The Limits of Washington’s Power: U.S. Military Strike in Syria on Hold

For the past month at least, the world seems to have been discussing nothing but whether, how, and when the United States will engage in a punitive air strike of some sort against the Syrian regime of Bashir al-Assad. Three things stand out about this discussion: (1) It has been full of endless surprises in every aspect of the affair, including and perhaps especially the latest Russian proposal that Syria’s chemical weapons be turned over to some international agency. (2) The degree of worldwide opposition to U.S. military intervention has been extremely high. (3) Almost all the actors have been giving public statements that seem not to reflect their true concerns and intentions.


Let us start with the so-called unexpected Russian proposal, which Syria’s Foreign Minister has endorsed. Was this really the result of an off-hand, unserious remark of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, cleverly seized upon by the Russians the day before President Obama was scheduled to make his plea to the American people to endorse a military strike? It seems not. Apparently, Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov have been quietly discussing such a possibility for over a year.

Worldwide opposition to a U.S. strike, including opposition within the United States, has been remarkable in two ways. This is the first time since 1945 that the U.S. government has been faced with this degree of internal opposition to such proposed action, especially in Congress, which heretofore has always almost routinely gone along.

Furthermore, the opposition comes from many different quarters for many different reasons, which is what makes it so powerful. President Obama tried to dampen the opposition by promising to make only a “limited” strike. This actually increased opposition by adding to the forces against it those persons, in the United States, the Middle East, and elsewhere, who say a “limited” strike is untenable, sure to be inefficacious, and unacceptable precisely because it would be “limited.”

Was Obama then incompetent, or deceptive, or merely constrained by the relative decline of U.S. power in the world? Probably all three. In his messages to Congress and in the statements of his key staff, the motivating force behind his actions can be clearly seen. Obama’s deputy national security advisor, Benjamin J. Rhodes, made it explicit: “The U.S. for decades has played the role of undergirding the global security architecture and enforcing international norms. And we do not want to send a message that the United States is getting out of that business in any way.

That is precisely the problem. The United States no longer has the power to enforce its decisions. But Obama is unwilling to recognize this reality. In this regard, much of U.S. public opinion is ahead of him. And it is precisely this fact that is emphasized by many opponents. Take just two: The Jesuit Superior General, Father Adolfo Nicolás, and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Father Nicolás said: “I think that that a military intervention…is itself an abuse of power. The US has to stop acting and reacting like the big boy of the neighborhood of the world.” And Putin said in his op-ed in The New York Times that he disagreed with Obama’s statement about U.S. exceptionalism. “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional.” Try to imagine Joseph Stalin making that statement about the United States, and The New York Times publishing it. The world has changed.

Finally, this is why you shouldn’t take at face value public statements on any of the actors. For example, arms supply to the rebels. I have no doubt that the CIA, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar have been sending in some arms. But how many? All three countries are frightened by the prospects that these arms will ultimately strengthen their real enemies. For almost everyone in the region, Assad is not a problem. He is better for them than al-Qaeda. This is true even, or especially, for the Israelis. But they all have worries that do not involve Syria. Israel wants the United States to commit to military action as a prelude to action against Iran. Saudi Arabia wants to assert its leadership in the Arab world by judicious limited action in Syria. Qatar wants to contain Saudi Arabia. And the Egyptian army of course much prefers Assad to anyone else.

Where then are we headed? The Syrian civil war will continue for a long time to come. Syria may end up as a series of fiefdoms under the control of different armed forces. The Christian community may virtually disappear, after almost two millennia of existence there. The hawks who want a wider war will continue to push for it, everywhere. The chance of this expansion is small, but far from zero. Opposition to an unjustifiable U.S. military intervention in Syria needs to be maintained with great energy.