U.S. President Barack Obama listens to statements during a round table meeting at the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013. The threat of missiles over the Mediterranean is weighing on world leaders meeting on the shores of the Baltic this week, and eclipsing economic battles that usually dominate when the G-20 world economies meet.
Sergei Karpukhin, Associated Press - Ap
Analysis: Syria decision could steer remainder of Obama's term
- Article by: PETER BAKER
- New York Times
- September 5, 2013 - 10:57 PM
ST. PETERSBURG, Russia – President Obama and his advisers view the coming decision on military action against Syria as a potential turning point that could effectively define his foreign policy for his final three years in office.
As he lobbied world leaders at a summit meeting here in person and members of Congress back in Washington by telephone Thursday, Obama argued that a failure to act would be an abdication of the so-called indispensable U.S. role since the end of the Cold War, leaving no one to step in when international bodies fail to.
A question of Iran
In private, Obama and his team see the votes as a guidepost for the rest of his presidency. If Congress does not support a relatively modest action in response to a chemical attack that killed more than 1,400 people in Syria, Obama advisers said, the president will not be able to count on support for virtually any use of force.
Although Obama has asserted that he has the authority to order the strike on Syria even if Congress says no, White House aides consider that almost unthinkable. As a practical matter, it would leave him more isolated than ever and seemingly in defiance of the public’s will at home. As a political matter, it would almost surely set off an effort to impeach him, which even if it went nowhere could be distracting and draining.
As a result, Obama would be even more reluctant to order action in the one case that has most preoccupied military planners: the development of a nuclear bomb by Iran. Any operation to take out Iranian nuclear facilities would require a far more extensive commitment than the strike envisioned against Syria.
Already a sometimes-reluctant warrior, Obama pulled out all U.S. troops from Iraq, ordered a withdrawal from Afghanistan and lately has talked about scaling back his aggressive use of drones in Pakistan and eventually ending the war against terrorism. Some critics have argued that in subcontracting the Syria decision to Congress, Obama was looking for someone else to blame.
White House officials deny that, saying what the president really wants is a united front. But to opponents of a Syria strike, a retreat from further use of force in the wake of a congressional rejection would finally reverse what they see as excessive militarism since Sept. 11, 2001.
It may be that the dire talk from the White House reflects a strategy to muscle Congress into line: Vote against this, the message being, and you vote against protecting Israel from Iran. “Obviously defeat would be a blow to presidential leadership but I think not fatal to a decision to attack Iran because the stakes are different,” said Gary Samore, a former national security aide to Obama. “The danger is that Iran might misread congressional opposition to a Syria attack as a green light to move toward building nukes, which would force Obama’s hand.”
Manage dual audiences
Obama presented his case to leaders gathered from the Group of 20 nations but found as much wariness as he has in Congress. While France, Turkey and Saudi Arabia support such a strike, most of the others were more cautious, and the meeting’s host, President Vladimir Putin, was openly hostile.
The summit put on full display the increasingly awkward and tense relationship between Obama and Putin. To protest Russia’s decision to grant temporary asylum to Edward Snowden, Obama canceled a one-on-one meeting in Moscow and declined a private session in St. Petersburg. As he arrived at Constantine Palace, Obama was greeted by Putin, and the two shook hands in a businesslike if not warm encounter.
Diving into the meetings, Obama tried to manage dual audiences, the one in front of him representing the world’s greatest powers and the one back home that holds the fate of his foreign policy in its hands.
“One thing for Congress to consider,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, his deputy national security adviser, “is the message that this debate sends about U.S. leadership around the world.”
© 2013 Star Tribune