enough to upset the military equation. The rebels may still fight on but with progressively bleaker prospects.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Afghanistan, Asian geopolitics, China military, Europe, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, guerilla warfare, Missiles, Russia, russian assistance, russian military, United States, US., Weapons, West Asia, Western militaries. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Obama — saving face

  1. RV says:

    Superb and unparallelled analysis! Putin came up trumps and showed true statesmanship. On one side, by deftly taking the flat-footed Obama off guard, he showed all the instincts and training of an advanced Judo student (which he is). Next, by placing the Russian strategic forces on “standby”, persons with credibility say he broke a two decade long mental inertia/gangrene which had set into the morale and mind set of the Russian strategic forces. In the Indian context, one can only hope (with good rational) reason that the Congress continues to blunder and crumble, and NaMo is left as the only truly legitimate choice. I believe through bribery, etc., 2014 *may* see a Third Front government with external Congress support. NaMo should aim for 2015-2016.

  2. RV says:

    I know the US to be a civilized country. It’s very painful to observe that when President Obama seems to have agreed to accept a compromise solution, one still sees things like this:

    If the President of the US is willing to give peace a chance, why do vested interests keep trying to mess things up?

  3. Shaurya says:

    Here is a view point. What Obama has avoided by accepting this compromise is the risk of unintended consequences. The plan was to “degrade” and “hurt” Syrian military forces in the guise of hunting down chemical weapons. This plan would have entailed a sustained level of bombing without going all out to kill the top leadership or any serious destruction to C&C or civilian infrastructure. However, in doing so, there was a serious risk, in that at what time and locations would it have been possible for the opposition to take advantage of the situation even in localized environments to tip the balance, eventually culminating in an overthrow of Assad’s regime.

    The Russians and Assad both realized that if something was not done then almost certain there would be serious damage to their assets, including their chemical arsenal and could not risk this venture. Compromise was a way to sustain Assad’s regime.

    What Obama has avoided through this compromise is the danger that if Assad was toppled by the opposition, the west is still uncertain that the current opposition, rooted in political islam is in their interests.

    If Obama actually manages to get this Russian/Assad plan to safeguard the chemical weapons, then it should be treated as a tactical victory for Obama, where he managed to avoid “another” war that the US initiated, having no clue or sustaining will power to see through its end.

    • RV says:

      Assad is “the devil you know”. As Caroline Glick (who comes across as a very logical person) correctly points out, most of the Syrian opposition have significant AQ connections (see: http://www.carolineglick.com/e/2013/08/obamas-bread-and-circuses.php). These are “the devil you don’t want to know”. There is no such thing as a “neurosurgical strike on a nano-scale”, as some in the US establishment think they are “astutely strategizing”. Once the shooting starts, it cannot be magically stopped. Should Assad tumble, which is a very realistic outcome,………

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