The tortured mental and rhetorical gymnastics now consuming Washington over a potential military strike on Syria are perilously close to a theater of the absurd. The spectacle of a president setting supposedly serious red lines only to pull back at the last moment, the twisting of language by the administration’s diplomatic and military leaders to distinguish before Congress the difference between “war” and “military strikes,” and the complete absence of a strategy or articulation of national-security interests all paint a picture of a great power adrift and uncertain of what it wants to do with the power it has built up over decades.
What the surreal spectacle does do, however, is help Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. In at least four ways, Assad can only be heartened by the Keystone Kops approach of both the president and Congress.
First, it should make him realize that if he holds off on further atrocities against civilians, the sense of urgency on Obama’s part may well dissipate. Weeks have already passed without any American response to the gassing of over a thousand innocent men, women, and children. Another attack like that and both Congress and the president would be united in punishing him. Now, if Congress votes against the use of force and Obama backs down, Assad can potentially selectively use chemical weapons at a time of his choosing, daring the president to take up the war drums again. In any case, lying low and not goading the Americans may suffice to save him from a military attack.
Second, Assad has seen Obama blink, and he may feel he can push Obama into embracing the inner anti-interventionist many believe he really is. Assad surely knows that if he makes any American military strike seem irrelevant to the outcome of the civil war; threatens region-wide consequences, including a wider war; moves his forces around, builds new command centers, disperses his chemical weapons, in short, does anything to make it look like an American attack would be messy and complicated, he may well harden opposition to a strike in Congress and force Obama into backing down permanently. Obama has lost control over the pace of events, and the longer he waits, the worse it will seem to intervene.
Third, the spectacle of American disarray and confusion is a gift to Russia and China, who can poke Obama and America in the eye with less and less fear of any response. Lack of support on issues ranging from Iran to North Korea has put Washington at odds with Beijing and Moscow since the beginning of Obama’s term. However, tensions with both countries have been growing in recent months, and Obama’s recent gratuitous insult of Putin (that he slouches like a kid in the back of the class), supposedly outraged the Russian leader. What better way to help speed along the decline of American global influence than to take advantage of the country’s ambivalence about action in Syria. Putin has gone so far as to consider sending a group of Russian parliamentarians to Washington to seed further doubts among Congress.
Finally, Assad is helped by the great uncertainty over America’s global role that Syria represents. Syria, a relatively contained civil war, has now become the symbol of a potential turning point in America’s post-1945 identity. This is an issue separate from Obama’s agonistes, but cuts to the heart of doubt about what America should do to keep global order after more than a decade of war in the Middle East that has not solved the vexing problem of radical Islamism or state building. Budget cuts to America’s military are but a symptom of a deeper malady, yet they also make less likely the possibility of decisive military action. This perfect storm of strategic confusion, political doubt, and stress on the U.S. military is the best news possible for the embattled but vicious Syrian leader.
He must have increasing confidence that the odds of no American action are fairly good (which may be a misplaced confidence), but even more confidence that whatever President Obama does will be militarily unimportant and largely for political show at home, to repair the self-inflicted wounds of a muddled, hesitant, and often incomprehensible policy. Watching yesterday’s Senate testimony by Kerry, Hagel, and Dempsey, one would be tempted to agree with Assad that all the trends are breaking his way.