A strange thing happened to U.S. President Barack Obama after he set out on his massive political and media blitz, that was supposed to drum up congressional and public support for a punishing assault on Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus. As the offensive became stronger and more intense, it was clear that the level of opposition to the military option was growing in equal measure as well.
Only 10 days ago, just before Obama got cold feet over making legal, legitimate use of his authority, the level of public support for a military strike grew to around 50 percent. The level of those who prefer a military response today rests at just 35 percent. This is a perfect example of an Israeli cliche: "This isn't how you build a [supportive] wall."
The assault on public and congressional opinion through all possible channels actually implies great weakness and a loss of direction by the White House. After suffering a bout of paralysis at the moment of truth, Obama is trying to hide his utter weakness with a wall of noise. But this only exacerbates the sense of a missed opportunity and absent leadership. Just as one eloquent speech (which we heard on Tuesday) cannot create a new reality or neutralize the persistent mood, neither can the power of the current, futile media offensive obfuscate the basic fact that the American people are not convinced that what is happening in Syria is a cause for U.S. intervention.
Members of Congress returning to Washington early this week from summer recess came back with a clear, unequivocal message from their voters: The chemical slaughter on the outskirts of Damascus was not a direct threat to U.S. national security. An American response presents the danger of an escalation or entanglement, and the memory of two wars -- Iraq and Afghanistan, the latter of which has yet to end -- still burns in the American public's mind. Furthermore, the U.S., which this week marks a dozen years since the attack on the Twin Towers, perceives the Syrian rebels to be the heirs of arch-terrorist Osama bin Laden. The U.S. is not ready to back any measure that would strengthen al-Qaida's position.
Becaus of poor military intelligence, the White House missed the window of opportunity, and is now wasting precious political ammunition trying to convince both opponents and allies of a hopeless and seemingly impossible strategy. Amid the internal American chaos, Russian President Vladimir Putin managed to fill the void, taking center stage as a mediator and pulling from his hat the redemptive rabbit of "settling" the crisis. Putin seized the American hegemon's power as central player and super-mediator.
From Israel's perspective, the implications of the collapse of the America-as-world-policeman system, coupled with the Iranian threat, are very serious. Having AIPAC join the congressional tussle could turn out to be a big mistake. Not only does AIPAC's involvement drag Israel into the eye of the media storm, making it difficult for Jerusalem to continue with the same low-profile policy it has led with until now, but such engagement also has the potential to evoke demons from the not-so-distant past. During the second Iraq War, Israel was accused, through no fault of its own, of prodding the George W. Bush administration into launching the offensive.
Involving AIPAC now could give Israel's enemies in Washington the chance they need to bring out the battering ram to wear at the foundations of U.S.-Israeli relations.