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Opinion: Obama's erratic course on Syria

US President Barack Obama’s zigzag course on Syria has not only strengthened his adversaries and weakened his supporters. He has failed at his most important task as president, writes DW’s Michael Knigge.

Decisions on war and peace, over life and death, are a major part of the job description for the office of US president. President Obama made a point of pointing that out during his first term in office: "When a problem has a clear solution, it does not land on my desk. The only things I decide are the difficult things," he once said in an interview.

However, as far as the crisis in Syria is concerned, Obama has not done that. It took months of violence before the president finally took a stand and demanded that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step down. Military intervention and arming the opposition were excluded. The consequences: none.

Drift instead of leadership

Michael Knigge Photo DW/Per Henriksen 11.10.2012

Michael Knigge is DW's US affairs specialist

After a Pentagon spokesman and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the summer of 2012 mentioned the use of chemical weapons as a "red line" that could not be crossed, Obama followed suit nine days later. The Pentagon, with the support of Clinton, presented Obama with plans for arms deliveries to Syrian rebels. He rejected the idea. Consequences: none.

As the first reports about the actual use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime surfaced, Obama called this a "game changer." After US intelligence services confirmed their use, Obama said he first had to find out who was responsible. Consequences: none.

When the new Pentagon chief, Chuck Hagel, finally declared that the US was considering weapons deliveries to rebels, Obama agreed to the scheme. At the same time, however, he warned that one had to "look before we leap." Consequences: none.

No compass

In the summer of 2013 - the UN had just said that more than 90,000 people had died in fighting so far in Syria - Obama finally authorized arms deliveries. But even as Washington was receiving reports that confirmed a large-scale use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, Obama continued to hem and haw.

First he declared that he had decided a military strike was necessary. But after the British parliament rejected taking part, Obama did an about-face within hours, this time declaring that he would now seek approval from the US Congress.

As it became clear that Congress would likely withhold its consent, the last and most recent rhetorical pirouette ensued: Secretary of State John Kerry said that if Syria put its stocks of chemical weapons under international control the US would not intervene militarily.

When Russia and the Assad regime picked up this ball and ran with it, the Obama administration suspended its plans for a military strike until further notice and played for more time.

To be sure: there are cogent reasons for and against a military strike, but there is no silver bullet. The risks outweigh the possible benefits in both alternatives. It is a classic dilemma.

No strategy in Washington

But that is exactly why US presidents are elected - for just these kinds of situations, where there are only bad options.

And when someone goes about saying he is the man for the tough decisions, as Obama did, then one expects he will live up to this standard in a time of crisis.

Obama has not done so.

Since the start of the Syrian crisis two and a half years ago, Obama has waited and waffled and played for time. He has not been a leader; he has not acted, but only reacted, after pressure from his own Cabinet, the opposition, the British parliament and events in Syria. A real Syria strategy is not even remotely visible.

That is why it fits the picture that President Obama - on Tuesday night local time after two and a half years of war with more than 100,000 deaths - is only now for the very first time speaking to the American people on the subject of Syria.

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