Matt Kenyon

Last week was arguably the worst of Barack Obama’s presidency. If the wheels are not to come off it altogether, this coming one will need to be among his best – starting on Tuesday night with his address to the nation about Syria.

It is hard to understand how an instinctively cautious president in his fifth year could have manoeuvred himself into such a dismal corner. But his largely self-charted route lends little confidence that he can easily escape it.

In the next 10 days or so we will find out if Mr Obama will get the chance to recapture his presidential mojo. That – and the fact that he would share the fallout with Congress for whatever complications a Syria strike would present– is the best that can be said for a “Yes” vote. A “No” would irretrievably weaken Mr Obama both at home and abroad. It would qualify as one of the costliest gambles in US presidential history.

How exactly did Mr Obama reach this point? It is a question that befuddles even those who know the president well. No one doubts Mr Obama has always been sincere in his desire to avoid military engagement with Syria. As a young politician from Illinois, he owed much of his meteoric rise to the fact that he opposed “dumb” wars, starting with Iraq. His signature foreign policy since coming to office has been to end America’s wars in the Muslim world and rebalance the country towards Asia.

Even when he was cornered last year by Hillary Clinton, the then secretary of state, David Petraeus, then director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and Leon Panetta, then defence secretary, Mr Obama rebuffed their advice to take a tougher stand against Bashar al-Assad.

Very reluctantly the White House agreed earlier this year to step up small arms supplies to moderate Syrian opposition groups. But it was little more than a press release since none has yet arrived.

Then came the August 21 chemical attacks in a suburb of Damascus, by far the worst that Mr Assad’s forces have carried out. The attacks occurred exactly a year and a day after Mr Obama first mentioned his chemical weapons red line. There was no room for ambiguity. Mr Obama’s credibility was at stake.

The White House’s widely leaked plans were precise. The US was to launch punitive strikes on Syria within days – lasting 48 hours and with 43 targets already identified, not including the presidential palace. It would have likely been over by last Monday.

The rush to action was why David Cameron, the UK prime minister, recalled members of parliament early from their summer holiday (although not enough of them, it turns out). Mr Obama’s Hamlet had turned into Henry V. There was no time to lose.

Alas, Mr Cameron’s humiliating defeat triggered an astonishing lapse of judgment by Mr Obama – his decision to seek authorisation from a hostile Congress. Now we are reassured that there is no hurry whatsoever to strike Syria. The Pentagon can easily monitor chemical weapons movements on the ground.

Whichever way Congress votes, earth-shaking consequences are predicted for US global power: should Mr Obama get the approval he seeks, the US could get sucked into a Levantine quagmire, say the alarmists; if he is rebuffed, America’s global standing could collapse.

Both views are exaggerated. In the first, it is hard to imagine Mr Obama would ever agree to occupy Syria. The Senate version of the resolution for action explicitly forbids US boots on the ground. In spite of his rhetoric, the president only intends a “shot across the bow”. That may be naive, or misleading. But this is probably not a Vietnam in the making.

Likewise, if Mr Obama lost the vote in Congress, the US would still have by far the most powerful military in the world. And it would no more have embraced isolationism than Britain had become the new Switzerland.

Yet the consequences for Mr Obama’s grip on power could hardly be more real. Before the chemical attacks, Mr Obama was already facing a rocky session on Capitol Hill with the threat of a government shutdown and another debt ceiling crisis.

Add to that the Republican party’s plans to link approval of a higher debt ceiling to a defunding of Mr Obama’s signature healthcare law and an ugly autumn was assured.

Now it looks much worse. The Syria vote will make the rest of the agenda far harder to manage. None of Mr Obama’s advisers agreed with his decision to seek Congress’s green light on Syria. Some, such as John Kerry, the secretary of state, were not even consulted. The methodical Mr Obama nevertheless threw caution to the winds.

And there lies the nagging source of concern. Mr Obama has always been his own chief foreign policy adviser. Unlike the economy, where he has generally deferred to advisers – sometimes to a fault – on global affairs, Mr Obama trusts his instincts. It is hard to find too many others who strongly share that faith.

If Mr Obama gets the approval he seeks, it will be presented as a significant victory. In reality, it would be a narrowly avoided disaster.

What it would mean for Syria, and Mr Obama’s ability to handle an escalation, is an open question. He will aim to keep any Syrian engagement to a minimum. But after the past two weeks who knows where his caution will lead him?

edward.luce@ft.com

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