The images are shocking: children gasping for air, shrouded bodies laid out in endless rows, relatives grieving over their loved ones.
The recent alleged chemical attacks in Syria that have reportedly killed at least 1,000 people have galvanized public opinion in favor of action. The problem is that no one can quite agree on what that actually means.
GlobalPost live blog: Syria attacks
President Barack Obama, speaking on the CBS program “Face the Nation” Friday morning, called the possible attacks “a big event of grave concern,” but added that any notion the United States could solve Syria’s “complex sectarian problem” is “overstated.”
US administration officials met on Thursday to discuss options, but reached no consensus on how to proceed.
According to The New York Times, “the meeting broke up without any decision… amid signs of a deepening division between those who advocate sending Mr. Assad a harsh message and those who argue that military action now would be reckless and ill timed.”
At the center of the quandary is President Obama, whose leadership in the latest crises in Syria and Egypt has been criticized by almost everyone.
“Anomalies, contradictions, confusion, and more than a little hypocrisy abound,” writes Aaron David Miller, a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a former State Department official.
And that’s in an article defending the president.
The problem, as more than one analyst has pointed out, is that Obama is a president who’s posed as a visionary — what writer and scholar John Nye calls a “transformational” leader — who dreams of changing the world.
“In the 2008 campaign, Obama talked about reshaping the international architecture, defending democratic values, and ridding the world of things like climate change and nuclear weapons,” writes John Cassidy of The New Yorker. “On receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, in 2009, he spoke of ‘bending history in the direction of justice.’ But experience … shows that Obama’s actions sometimes don’t match up to his more visionary statements.”
Obama’s caught in the gap — now growing to a chasm — between his rhetorical flourishes and the stark pragmatism of his policies. Analysts say that's a result of his pursuing a pragmatic policy of defending US interests as he understands them.
At the moment, the president and his military advisers see little to be gained in an active intervention in Syria, no matter how horrific the scenes of carnage that appear on Americans’ television screens.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, laid this out in a letter to Rep. Eliot Engel, ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. Engel had requested an analysis of possible options for punishing the Syrian regime.
“Syria today is not about choosing between two sides but rather about choosing one among many sides,” Dempsey wrote. “It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favor. Today, they are not.”
Critics point out that Obama’s overly cautious approach has undermined US credibility in the region and robbed it of any real influence over the horrors taking place in both Egypt and Syria.
“Our approach to Syria is failing because it’s unrealistic,” Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told The Daily Beast. “And America is losing influence because of a gap between its stated policy objectives and the reticence to do more to achieve them.”
In Egypt, the military has reacted with seeming indifference to the administration’s warnings that its continuing crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood supporters could damage relations between Cairo and Washington.
In Syria, Obama’s much-vaunted “red line” seems to have been of little use in stopping the regime of President Bashar al-Assad from using chemical weapons against its own citizens.
The Washington Post, not known for undue criticism of the administration, was harsh in its condemnation of the president, making him at least partly complicit in the multiple deaths in Syria:
“If the allegations of a massive new attack are confirmed, the weak measure adopted by President Obama in June — supplying small weapons to rebel forces — will have proved utterly inadequate,” wrote the editorial board in Wednesday’s paper. “The regime … may have been emboldened. Mr. Assad logically could have concluded that he had little to fear from the United States, even if chemical weapons use were escalated.”
It did not help that Samantha Power, the newly appointed US ambassador to the United Nations, skipped an emergency meeting on Syria at the UN on Wednesday. The White House said she was on a “pre-arranged personal trip,” and was represented by her deputy.
“[Powers’] absence from the UN on Wednesday sends a terrible message at a time when US credibility in the region is suffering," Richard Grenell, a former UN spokesman under the George W. Bush administration, wrote in an online column for Fox News.
Power did send a tweet:
Reports devastating: 100s dead in streets, including kids killed by chem weapons. UN must get there fast & if true, perps must face justice.
— Samantha Power (@AmbassadorPower) August 21, 2013
That has, to date, been the most forceful response from the administration on the alleged attacks.
Obama has been unfailingly cool and analytical in his public statements. The problem is that the public seems to want a more fiery reaction.
Opinion polls have shown that a majority of Americans favor a forceful response on Syria if it is proven that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons against its people.
But those results are at odds with the overwhelming numbers who say they oppose getting involved in another foreign war.
Americans, it seems, would like to think that they can and will intervene to save lives, but are not prepared to put up with the costs.
And those costs would be considerable: In July, Dempsey spelled out the options for intervention in Syria in dollars and cents. Most variants would cost in the neighborhood of a billion dollars per month, with considerable risk and limited prospects for success.
With the economic crisis only slowly improving in the United States, there’s very little appetite for such a commitment.
Obama has prioritized domestic affairs for his second term: protecting his health care reforms, promoting access to higher education, promoting a strong and vibrant middle class.
“There's no doubt [Obama would] rather be remembered as a president who tried to repair America's broken house than one who chased around the world on a quixotic quest to fix somebody else's,” Miller writes.
But the president has chosen a difficult path in a hazardous time, he adds.
“Obama wants to be on the right side of history and uphold US values, but he's increasingly confused on what that actually means.”
Confusion has led to inaction, which, according to The New Yorker’s Cassidy, may not be a bad thing.
“Pragmatism is rarely pretty, but it isn’t indefensible either … When we cannot be sure how to improve the world, prudence becomes an important virtue, and hubristic visions can pose a grave danger.”’