Syria prompts Europe to question U.S. leadership will

John Irish and Mark John
September 10, 2013

By John Irish and Mark John

PARIS (Reuters) - The United States' uncertainty over how to respond to a deadly chemical weapons attack in Syria has left close European allies wondering whether Washington remains ready to play the world leadership role it has long assumed.

Yet while the hesitations are creating political headaches for governments in Britain and France that advocated strikes, less interventionist capitals including Berlin are relieved to be dealing with a less hawkish U.S. administration than those which pushed the case for war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

After the August 21 chemical weapons attack that Washington blames on Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad's forces, U.S. President Barack Obama has veered from calling for urgent retaliation to agreeing to seek authorization from a skeptical Congress with no real clear time frame attached.

Prospects of quick action receded still further on Monday when Obama welcomed a Russian proposal to put its ally Syria's chemical arsenal under international control.

While some officials argued that this showed the threat of military action had forced Russia and Assad to offer a genuine olive branch to the West, France quickly showed its doubts by announcing it would push for a tough U.N. resolution aimed at ensuring the Russian proposal would have real teeth.

"Fifteen years ago, it was our American partners who used to lecture us," said a Washington-based European diplomat.

"Today, they are petrified with uncertainty and doubt. That uncertainty gives us a card to play to influence policy and play a major role."

MAKING A BREAK

European officials have long noted that Obama is keen to make a break with divisive overseas campaigns launched by his predecessor, George W. Bush, in Iraq and Afghanistan.

That was already evident in 2011 when France and Britain took the lead in the Libyan conflict. Only after intense negotiations did the United Stated agree to form part of a coalition to oust Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

In Mali this year, France intervened alone against al-Qaeda-backed Islamists threatening the capital Bamako, only later receiving logistical support from Washington.

"What we have seen in the past weeks from the Obama administration ... largely confirms the perception that many European leaders have had about President Obama on his position vis-a-vis using weapons in going to other countries," said Fredrik Erixon of the Brussels-based European Centre For International Political Economy.

"The hesitation on the part of the United States is eroding its capacity to act as a world leader. No doubt about it. And if this is a good thing or a bad thing it is difficult to say."

While France has long seen itself as a counterweight to the U.S. superpower, leading world opposition to the Iraq war in 2003, Obama's hesitations this time around have been a headache for his counterpart Francois Hollande.

While under the French constitution Hollande has no need to consult the French parliament to go to war, Obama's decision to go to Congress emboldened anti-war voices in France who insisted Hollande should follow suit in the event of planned action.

Britain's David Cameron was similarly caught out.

As Obama last month jacked up the strike rhetoric, Cameron cut short his holiday to recall lawmakers for what he thought was going to be swift, joint action on Syria - only to lose the vote after a rebellion by some of his coalition deputies.

"Yes, it's true we've had to work hard to make sure we're always on the same page (as Washington). There have been some unexpected developments and we've had to respond to those," said a British government source.

"It's been better than people might think, certainly not chaotic," the sourced added.

A "DIMINISHED WEST"

Analyst Francois Heisbourg of France's Foundation for Strategic Research disagreed, arguing Obama not only risked making himself a lame-duck president but was also jeopardizing vital strategic partnerships.

"The fact they create a precedent by going to parliament to act diminishes the American president and probably diminishes France and Britain who had never felt compelled to go to the legislature to carry out that type of operation. There is a diminishing of the West," he said.

Such frustration is shared among traditional U.S. allies outside Europe who fear they have most to lose if Assad does not face tough international action.

Turkey, which has a 900 km (600 miles) border with Syria, gave its full backing to military intervention in Syria and has expressed irritation over the West's indecisiveness and U.S. assertions that any strike would be limited in nature.

Israelis have been alarmed by Obama's recent vacillations, fearful that his clear reluctance to hit Syria when it appeared to cross his chemical red line might encourage Iran to ignore Israel's red lines over its nuclear program.

But a more reflective U.S. partner looks different to those of its European allies which typically struggle to build a domestic consensus for military action.

For Germany, whose Chancellor Angela Merkel has long argued that everything must be done to avoid strikes and who wants U.N. Security Council veto-holder Russia to be kept on board in diplomacy over Syria, a more dovish United States is a relief.

"This is the way diplomacy works," Henning Riecke, head of Transatlantic Relations at Germany's DGAP foreign policy think tank, told Reuters. "To us, Obama hasn't lost face."

(Additional reporting by Justyna Pawlak and Luke Baker in Brussels; Madeline Chambers in Berlin; Andrew Osborn in London; Crispian Balmer in Jerusalem; Jonathon Burch in Ankara; Editing by Giles Elgood)