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10 September 2013, Gateway House

Obama: Syria, spying and sellouts

Twelve years since the Taliban attacked the country, U.S. President Barack Obama is preparing for yet another war with a country in West Asia, for breaching a ‘red line’ he had drawn. However, the red line he needs to draw is about where the moral fiber of his presidency lies in the waning months of his tenure.

Editorial Advisor, Gateway House

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On Tuesday September 10 ,the eve of the America’s 9/11 anniversary, President Obama will try to convince his public that it is legitimate and moral for him to launch a missile attack on Syria as a response to that nation’s alleged use of chemical weapons.

Obama is waging an uphill fight both with American voters and world opinion. French leaders want action but with the cover of United Nations approval. The Germans are taking no position. Pope Francis has solidly condemned a U.S. attack as immoral and says the response should be humanitarian aid.

Commentators and American politicians have offered numerous reasons for the quagmire the President is now in. On the right, some argue a strong leader should have just acted, not sought the consent of Congress, where public opinion hits hardest. On the left, entrenched members of the President’s own party say Obama would be opening up a new war front at a time when he promised to wind down regional military action, but while this sets the terms of debate about Syria, what neither party wants to touch is the appalling level of mistrust Americans have with any level of national government.

On America’s 12th year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, there’s a broad consensus that the leaders have sold out the people.  This recognition has taken time because Americans are by nature willing to believe the leaders they elect serve as a body to lead the nation forward. While their presidents may be flawed as individuals – from Bill Clinton’s personal indiscretions to George Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” boosterism – they want to trust that those they elect will reach a consensus that works.

This is no longer the case.

A Gallup poll of public attitudes shows only 10% have a great deal of trust in Congress to do the right thing. Only 36% have the same confidence in the President. This mistrust was evident well before Syria but lurked below the surface because there wasn’t a singular event to bring it to climax. Now seemingly out of nowhere, stunned Washington officials are cowering from the Syria backlash, revealing how woefully out of touch they are with the people.

Neither the President nor any politician will touch the trust issue, seminal though it is to his predicament. He will try to explain his need to take action in immediate terms. If a message isn’t sent to block the use of chemical weapons, a weapons-of-mass-destruction conflagration could take place anywhere in the world – but especially in the tinderbox of the Middle East. This the President will need to say, is different than targeted drone strikes or a barrage of Tomahawk missiles launched against Syria’s air force and critical defences.

The public response will be two-fold. One will assess the immediate Syrian situation. The other will look at deeply flawed results from a decade of war in Afghanistan, Iraq and support for “Arab Spring” rebel movements from Tunisia to Egypt. What Americans see from those commitments is mostly failure, a mosaic of Vietnams.  The commitment to war brought destruction and large scale civilian deaths and ended with withdrawal, or more bluntly, retreat. This is what politicians and journalists call “war fatigue.” America is invincible in waging war but can’t win a peace.

Syria is about “war fatigue” in part, it’s also one of three layers of public mistrust. The second is government spying and lying. The third is a fundamental belief that national economic policy is run for the rich. In effect there is a direct downward sloping line of mistrust from the Afghanistan War started with broad public support to combat terrorism, to the giveaway bank bailouts of 2008 to Edward Snowden’s revelations of spying and lying and now to Obama’s call for a “red line” on chemical weapons in Syria. Syria encapsulates the fundamental mistrust of politicians and elites of all stripes.

A few days ago, Hank Paulson, President George W. Bush’s Treasury Secretary told The New York Times he now regrets allowing top Wall Street bankers to walk away with bonuses because it’s generated such public anger at Wall Street.  Paulson, a former head of Goldman Sachs, didn’t say the bonuses were wrong but that he misjudged the political backlash they would create. He also said it was important to allow bank heads to take their payouts because he feared they would not participate in the government bailout program.

For most Americans, bailing out the banks was at best seen as a distasteful alternative to saving the economy. The bailouts in effect nationalized Wall Street, making a banker in 2008 a government employee without calling him that. Nobody thought you had to give bankers bonuses to cooperate when the government owned them. Instead what the public saw was Hank Paulson and George W. Bush bailing out their buddies and the new leader Obama feigning surprise but going along with all of it.

The Snowden revelations have divided the nation between traitor and hero. No one likes a presumed spy or traitor and that’s what Obama labelled Snowden. But the scale of Snowden’s disclosures has been to fog up his guilt and in some quarters make him a whistle-blowing patriot. It’s now clear that America’s National Security Agency spied on all Americans and lied about it. Obama’s aides also lied about the scope of overseas spying, then said a secret court would keep them from overstepping bounds until it was revealed that the NSA ignored the court.

The public saw James Clapper, Obama’s National Security Adviser and General George Alexander who leads NSA, lie to Congress about spying on Americans. Both still have their jobs. The public in England, Germany, France and Brazil have now learned from Snowden that their governments cooperated with NSA to spy on them and Snowden is said to have more revelations in store.

Americans have of course seen sustained government lying before. Vietnam revealed that Washington could wage a war and lie about the results for almost a decade. Obama, who ran on a commitment to bring home U.S, troops from Afghanistan and Iraq, has followed through on Iraq and says he’ll be out of Afghanistan next year.  That gives him credibility for commitment but in withdrawing the public sees those 10-year campaigns to defeat terrorists and to rebuild nations, as failures. Obama didn’t create the vast void of mistrust he’s working against now; but by giving Wall Street a pass and covering up spying, he’s exacerbated his situation, making him look weak and indecisive.

The red line that Obama needs to draw is about where the moral fibre of his presidency lies in the waning months of his tenure.

Bob Dowling is Editorial Advisor to Gateway House.

This article was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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