The vote on Syria hardly matters

September 10, 2013

The details of American involvement in Syria seem to change every minute. First the Obama administration was going to launch a “limited, narrow” attack, with international backing, against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime as a punitive response to chemical weapons use. Then the administration was going to do it more or less alone. A week and a half ago, Obama punted on the issue, asking for congressional backing (but all the while stressing he could strike without Congress’ permission). And now, thanks to gaffe diplomacy, it’s possible that America won’t strike Syria at all, as the administration is willing to delay a vote in favor of pursuing a diplomatic solution — like Russia’s proposal that Syria hands over its chemical weapons to the international community. That Russia’s plan is likely aimed more at scuttling strikes than at actually rounding up Assad’s chemical arsenal seems beside the point.

For more than a week, the prospect of a strike has dominated headlines, with a vote billed as the all-important variable. Here’s what all that hype is missing: While Obama’s decision to punt to Congress had far-reaching implications, at this point whether the U.S. actually strikes hardly matters. Whether the vote goes through, goes down, or never happens, it doesn’t have a huge impact on Obama, Syria, or America’s underlying priority in the region — Iran.

If the decision to strike Syria mattered overwhelmingly to President Obama, he wouldn’t have gone to Congress in the first place. Obama knows that, in this decade, elections are not won and lost on foreign policy. Only 5 percent of voters in the 2012 presidential election said their top issue was foreign policy. By punting to Congress, Obama made clear that he values the political cover it provides more than the actual issue at hand — to strike or not to strike. If the strike gets voted down, the defeat would only have limited domestic impact for Obama, as most of the damage is already done. And if the vote is delayed indefinitely — as a result of exploring Russia’s proposal, for example — then the fallout for Obama is even less severe.

The vote also doesn’t matter that much for Syria. It would certainly matter if America was planning on engaging in the war at large with a mind to shift the balance of power. But the United States isn’t aiming to fundamentally undermine Assad. Remember that America would be telegraphing in advance how long this strike would last and what it would target. John Kerry called any potential strike “unbelievably small.” And now Obama is angling for a diplomatic path that could avert such a strike altogether.

And it’s clear the Syrian attack has never been about Syria, but about American credibility abroad. Most of the credibility that America has lost came when Obama first opened the matter up to Congress. It matters little to Iran whether Congress approves or rejects a Syrian strike, because the deliberations are so different from what we’ll see if Iran hurtles toward nuclear breakout capacity. Iran was most interested in whether Obama could summon allies, and then his own courage, to defend a red line that he personally set. He could not. If you’re Iran, the major lesson is that the Obama administration is weak when it’s trying to mount backing for military action. Whatever happens from here doesn’t change that.

There’s a case to be made that key allies like Japan and Israel will take a failure to strike as a sign that America is paring back what it deems critical to its national security. If the White House can’t successfully make the case that deterring chemical weapons use warrants a military response, what’s to say it can summon support when allies are in need?

But even that is a stretch, since the Syrian issue is so discrete. This is a question about whether to engage in a symbolic gesture that won’t change a war few Americans want to be a part of. That’s yet another reason why the status of the vote doesn’t matter: it’s not a precedent for future action (although Obama calling for the vote to begin with is another story).

As Obama chooses to pursue Russia’s latest suggestion for a diplomatic approach, even Congress is gearing up to punt on voting for or against a strike. Not that it matters much.

PHOTO: An anti-Assad protester carries the Syrian freedom flag in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington September 9,  2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque


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Excellent article. Long-term effects of 2013 Syria crisis are difficult to assess now. According to US election calendar (that determines engagement in foreign wars) the next free slots for such wars are: Spring-Summer 2015 (although Republicans would be reluctant due to 2016 Presidential Election) and Spring-Autumn 2017. US demographics is against Republican presidents, so I think in 2016 Democratic President would be elected. That means 2017 slot would likely not be utilized (even if he/she is not given Nobel Prize like Obama).
In the light of upper mentioned the fact that 2013 Syria slot was wasted in such a manner is really bad for US credibility and leadership. (Obama should have hit fast in late August, just 100 cruise missiles in 2 hours and a stop, even if targeted mainly at desert) In short term perspective world is a safer place. Turkey, Quatar, Saudia Arabia were shown their place in a game of Great Powers. But consequences for US and NATO and allies are negative:
-future handling of Iran would be US/Israel-Russia/China consensus based plus economic sanctions on Iran much more difficult to be effected,
– NATO shown it is not one block, US seems isolated, really stupid for Europe NATO countries because Russia will use it to the maximum,
– on world stage it was symbolic end of US unilateralism, introduction of G-2: US vs China/Russia.

Posted by Wantunbiasednew | Report as abusive

I still believe that the proof was not sufficient enough for justification of the break of the international law.
To make another mistake in acting “based on intelligence” would be a disaster.
The U.S. credibility is a relative term. The U.S. credibility would hardly be harmed among the nations voted against the strike. It’s is all the world, in fact. Besides the NATO countries.
The strike would be not approved by the U.S. Congress. It would hardly make things better in Syria. But the consequences might be quite dangerous.
I actually think that the CW plan is a result of discussion between all the powers involved. What is seen in MSM is misleading.

Posted by OUTPOST2012.NET | Report as abusive

It is more significant than you think. For the first time in a long time the people are saying no to what the government says is best.

Posted by BidnisMan | Report as abusive

The conditionality of American air strikes lends strength to diplomacy, not weakness!

Nobody would care about American diplomacy if the strikes were unconditional, either to happen or not to happen.

The only way to make tyrants fear the possession or use of WMD is to make military strikes fully conditional on the results of strong, credible inspections; that cannot be avoided, deferred or frustrated.

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive


I said from the very beginning. Obama has set the precedent.
It is no-brainer to fire 50 or 100 cruise missiles. And to see what happens next.
It is difficult to change “business as usual.”

Now we can get a draft of a plan:

1. Syria signs the treaty.
2. U.N. inspectors need protection.
3. UNPROFOR institution is used. There were 40,000 in Yugoslavia. There will be a need in twice as many in Syria.
4. We have some sort of “peaceful intervention.”
5. All options are available. Including the partition of the country.

Posted by OUTPOST2012.NET | Report as abusive

ANOOP VERMA from,ballia,India,, – this is the policy of america to threat someone for his goal but i am unable to understand america`s goal. his most important goal is to give their inhibitance a better healthcare and job oppotunity it is better enough than these types of wars like iraq, afghanistan,kosovo vietnam. wars do not give but it take like money ,lives and throw back in ancient, so america should cooperate UN to resolve SYRIAN crisis

Posted by bairia | Report as abusive

From David Rohde’s Reuters article: “Russia blinked for the first time in two years of obstinance in Syria.”

The real interest of the U.S. was not Syria itself, but delivering the message that we will no longer accept Russian (or Chinese) abuses in the the UN when their client states violate international law.

Posted by QuietThinker | Report as abusive

The calls, emails, faxes to Congress members and to the White House are overwhelmingly AGAINST any strike in Syria. This has energized the voters and general public like no other foreign matter in years.

Maybe in the past only 5% of the citizens have been interested in foreign policy, but not now.

We have spent BILLIONS in military aid to Israel and other countries in the region – if they won’t take care of problems in their own back yards and defend themselves after all the arms, training and planes and other equipment, those billions have been wasted.

Posted by AZreb | Report as abusive


“Blinked” is a good metaphor. In fact, all parties involved feel stuck in the Syria crisis. No wonder that Obama and Putin played a short but good sonata in four hands. Or, maybe there were six or eight hands there.

“we will no longer accept..” – what are talking about? There is no adequate proof that Assad used CW. And even if he did. One thing is when a ME dictator violates the international law. When it is being done by the U.S. – it’s a completely different case.

Posted by OUTPOST2012.NET | Report as abusive

Some comments state: “There is no adequate proof that Assad used CW”.

Really? Syria’s Assad govt has been known for years to have CW, and to test them regularly. Various European (UK, France) newspapers published articles over the last few days reporting that Western, i.e. US, UK, France, Germany Intelligence Services had been exchanging data on Syria’s govt CW for years, and that some of these western intelligence and military services had specifically held joint meetings on that subject over the last 2 years, as civil war in Syria was expanding.

To say that someone else than the Syrian army could have committed this chemical gas attack on Eastern suburbs of Damascus that were under the control is disingenuous, to say the least.

As to I. Bremmer’s article and his conclusion that this Syria case becomes a reference of US govt actions – or inaction – on other potential future conflicts (such as Japan vs China, about the East Sea islands disputes, or Israel vs Iran about Iran’s development of nuclear weapons), I think such an automatic and rigid conclusion is doubtful, unrealistic, as each foreign relations crisis operates to a large extent according to each own logic, specifics and circumstances, and not along some kind of pre-set standards.

Eventually, on Iran’s development of nuclear weapons, which is a frequent sub-text in this article, one would like to see I. Bremmer and other opinion writers comment on why is the US and its western allies are not addressing what should be the logical Number 1 diplomatic solution, i.e. to reach an international agreement to get rid of any and all nuclear weapons in the Greater Middle East, which would start by having Israel destroy under internationals supervision its own existing nuclear weapons that it developed secretly and in much less compliance with international conventions than Iran ever did….The US standing in international relations would be significantly improved when it will stop applying different standards to different countries, as in the case of Iran.

Posted by llouest | Report as abusive

OUTPOST2012.NET, BidnisMan, matthewslyman, QuietThinker
Where is Utopia island you live on ?
US public opinion is not important for US politicians because:
1. you can choose only from 2 parties, so simple math is that eventually the same guys rule you, no matter whom you vote for (it is still 100% better than in China),
2. 1 is enough but: US public has no clue and is easy controlled by MSM : It is against war in Syria because of poverty caused by US military spending not high ethical standards.

Countries have only interests, not ethical standards.
It relates to US, China, Russia and Fiji as well.

The only international law for any Great Powers (US, Russia, China, to some extent France, UK) is the need of acceptance of all other Great Powers to attack/invade any other country (it is called UN Security Council veto power).
US is still in the process of understanding and accepting this rule.

Posted by Wantunbiasednew | Report as abusive

All discussion of U.S. credibility as it pertains to the Syrian situation in general and Obama’s performance specifically, is irrelevant and calls to question the credibility of those who would use such discussion to leverage their own oppositional politics.

Most every foreign policy action will have countering impacts that both raises and lowers the perception of that country depending what is valued by the observer. There will be those who find Obama’s decision to engage Congress as a welcome respite from our country’s history of executive single-mindedness in these instances. There will be those who see this as a capitulation to weakness — but sadly, these folks will most likely be members of our own jingoist ranks, and not the leadership in Iran or Syria or Russia.

If anything, these foreign leaders know better; they know that the U.S. political machinery is a capricious beast capable of invading a country on a whim, raining death by proxy from the skies, and clandestinely provisioning armament to opposing sides in a conflict. They have had a ring side seat for many decades and have borne the consequences of militant U.S. foreign policy.

If Syria has offered to relinquish its chemical weapons stockpile and Russia has offered to support such an action, it is only because the U.S. has the capability to mete out punishment and the possibility exists that we will.

For crying out loud, twelve years ago today a group of mostly Saudi nationals executed the most horrific foreign attack this nation has ever witnessed. Subsequently the U.S. went on a 13 year “rampage” in the region, including in its rampage, the country of Iraq which had no involvement in 9/11. Do you think Iran, or Iraq, or, Syria are going to forget that? Do you think that these countries really want to risk provoking another rogue elephant outburst?

These countries know, as does Russia, that American politics has a random quality to it, and that twenty year old youngsters sit at the remote controls of the most sophisticated robotic weaponry the world has ever seen, half a world away from their point of impact.

Bremmer and others complain about credibility. But to rephrase Stalin’s old chestnut, randomness combined with technological supremacy, has a credibility of its own.

Posted by truly | Report as abusive

excellent article!

Posted by Yamndog | Report as abusive

Dear Dr. Bremmer:

I think it is certainly disrespectful, and probably inaccurate, to dismiss as “gaffe diplomacy” the proposal, made public on 2013 Sep 9, for the US (et al.) to forgo a military response if Syria surrenders its (previously denied) stockpiles of chemical weapons. Reputable news sources report that the proposal was discussed by Presidents Putin and Obama at the 2013 Sep 5-6 G20 summit in Saint Petersburg, and that the proposal predated their discussion of it.

I also find your quadruple use of the verb “to punt,” in one conjugation or another, excessive at best. At worst, it seems disrespectful to the Presidency, the Congress, the armed forces, the citizenry and the constitution of the United States to demean as “punting” a President’s decision to seek congressional authorization to exercise war powers that the constitution clearly grants to Congress. If you dislike the current constitutional provisions regarding war powers, why not propose amending the constitution to render it more to your liking?



Posted by MoBioph | Report as abusive

The UK prime minister gave the example.

The US presidents decision to refer the matter to congress strengthens the democratic process.

By placing trust in the good sense of parliamentary democracy the West is sending out a strong signal to all autocracies.

Irrespective of its source, in seeing merit where it exists peace can be achieved.

This is strength not weakness.

Posted by Malachy | Report as abusive