Has the US Tired of Being the World's Policeman?

Has the US Tired of Being the World's Policeman?

By Toby Harnden - September 10, 2013

Half an hour late for the G20 banquet last Thursday evening, Barack Obama strode alone towards the Peterhof Palace, built in the 18th century on the orders of Peter the Great, the tsar of Russia.

The other world leaders had arrived together, admiring the grandeur of their surroundings in St Petersburg and talking animatedly. The American president, struggling to find allies to take action against Syria, cut an isolated figure.

Discussions after the banquet went on into the early hours but Obama was unable to forge a consensus. He left Russia with a statement from just half the G20 nations that there should be “a strong international response” to the alleged use of sarin gas that killed at least 1,400 people, including more than 400 children, in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta on August 21.

Of those countries, only the US was committed to using force after the House of Commons voted against military action and France said it would wait a fortnight or more for United Nations inspectors to report.
If his powers of persuasion failed him at the G20, Obama’s more acute problem was back home. From Air Force One, he telephoned wavering members of Congress, urging them to vote to authorise air strikes against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president.

By the time his plane touched down outside Washington yesterday, however, more than 220 members of the House of Representatives were in the “no” or so-called “lean no” camps. With 217 needed for a majority, Obama was staring defeat in the face.

The president’s closest aides had been taken aback by his announcement a week earlier that he was postponing strikes against Syria and was requesting permission from a Congress that has been opposed to him at every turn, while at the same time arguing he had the presidential powers to act anyway.

As he headed overseas last Tuesday he left John Kerry, his secretary of state, to go to Capitol Hill to be the main advocate for a military response.

While some administration officials believed the president could escape the blame for American inaction if his motion was rejected by the Republican-controlled House, it soon became apparent that Obama faced considerable opposition from his own party.

Left-wing Democrats aligned themselves with libertarian Republicans such as Senator Rand Paul, the 2016 presidential hopeful.

Senator Marco Rubio, another likely Republican contender in 2016, blamed the Syria crisis on Obama’s detachment. He, too, is a “no” to what Obama has described as a “shot across the bow”. “I remain unconvinced that the use of force proposed here will work,” he said.

Republican leaders in the House have urged a “yes” vote but this has cut little ice with the young members swept into Congress with the populist conservative Tea Party movement in 2010.

Most ominous for Obama is the large number of members of Congress who say they have been swamped by emails and calls from constituents opposed to military action. An Ipsos poll conducted last Tuesday for Reuters put backing at just 29%.

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Toby Harnden is the Washington bureau chief of The Sunday Times. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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