The Obama administration lacks a public mandate for escalation in Syria. While the elites seem gripped by war fever, "barely one in four Americans back attacking Syria even if it’s proven poison gas was used on civilians.” And only ten percent of the British public favors sending even small weapons to Syria. Never in the decade of the War on Terrorism has the gap between elites and the public been wider. On the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Justice, the public mood is decidedly set on domestic priorities.
Tragic for his domestic agenda, President Barack Obama drew a "red line" last year at the threat of Syrian gas attacks against civilians. Either Assad has decided to flaunt that red line or, far more likely, someone has exploited the opportunity to trap the administration into a choice between escalation and losing "face" as a superpower. US officials have compounded their self-inflicted problem by seeming to rush to judgment before the United Nations investigation is complete.
Based on a Guardian report, Israeli intelligence provided the White House with intercepted Syrian communications about chemical weapons. The UN demanded on the weekend that Syria provide access for inspectors, who were at work by Monday, which the US abruptly described as an unacceptable delay.
The suggestion that someone has provoked the US into escalation will offend many commentators. But caution is justified by recalling the fabricated "weapons of mass destruction" that gave pretext for the Iraq War. In another example, the Joint Chiefs in 1962 proposed incidents of sabotage, sinking ships and blowing up airfields to "cause a helpful wave of national indignation" for invading Cuba. During that crisis, President Kennedy exploded with words that every president should remember, "I don't care who it is, nobody is going to force me to do anything irrational just because they feel that it is going to save the image or the name of the country."
Perhaps Obama is studying Kennedy's prophetic words, but the pressure to attack Syria is overwhelming. Obama is said to lean towards cruise missile attacks on Syria's airfields and other infrastructure, and not "regime change." However once the escalation begins, Obama has little control over Syria's response, or potential reactions by Russia or Iran. Additionally, if Assad's regime implodes, Obama inherits a crisis in which al-Qaeda-linked insurgents may come to power. In any scenario, Obama will be sacrificing scarce resources for his threatened domestic agenda for an unwinnable sectarian war across the Middle East.
The Israelis reportedly see Obama's resolve towards Syria as a test for the next showdown over Iran. Egypt, Lebanon, Yemen, Mali, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan - where does it end? What will it cost?
Congress, silent so far, may be compelled by domestic public opinion, to insist on application of the War Powers Resolution in order to -- quoting the president's own words - "rein in" his presidency.