Friday, September 06, 2013


"It was Friday afternoon in London, the day after Mr Cameron’s stunning House of Commons defeat on Syria. The White House had been shocked, and some aides furious, at what they considered to be the British prime minister’s mismanagement of the vote. But Mr Obama’s tone in his phone conversation with his British colleague was a sign that the US president was turning over in his own mind the same problems that had been highlighted by the No vote of British MPs. With the British experience in mind, Mr Obama was in the early stages of doing an about-turn himself, culminating in his Saturday announcement in the Rose Garden that he would seek approval from Congress before he attacked Syria. In doing so, Mr Obama put on the line decades of presidential prerogative, in which the White House has asserted its right to wage war in the face of consistent complaints from Congress that its constitutional role in authorising military action was being bypassed. Mr Obama had tracked Mr Cameron down to his Cornwall holiday retreat a week earlier, setting in train a series of missteps that has damaged the US-UK alliance, tarnished America’s global standing and imperilled the military action itself. The president telephoned Mr Cameron to say the US wanted to punish the regime of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, for using chemical weapons. Bombing, he indicated, would start just a week later. Mr Cameron’s decision to recall parliament for an emergency session on Thursday to authorise British participation in the strikes was essential to fit in with the Obama timetable. Later, Mr Cameron’s advisers complained that his chaotic defeat that evening was partly a result of Mr Obama’s accelerated political timetable. There had been nothing rushed about Mr Obama’s response to the two-year long Syrian civil war. In 2012, in the midst of a hard-fought election campaign, Mr Obama batted off pressure to intervene in Syria by warning Mr Assad that if he used chemical weapons he would be crossing a “red line”. Since that first “red line” statement, several instances of gas attacks in Syria have been well documented, but each time Mr Obama demurred, citing the need for absolute confirmation that chemical weapons had been used. That changed on August 21, when the reports, with graphic television footage of victims, flooded out of Syria of a gas attack on rebel-held areas in Damascus. Deliberative to the point of inaction until then, Mr Obama could wait no longer. An apparent chemical attack by the regime of Bashar al-Assad on a Damascus suburb has shifted opinion in the west towards possible military intervention John Kerry, his secretary of state, like Hillary Clinton before him, had been pushing for a stronger US response to events in Syria. Mr Obama also had a new foreign policy team in place, headed by Susan Rice at the National Security Council and Samantha Power at the UN, two advisers with an interventionist bent. But the key decision maker, as ever in an administration in which the White House has tightly managed foreign policy, was Mr Obama himself. As flummoxed and angry as they were after the UK vote, Mr Obama’s aides made clear on Thursday evening in Washington that the president was sticking to his guns. The US would act “in its own national interest”, they said. On Friday, Mr Kerry delivered a stirring statement, chronicling in far greater detail than the UK had done the gruesome attacks and the number of people killed. The number of dead children, he said with precision, was 426. Mr Obama gave no indication he was thinking about going to Congress when he spoke with Mr Cameron on Friday, although he did muse in general terms about the need to square public opinion. Later in the afternoon, as he sat down with Baltic leaders, Mr Obama was still sticking with his timetable of a weekend strike, saying he supported “a limited, narrow act” in response to the gas attack. In the evening, however, the president reversed course. Two things were weighing on his mind, senior administration officials said, as he took a 45-minute stroll around the White House gardens with Denis McDonough, his chief of staff. The first was the UK vote, and what it signalled about the shaky lack of legitimacy of military strikes after the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The second was something he had heard in a briefing from General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, who had said the timing of any strike did not matter. Mr Obama believed he did not need to go to Congress to seek approval for a strike, but to the consternation of his national security staff he resolved to go anyway. He did not consult Mr Kerry or Chuck Hagel, defence secretary. Although Mr Cameron’s team believe the UK vote was a factor, they think the president was also bowing to Capitol Hill, which had grown more assertive about the need to be consulted throughout the week."
Richard McGregor and George Parker, "Obama’s last-minute wobble puts Syria strikes in doubt." The Financial Timnes. 1 September 2013, in
"But regardless of the outcome of this particular battle, I fear that the French cannot alone see the thing through, this despite the very substantial assistance that in money and matérial that we are giving them...[if the French lose this war] and Indochina passes into the hands of the Communists, the ultimate effect on our and your global strategic position with the consequent shift in the power ratios throughout Asia and the Pacific could be disastrous and I know unacceptable to you and me....This has led us to the hard conclusion that the situation in Southeast Asia requires us urgently to take serious and far-reaching decisions....I believe that the best way to put teeth in this concept and to bring greater moral and material resources to the support of the French effort is through the establishment of a new ad hoc grouping or coalition composed of nations which have a vital concern in the checking of Communist expansion in the area. I have in mind in addition to our two countries, France, the Associated States, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand and the Philippines....The important thing is that the coalition must be strong and it must be willing to join the fight if necessary. I do not envisage the need of any appreciable ground forces on your or our part."
American President Dwight Eisenhower to Prime Minister Churchill, 4 April 1954, in The Churchill-Eisenhower Correspondence, 1953-1955. Edited by Peter G. Boyle. (1990), pp. 136-137.
"Latest reports from Foster Dulles indicates that the British have taken a very definite stand against any collective conversations looking toward the development of an anticommunist coalition in Southeast Asia. Moreover Eden [Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden] has apparently gone to the Geneva Conference under strict instructions to press earnestly for a 'cease-fire' in Indochina, possibly with complete indifference to the complex decisions that the French and the Vietnamese will have to make. The only reason that we can visualize for such action is that the British are afraid that if the fighting continues we--and possibly other counties--might become involved....The attitude of Britain in this respect is bitterly resented by Australia and New Zealand. It is entirely possible that these two countries will approach the United States separately...we form a coalition to the complete exclusion of the British. This would be a tough one for us, but I think that I would go along with the idea because I believe that the British government is showing woeful unawareness of the risks we run in the region."
Diary Entry by American President Dwight Eisenhower, 27 April 1954, in The Eisenhower Diaries. Edited Robert H. Farrell. (1981), pp. 279-280.
At this point in time, it is difficult to ascertain if the former junior Senator from Illinois' step back from overtly intervening in the Syrian conflict was a case of someone who was forced by events to apply to the American Congress or conversely was sotto voce, quite happy to use the David Cameron's debacle in the House of Commons to see if the American Congress could provide a similar veto to his own alleged inclinations towards military intervention. The example from history of President Eisenhower, who while publicly and indeed even to some extent privately at first, was anxious to intervene in the conflict in Indochina, turned out to be quite willing if not necessarily happy to allow the British to veto the proposed intervention, seems most pertinent to my mind 1. And of all American Presidents in the post-war period, it is perhaps Eisenhower who the current American President most resembles in his views on the employment of force. In particular his reluctance in to employ force unilaterally in uncertain instances such as the Indochinese and Syrian conflicts 2. Au fond, it seems to me that if the American President decides to not intervene in the Syrian conflict due to a Congressional 'veto', 'red-lines' having been crossed or not, it will be more of a case of his using a negative Congressional vote as a fig leaf to get out of the paying up the Syrian blank cheque that he so incautiously issued earlier this year. And given the lack of logic which the proposed air & missile strikes on Syria commands, perhaps that is just as well.
1. For the historical literature over what course Eisenhower ultimately did or did not favor in the Indochina crisis, see: George Herring & Richard Immerman, "Eisenhower, Dulles and Dien Bien Phu: 'the day we didn't go to war' revisited." In Dien Bien Phu and the Crisis of Franco-American Relations, 1954-1955. Edited. Denise Artaud, et. al. (1990); Richard Immerman, "A Good Stout Effort: John Foster Dulles and the Indochina Crisis, 1954-1955." In John Foster Dulles and the Diplomacy of Cold War. Edited Richard H. Immerman, (1990); Melanie Billings-Yun, Decision Against War. (1988).
2. For this similarity of both outlook and policy, see: John Lewis Gaddis. Strategies of Containment. Revised Edition.(2005),pp.128-159.


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