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.