A day after he sent his dovish Secretary of State John Kerry to market military action against Syria to the media (and Kerry made an articulate and convincing case), U.S. President Barack Obama decided to take an embarrassing U-turn. One can only imagine what is going through poor Kerry's mind over how Obama rewarded him for his devotion and loyalty (even if military action still takes place in the end).
Since 1973, the U.S. president has had full legal authority to wage war for 60 days without congressional approval. But at the moment of truth, the true Obama emerged, and he blinked. Indeed, Obama suddenly returned to his days as a senator from Illinois (and potential presidential candidate). In 2007, then-Senator Obama argued, in connection with the war in Iraq, that the U.S. was only obliged to conduct military action when it faced a direct and imminent threat to its national security. This view magically erased the issues of U.S. credibility and commitment, as well as the question of America's values and ideals (which played a central role in the vision laid out by Kerry on Friday).
In front of the world on Saturday, Obama was exposed as a scared and frightened politician. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate was paralyzed at a decisive moment. Obama remains stuck in his previous beliefs that any act by the American hegemon in the international sphere must have wide support, no matter what the cost. Despite the war cries of his advisers, Obama is locked into the concept that he must unconditionally disengage from the legacy of military intervention left behind by his loathed predecessor George W. Bush. Given Britain's abandonment and the domestic criticism he has been receiving, Obama could not rise to the challenge, and he palmed the decision off to Congress.
Even though just two years ago the U.S. Navy joined the coalition to topple Moammar Gadhafi in Libya without prior congressional approval, this time Obama flinched from making an even more limited move in Syria. Given that Obama was not going to formally declare war (only Congress has the power to do so), there was no logic to his choice to voluntarily relinquish his powers as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Unlike the decision of another Democratic president, Lyndon B. Johnson, in 1968 to unilaterally halt the aerial bombardment of Vietnam after years of fighting, Obama decided to silence his guns before the first shot was even fired.
Even if Congress approves military action in Syria after it returns from recess, the whimpering message delivered on Saturday by Obama will resonate in Damascus, Tehran, Moscow and Beijing, and further hasten the end of the American era.