Britain’s Syria Vote Raises Questions About The ‘Obama Doctrine’


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CREDIT: White House

The United Kingdom on Thursday ruled out the possibility of it joining any possible military excursion to punish the Syrian government for using chemical weapons, placing the Obama administration in a difficult position going forward.

After a lengthy and at times raucous debate, the British House of Commons voted down Prime Minister David Cameron’s motion to start a process in which strikes against Syria were on the table. While Cameron’s pledge to bring the matter before the U.N. Security Council before any action could be taken was intended to mollify opposition, it did not help the motion carry. Defense Minister Phillip Hammond soon after confirmed that the U.K. would take no part in any potential military action against Syria.

All of this leaves President Barack Obama in a difficult situation in determining how to move forward. The president last night said that he has not made up his mind on what action to take though he and many other members of his administration have publicly placed the blame for last week’s chemical attack against civilians on the Syrian regime.

The lack of British support is the final nail in the coffin of the expansive coalition that seemed to be taking shape just days ago. Cameron’s defeat also means that the U.K. will likely withdraw the draft resolution authorizing force it had been in discussion with the other veto-wielding members of the Security Council over. While Russia and China were sure to veto the document, it’s existence at least provided the cover needed to argue that the rules had been followed before being cut-off.

Despite the setback the British vote represents, it may not wind up stopping the U.S. from going forward alone. “As we’ve said, President Obama’s decision-making will be guided by what is in the best interests of the United States,” National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in a statement. “He believes that there are core interests at stake for the United States and that countries who violate international norms regarding chemical weapons need to be held accountable.”

Should the United States strike out on its own, it will be on shaky footing both legally and in terms of support among the international community. Close allies like Canada and Germany have pledged to support holding Syrian president Bashar al-Assad culpable for using the deadly weapons. The Arab League has also said it blames Assad for launching the weapons. But so far, the only countries who have pledged to aid in the use of force — absent a Security Council resolution authorizing it — have been France and Turkey.

In 2011, when NATO launched its intervention to prevent the massacre of civilians in Libya, many saw in the operation the formation of what has been called “The Obama Doctrine.” Under this model, the use of force would only be taken when in concert with an international coalition and with the legal authority provided by the U.N. Security Council, provided such an action was done to uphold American values and interests. To many, it was the exact opposite of the Bush administration’s unilateralism and what was seen as disdain for international law and partners.

President Obama has never ruled out the use of force unilaterally, should it be in the national interest of the United States, but has spoken at length on the need to do so while following what he has referred to as “the rules of the road.” It’s a theme that he has repeated many times over in his dealing with states like China who place less of an emphasis on norms and international law than Obama would prefer.

While the president will still likely voice support for broad international coaltions in the future, the fact remains that he may not be able to get his wish on Syria. On the other hand, it may not even come to the point where “The Obama Doctrine” is tested. As he weighs his options, Congress is also increasingly demanding that it be able to make its voice heard before any missiles begin to fly. Obama can still act under the War Powers Resolution should he so choose, as the window for action would be far less than the 90 days the law grants him. But he would have to weigh the potential costs against the benefits of enforcing the taboo against chemical weapons.