Expert: Obama 'made a stumble' on Syria

| Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

The Rev. John Sawicki calls it a make-or-break moment for the White House, this threat of military strikes in Syria.

While President Obama showed moral authority in vowing a strong response to chemical attacks under Syrian President Bashar Assad, his push for congressional approval sends a muddled message to a combative region, Sawicki said.

“It's almost like the president is trying to put the brakes on the policy he already had,” said Sawicki, an assistant professor who co-chairs the Center for International Relations at Duquesne University. “You don't make a threat like that, especially to a rogue actor, and not show resolve. In that sense, the president has made a stumble in not showing an immediate response.”

The delayed reaction to the attacks Aug. 21 near Damascus has become a revealing moment for the administration's approach to foreign policy, an area that plays second fiddle to its priorities at home, several political scientists and policy analysts agreed this week.

In a televised address on Tuesday night, Obama said Congress should postpone voting on military action while the United States pursues more diplomatic avenues.

“The president basically finds himself going before the American people for a case (for military strikes) that he didn't want anything to do with,” said Jim Carafano, a retired military officer and foreign policy expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. He said Obama has appeared risk-averse since the 2012 attack on an American diplomatic mission at Benghazi in Libya that killed four people and became a flashpoint in domestic politics.

Public opinion polling suggests the American public doesn't want much to do with attacking Syria, either. Sixty-three percent of Americans oppose the use of force there, up from 48 percent last week, according to a USA Today/Pew Research Center poll released on Monday. Fifty-nine percent of those in a CNN/Opinion Research survey said Congress should prevent even a limited use of military force.

“They're tired of endless wars that we've been involved with for the last 10 years,” said Jules Lobel, a professor in international law at the University of Pittsburgh. He said Americans want to avoid spending money on overseas interventions when Congress is cutting domestic programs.

Plus, “it's really unclear what the purpose of this (military action) is,” Lobel said. “I don't think the administration has laid out a good case of why we're doing this and what it's going to accomplish.”

Obama tried to strengthen that case with his prime-time address, saying potential military strikes would be limited in scope. The United States is not the world's policeman, he said.

“If chemical weapons are so terrible — and they surely are — then why isn't the world responding to this problem?” Sawicki said. “If America isn't the world's policeman, then what is America doing right now? It might not be the world's policeman, but it's definitely the reluctant sheriff.”

He said Obama would have to respond indirectly, through support of opposition groups in Syria, should he ultimately decline to pursue a direct military attack.

If that ends up being the case, the Syrian civil war will probably continue with Assad holding an upper hand, said Christopher Harper, a Temple University journalism professor in Philadelphia and former Middle East reporter for Newsweek.

“Domestically, I hope we turn our attention to the many problems facing the U.S.,” he said. “We have a lot of problems at home, and they've been put on the back burner as we ponder Syria.”

Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or

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