Will Obama break his silence?
I’m not as certain as Barry Rubin is that he will take the hard-headed if ignominious route of shrugging and saying, “Oops, forget about it,” sometime in the next couple of weeks. I suspect Samantha Power really, really doesn’t want him to, and that she has important supporters in the administration.
Obama himself has been silent as the Sphinx on what the whole Syria problem might mean to him or the United States, but the rest of the administration is making a tremendous amount of noise having what Charles Krauthammer has called a “moral spasm” over the Syria situation. The frantic pace comes off almost as a campaign within the administration to box Obama in, so that he has to conduct an intervention in some form.
Obama has no geopolitical instincts or judgment whatever; none of it seems to register as real with him, in the way community organizing, ward-heeling, and constituency-tending do. I don’t read him as sure-footed enough in this arena to make independent decisions with confidence. Characteristically, he was maneuvered by many of the same advisors into an unexecutable hybrid strategy in Afghanistan and a sort of anti-strategy in Libya.
He mostly sent out others to announce and explain his policies, as he does on everything not directly related to constituency-tending. But his pattern of actual decisions on national security issues – as opposed to their presentation – has not been predictably cynical, poll-oriented, or even path-of-least-resistance. It has instead alternated between feckless, ideological, and dilettantish.
Obama may surprise us and authorize a military action against Syria. If so, it will probably be another annoying hybrid operation, trying not to be too purposefully forcible while still requiting the sentiments of moral outrage. Doing this would require assuming away the predictions of messiness and manifold consequences that should otherwise, as Rubin suggests, make him throw in the towel.
The European allies may get cold feet, realizing that with America dazed and confused, they are out of position to plan comprehensively for major blowback from Russia and Iran. Then again, they may not. I have been surprised by their air of confidence in the last couple of days. Unlike the days of Libya in 2011, their posture has been neither tentative nor long-building. About a tougher and more multifarious problem, they seem to have fewer qualms.
One factor may prove to be the most reliable clue: the preparations, if any, that Russia makes. It’s not clear how visible they will be. But if the Russians feel it necessary to make new preparations, such as moving military forces into the Caucasus or flying things into Syria, it will be because they seriously expect an organized Western action of non-negligible scope.
My assessment is that right now, they can’t predict either what Obama will do, and perhaps aren’t so sure about Cameron and the other Europeans. A perilous situation – and one that is giving bad actors ideas as I type this, regardless of the outcome of the Syrian chemical weapons event.