How Europe just made Obama's Syria strike more complicated

The European Union voted to back 'strong' action against Syria. But it made its support contingent on a UN report, adding a fresh variable to Obama's already difficult sales job.

Susan Walsh/Reuters
Secretary of State John Kerry talks with reporters at the United States Embassy in Paris Sunday. Mr. Kerry is in France to help persuade the French public of the need for military action against Syria.

President Obama's path toward a strike against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad just got a little more complicated Saturday.

Here in the United States, most of the attention has focused on Mr. Obama's attempts to persuade Congress to authorize military action. That's one reason the White House showed a group of senators a gruesome video from Syria that apparently shows victims of the Assad regime's alleged chemical weapons attack on Aug. 21. It's also why Obama will appear on ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, PBS, and CNN Monday, then follow that up with an address to the nation Tuesday.

With media tallies suggesting that the House would block the use-of-force resolution if it came up for a vote today, the president is doing everything in his power to sway doubtful Americans – and their congressmen. And that will be difficult enough.

But on Saturday, the international community added its own complication.

At first blush, it sounded like a victory for the Obama administration – and it could still be. European Union ministers, meeting in Lithuania this weekend, called for a "clear and strong" response to Syria's reported use of chemical weapons against its citizens. But there was an asterisk. The EU ministers said no action should be taken until United Nations inspectors submit their report on whether chemical weapons were used.

What's more, France – which was the only Western nation apart from the US to support a strike against Syria – amended its position to mirror the EU's timeline. Strikes, yes. But only after the UN report. (And, presumably, only if the UN report comes back positive.) 

The UN report is expected to be released this month, and perhaps within two weeks, so the timeline might not be too disruptive. If congressional approval comes, it should come around that time.

Yet the decision adds yet more variables to a situation already awash in them. What if the UN report comes back negative? 

The White House appears utterly convinced that the attacks occurred and that the Assad regime is behind them. British tests on the victims have also confirmed the use of sarin gas, Prime Minister David Cameron said this week. But a negative UN test would raise the specter of the Iraq war all over again.

Would the US be so sure of its own analysis that it would launch a strike even if UN tests show no evidence of chemical weapons use? And would the US be willing to go it completely alone – as it surely would have to – if the UN report contradicts the White House's own findings?

Obama could find himself in the unprecedented situation of telling isolationist Republicans to ignore what the United Nations is saying.

For all intents and purposes, it would appear that the Obama administration's push for military action can now be vetoed in two different ways: by a vote from Congress, and by a negative UN report.

By the traditional calculus of Washington politics, this would seem to make Obama a weak president. Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld last week said that Obama has completely botched his attempts at Syria intervention. "The leadup to this, I think, has been most unfortunate,” he said on Fox News.

But the delay could also be part of a new calculus that Mr. Rumsfeld himself played a part in creating. Standing beside Secretary of State John Kerry in Paris Saturday, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said: "The United States and France are side by side ... every time the cause is just and is essential,” notably dismissing “false comparisons to Iraq, which has absolutely nothing to do with this."

As comments at congressional hearings and among EU ministers have made plain, the Iraq war – with its rush to lead the world into a conflict on what turned out to be false pretenses – has colored everything about the Syria debate. Obama's first job, at home and abroad, is to convince everyone that this is not Iraq redux.

In that context, a little delay and more certainty – while detrimental to the alluring image of a powerful and decisive president – might be the only realistic option. And if the UN confirms that Obama is right in his conviction that a chemical attack was carried out in Syria, he might have his international coalition yet.

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