Obama's indecision on Syria strains U.S. credibility: Neil Macdonald

As President Obama argues in favour of a punitive strike on Syria, the issue of the moment in Washington is whether America's credibility and reputation are imperiled. Neil Macdonald says that to talk seriously about American credibility, especially in the Middle East, requires both a disassociation from history and an utter absence of irony.

Secretary of State John Kerry makes case to Congress for a military strike

As President Obama tries to push his reluctant nation into yet another foreign war, the issue of the moment in Washington is whether America’s credibility and reputation are imperiled, particularly in the Middle East.

Obama’s adversaries say it is, and so does the president himself. His subalterns, Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, are up on Capitol Hill, invoking America’s solemn duty to act where others won’t.

"The world is watching," declared Kerry.

It’s a perfect example of American solipsism: the assumption that America actually possesses the virtuous reputation that the doctrine of American exceptionalism preaches.

Americans are taught from childhood that their country’s actions are informed by universal values of good and evil and a duty to export democracy, if not guided by the Almighty Him/Herself.

That’s not to say America doesn’t try to do the right thing — and even succeeds, occasionally. Its leaders do struggle with ugly truths, which is refreshing, given the feckless amorality of people like Vladimir Putin.

But to seriously talk about American credibility, especially in the Middle East, requires both a disassociation from history and an utter absence of irony. Both are on full display here this week.

Most of the current debate centres on President Obama’s warning a year ago that chemical weapons were his "red line" and that the Syrian regime would trigger "enormous consequences" if it used them in that country’s civil war.

That red line slowly became a running joke, as Western governments concluded Assad gassed his citizens repeatedly and with impunity in the months that followed. (Putin further stoked the absurdity, maintaining the rebels, not Assad, had committed the atrocities.)

Red lines set, violated, moved

In fact, "red lines" are old hat in the Middle East. They are constantly being set, violated and moved. The term was popular there before it ever entered the American lexicon.

But in a region where people remember the betrayal of the Sykes-Picot agreement as though it was yesterday (Great Britain and France secretly carved up the Middle East between them after World War One), and regard the Crusades as though they happened last week, it is the long history of American and other Western actions that burdens the U.S.

U.S. President Barack Obama said in 2012 that if there was evidence that Syria had used chemical weapons against its own people, it would represent the crossing of a "red line" and that it would trigger "enormous consequences." (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Americans might move on after a week or so; the rest of the world doesn’t.

Take chemical weapons. Obama and Kerry are boiling righteously about their use in Syria, but Washington was considerably less outraged just a few decades ago.

There is ample evidence America supplied Saddam Hussein with the precursors for the chemical weapons he used in battle against Iran in the 1980s. Even when he turned them on his own citizens, and the U.S. Senate was finally persuaded to pass economic sanctions, the House of Representatives stopped them dead.

The Reagan administration, which propped up tyrants throughout the region, opposed taking any action.

"I always found it ironic," Rep. Chris Van Hollen said last week, "that the United States went to war on false pretenses that Saddam Hussein had chemical weapons and weapons of mass destruction in 2003, when he did not have them, but failed to take any action in 1988 when he actually used them."

One suspects Iraqis felt that irony, too. Certainly they remember George H.W. Bush telling them to rise up after the first Gulf War, before leaving them to Saddam’s tender mercies.

Going back much further, there is still debate over whether British colonial authorities deployed chemical weapons as part of the wholesale slaughter its air force carried out to suppress Iraqi uprisings after the First World War.

Certainly Winston Churchill was keen. "I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes . . .  [to] spread a lively terror," wrote the great man.

Empty declarations

In any event, does anyone think the average Syrian distinguishes between the rape and torture and bombs and bullets Assad’s executioners have used to dispatch their wives and husbands and children, and the sarin gas he’s alleged to have dropped in the suburbs of Damascus last month?

It’s just as likely they recall George W. Bush’s empty inaugural declarations in 2005 about protecting the oppressed of the world from dictators. And of course, Barack Obama’s words as he went to war against Muammar Ghaddafi two and a half years ago: "As President, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action."

More than 100,000 Syrian corpses later, Obama has done nothing.

Yes, the White House did announce in June that as a result of earlier chemical weapons attacks by Assad, it was authorizing the CIA to arm the Syrian rebels. But as of today, those arms remain undelivered.

More than two years ago, Obama and his officials began declaring that Assad must go. Now, fearing who might come next, "regime change" in Syria is out, and "containment" is in. Any military strikes will somehow be limited to deterring use of chemical weapons without influencing the outcome of the civil war — as though such a thing is possible.

In Egypt, the United States is now backing and financially supporting the military junta that removed a democratically elected president from office and massacred his supporters. Because American law forbids the provision of financial aid to any government installed by a coup, Obama has simply chosen not to call it a coup.

The list goes on. And on.

Serial hypocrisy, of course, is not unique to American foreign policy. As the polished ex-diplomat and former State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told me this week, "Consistency is hard. I mean, obviously if we were looking across the world today and asking what leader you would take out because he has killed not hundreds of thousands of his people but millions of his people, it would be the regime in North Korea. But we are not doing that because they have nuclear weapons. You do what you can do."

Crowley clearly thinks America is routinely singled out unfairly in an unfair world.

But America singles itself out. And, of course, so did Barack Obama. He was going to be so different. It would appear he’s not.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.