President Obama and Syria: The “Waiting for Godot” Strategy
September 1, 2013
When Samuel Beckett wrote “Waiting for Godot,” he was not writing an instruction manual on strategy for American Presidents. Unfortunately, however, that seems to be the instruction manual President Obama has read. He has suddenly transformed a rushed call for immediate action into a waiting game where it is not clear what he or the U.S. is waiting for, and where much of the action may come to border on tragicomedy.
Several things were clear as Secretary Kerry delivered his first philippic on Syria and chemical weapons. The U.S. still had no clear strategy and plan for dealing with the Syrian civil war some three years after its beginning. The U.S. had offered humanitarian aid and delivered some, but never adopted an open aggressive policy to ensure effective collective action and that humanitarian aid would be adequate. The U.S. then talked about providing arms for the rebels, but left its efforts at so low and covert a level it is unclear what they are accomplishing.
More broadly, President Obama set poorly defined red lines for Syrian use of chemical weapons, but does not seem to have prepared any contingency plans for what would happen if they were used on a level the U.S. and the world could not ignore. In spite of what various U.S. and British officials have said was 10 to 14 previous uses of chemical weapons, the Administration had no apparent plan to act if the red lines were crossed beyond the point the world could not ignore or to then make its case to the American people, Congress, and the world.
The Administration doesn’t seem to have created contingency plans with its allies, prepared joint plans for military action it was ready to explain and defend, or to have laid the groundwork for releasing intelligence data. Instead, our British ally released one intelligence report talking about “at least 350 fatalities.” Secretary Kerry was sandbagged into using an absurdly over-precise number like 1429 dead (of which an equally precise 426 were children); number which seem to have been taken from an unreliable Syrian source called the Local Coordination Committees and which did not agree with other Syrian opposition sources like the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
President Obama was then forced to round off the number at “well over 1,000 people” – creating a mix of contradictions over the most basic facts all too similar to the confusion in “Waiting for Godot” and the mistakes the U.S. made in preparing Secretary Powell’s speech to the UN on Iraq in 2003.
There may have been a case for a more measured, careful approach. Secretary Kerry would have been able to refer to U.S. confirmation of the use of Sarin before the he and the President called for action, using blood and hair samples he described in interviews on September 1st. He and our ally would not have had to rely so much, on uncertain 3rd party reports and TV news coverage.
The U.S. did need allies and to take the time to build a solid coalition to offset the lack of a UN mandate. It did need time to make a credible case to the world, issue the best public intelligence report possible, explain its case in international law, give the UN a credible chance to report, and build a stable base of Congressional support.
The rhetoric Secretary Kerry and the President used initially in rushing towards action needed to be more measured, tuned better to international ears, and to openly address the key issue no senior official has yet touched upon: what happens in Syria and the region after the U.S. strikes – if the U.S. strikes.
Instead, the Administration first rushed into the kind of rhetoric you only use if you actually intend to act regardless of domestic and international support. It tied its entire effort to Syrian use of chemical weapons and the precedent for using such weapons forever. And only then did it suddenly spun around and talked about then need for delay, measured action, and Congressional approval.
While Beckett might not appreciate my efforts to define Godot as the Syrian Civil war, the Administration followed the script of Beckett’s play to the extent it never defined the reasons for what the actors were doing, why they were waiting, or what would happen after Godot came. Chemical weapons are a very real issue, but they are only a subset of the real issue: the overall level of suffering and growing regional instability coming out of the Syrian civil war.
We now face the inevitable reaction. The President’s decisions have reinforced all of the doubts about American strength, and our willingness to act, of both our friends and foes. We now have ten days of confusion and uncertainty to deal with, and then Congress will be evidently be asked to act only on a strike tailored to deter the future use of chemical weapons. It will still lack a meaningful plan for dealing with the Syrian civil war and its impact on the region.
Israel is threatening to return to hawk mode over Iran. Russia and China are in the “we told you so” mode. Assad has already launched new conventional artillery barrages against Syrian civilian areas and now has time enough to disperse a significant number of key physical assets from fixed target sites. France is left hanging – as is Britain for very different reasons. Our Arab allies and Turkey have no clear lead to follow. Our whole strategy in the Middle East remains unclear, as is our entire national security posture in an era of Sequestration and funding crises.
If the Congress does support the President, it will only be after we have openly faltered, and after having rushed forward before deciding on a course of delay. The President will have set a uniquely dangerous precedent by turning to Congress only after he appeared weak, rather than doing from the start, and will have then committed himself to wait at least ten days for the congress to return for its holiday. The message to the world is obvious.
If the Congress does not support the President, or should split openly in front of the world, the message will be far worse. A bad set of signals to the world will become a near disaster. Doubts about the U.S. and this President will reach dangerous levels among both friend and foe, and our failure to deal with Syria will spillover into Asia, the Afghan conflict, Iran, and any effort to bring an Arab-Israel peace. U.S. influence in dealing with the upheavals in the Middle East will be seriously undermined, the message in terms of chemical weapons and proliferation will be far worse than if we had been passive and said nothing, and we still will have no meaningful strategy for dealing with the Syrian civil war.
The President needs to show real leadership, not overreaction, sudden reversal, and uncertainty. We need the President to shape a broad policy for the Syrian civil war even more than we need a far clearer policy for preventing the use of chemical weapons. More broadly, we need leadership to deal with Iran, its moves towards nuclear weapons and any new options created by Iran’s election. We need clear decisions over how the U.S. will deal with Afghanistan as it pulls out its combat troops. We need a clear definition of what “rebalancing” in Asia really means. We need a clear concept for our future national security posture and spending, and our defense strategy, rather than a food fight over defense spending alone. This is the 21st century. It is not a play and we cannot wait for Godot.
Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
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