Media Foreign Affairs and National Security 2013.09.13
"All politics is local," is a famous phrase coined by Tip O'Neill. The former Speaker of the U.S House of Representatives reminds us of the lesson that a politician's success ultimately depends on the support of his local constituents. If this is the political reality in the United States, is it also true that "All international politics is domestic?" Hardly.
Watching the recent developments in Washington D.C. from Tokyo on CNN, it is truly appalling to learn that the president of Japan's most important ally did not even consult with his own national security team when he made a decision to seek congressional authorization for the limited military intervention in Syria which is, in fact, not even legally required.
The president's reluctance has been somewhat understandable, although this very reluctance to be proactive internationally may have helped create the current chaos in Damascus and elsewhere. Domestically, the president must have been frustrated by the lawmakers on Capitol Hill, although this does not justify the president's recent decisions on Syria.
Of course, there are slippery slopes everywhere, and once you start down you may not be able to stop. That is why the president has to be consistent and determined. However, this time, in fact, he was not. Instead, he flip-flopped so much over the last few weeks that the United States failed to send the right message to Bashar al-Assad at the right time.
Some in Washington D.C. say that the timing of the attack doesn't matter. That it is merely a military judgment, and not a responsible political one. Of course, it does matter and the delay has already reduced the sense of urgency for action in the international community to the advantage of Syria, Iran and Hizbullah, as well as Russia and China.
U.S. allies and friends in Asia should be concerned that the president's decision was more a domestic political move than the implementation of well-crafted foreign policy. They may worry that the president's ambivalence may reflect the debate (or lack thereof) inside the Obama administration over the necessity and degree of overseas military interventions in general.
It must be also a surprise that the British Prime Minister's political skill was so disappointingly absent. He reacted to this delicate issue prematurely and should not have opened Parliamentary deliberations so soon. His political fiasco might have prompted President Obama to seek congressional authorization, and if so, it is a tragedy for the rest of the world.
Others in D.C. say that prolonged stalemate is a lesser evil because it would not damage American national interests. Rather, they argue, providing the opportunity for all parties concerned, i.e. the Syrian Army, Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Hizbullah and Al-Qaeda militias, Salafists and other anti-al-Assad forces, to exhaust one another would keep the situation more stable.
Unfortunately, this methodology will never solve the problems in Syria. On the contrary, while they destroy each other, they also collectively destroy Syria's governance and political processes, which are exactly what are needed in Damascus and other Middle Eastern capitals. Prolonged stalemate is nothing but a short-sighted domestic justification of the president's reluctance to act.
Some propose that United States armed forces only target the 4th Mechanized Division of the Syrian Army, which was reportedly responsible for the use of chemical weapons. This argument is also too tactical. No matter what targets U.S. forces attack in Syria, this will not end the civil war there and may not even stop the future use of chemical weapons.
Bashar al-Assad now sees that the U.S. government is divided, weak and reluctant to further intervene in the Syrian situation. He is not ready to take the U.S. message, to be sent by a limited, surgical, no-boots-on-the-ground military intervention, seriously. U.S. domestic politics is giving him ample time to physically and psychologically prepare Syria for a U.S. attack.
This is a real challenge for the President of the United States. His determination on this matter is being tested and he must pass this test in order to send the right signal to Syrian political and military leaders. The risk is still high but make no mistakes. You can't trivialize this as a credibility issue of the United States and its President.
The use of sarin or other chemical weapons against innocent civilians in Syria is the use of weapons of mass destruction, and Bashar and company must bear ultimate responsibility for this. A European politician once stated, "We have to ultimately stand by and support the U.S., even if they are wrong". So should Tokyo in 2013, but that is not the question.
The real question here is, "Is all foreign policy in the United States domestic?" The answer is no. The U.S. and its allies' strategic interests should not depend on capricious popular sentiment in parliaments, but rather on sensible judgments by seasoned decision-makers in close coordination with allies and friends.