14 Jun 2013

Obama opts for ‘intervention lite’

On Syria President Obama has been a very reluctant warrior. He has now swallowed hard and decided to get more involved. But this is still a gentle toehold, not a boot on the ground. Call it intervention lite.

Here’s why I think he decided to take this tentative plunge. The official reason given by the White House is that evidence showed the Assad regime had crossed Mr Obama’s red line with a series of chemical attacks.

These attacks are, we are told, small scale. The administration could have continued to say what it said last week, which is that they need to have firm evidence who used the weapons, when and how, before joining the French and the British in their more robust position. Until recently they seemed quite content to kick the red line into the long grass.

Then something changed. The red line that made the difference for President Obama was the overt and decisive involvement of Hezbollah on the side of the Assad regime.

It helped them to win back Qusair. It could still help them to reconquer Aleppo. The military tide is beginning to turn against the rebels. The prospect of a proxy Shia-Sunni war in Syria being won by Iran, Hezbollah and its suppliers in Russia is galling to the White House.

But there is another red line and it was drawn by the Clintons.

Earlier this week Bill Clinton, who has become a friend and mentor to the President openly criticised Obama’s inertia on Syria. He added that Americans elected their Presidents to win. Ouch!

He reminded the audience of his military involvement in Bosnia and Kosovo and said that on some issues, like Syria, it is wrong to be led by the opinion polls. Presidents need to lead their public.

Clinton forgot to mention that he himself had to be dragged to the altar of intervention kicking and screaming by Tony Blair, among others. Clinton also once told me that his biggest regret was doing nothing over Rwanda.

We also know that Hilary Clinton had led the interventionist lobby in the White House when she was secretary of state but was overruled repeatedly by the president’s caution. The Clintons are getting their own back and Bill is doing the talking so that Hillary remains untarnished for her own probable run for the White House in 2016.

The big question now is what kind of military aid will be sent. We are not being told but the word is that the American list falls far short of the kind of anti-tank, anti-aircraft ordnance that the “moderate” Syrian opposition wants and that every group there would surely like to get its hands on.

It has also become obvious that the backdoor route for arms from Saudi Arabia and Qatar is chaotic, sporadic and possibly counter productive.

The next questions cascade in no particular order. Will it make a difference? Will it just fuel the civil war? Could it escalate a regional conflict? And could the Americans get sucked in? Remember that Vietnam started with a group of military advisers.

There are as yet known unknowns, to borrow a phrase from the Bush administration. But so far we can call Obama’s intervention a case of “smoking without inhaling”, to borrow a phrase from Bill Clinton.

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