The flight deck crew secures an F-35B Lighting II aircraft aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp following testing in this handout photo taken off the coast of North Carolina August 24, 2013. The US is having a military build up before strikes on Syria.

There was a time in Washington 10 years ago when US leaders loved to turn the television on to watch the British parliament, as Tony Blair made the case for the Iraq war with an eloquence that always eluded George W. Bush.

On Thursday evening, Washington revelled in the old school theatre of the mother of parliaments once again, but the White House and supporters of military intervention in Syria did not enjoy watching the vote.

The vote against missile strikes left Mr Obama all but alone on the precipice of ordering a punitive military strike on Syria, with little outside help to convince a deeply sceptical public and often antagonistic Congress to back him.

“There are few things that Americans can agree on, but [opposition to involvement in Syria] is one of them,” said Daniel Byman, of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy in Washington.

The parliamentary rebuff was a shock as the British, and the French, have been pushing Mr Obama to increase US involvement in Syria.

But in Washington, fingers are not being pointed at David Cameron alone.

“We have leaders [in both countries] who are still arguing from authority rather than making a concerted strategic case,” said Anthony Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who added such an approach no longer worked in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan.

A poll taken on the eve of the UK vote for NBC News, and released on Friday, recorded half of Americans opposing military action against Syria, although support was slightly stronger if a strike was in response to the use of chemical weapons on citizens.

Having long counselled caution on Syria and indeed any foreign military entanglement, Mr Obama has struggled to reverse course and persuade Americans that action is necessary.

“The administration is criticised for not having a Syria policy – I disagree,” said Mr Byman. “They have had a very clear policy, that for all sorts of reasons, they did not want to get involved.”

Mr Obama long ago called for President Bashar al-Assad to be driven from power in Damascus. But such demands are not part of his agenda as he marshals destroyers in the Mediterranean to fire cruise missiles into Syria.

Ahead of a strike, Mr Obama and his staff have made clear that any attack on Syria is not part of a larger design, either to bring down the Assad regime, nor influence the broader Middle East landscape. “We’re talking about something that’s very discreet and limited,” said Josh Earnest, a White House spokesman.

Last year, Mr Obama – faced with advice from a heavyweight trio of Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state, Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, and Leon Panetta, former CIA chief and defence secretary, all backing US intervention in Syria, said no.

Mr Obama only changed his mind in recent weeks after the graphic reports from Syria in late August of the alleged gas attacks that killed hundreds in Damascus on August 21.

Mr Obama is not getting any clarity from Congress. Capitol Hill insists in unison that the president needs to consult them more about military action, but their views then diverge.

A core of a little over 100 House and Senate members from both parties are demanding a vote, just as the British got, even though Congress is on summer recess and not due back until September 9.

Congressional leaders seem determined to prevent a vote, as they realise any motion to authorise force against Syria could fail, for a variety of reasons, ranging from antagonism to Mr Obama to distaste for wars.

The debate in Congress has elements of ritual which replicate other conflicts between the White House and Capitol Hill over the power to authorise military force.

“Presidents don’t particularly want to consult with Congress or abide by the formal terms of the War Powers Act [authorising force],” said Sarah Binder, of the Brookings Institution. “At the same time, lawmakers want to make their views known, but probably don’t want responsibility for military manoeuvres abroad.”

The larger challenge for Mr Obama is to find, articulate and execute a fresh Middle East policy that brings US influence to bear on the region.

“Whether you think we are in the Middle East to stabilise the region, to take the oil, to spread freedom and democracy,” said Andrew Bacevich, a political scientist at Boston University. “Whatever rationale you choose among the many that American presidents have articulated, it ain’t working.”


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How can a missile strike be ‘discreet’? / From Stephen Reynolds, Penzance, Cornwall, UK

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