'Obama is at a low point in world influence'
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US President Barack Obama’s handling of the Syria crisis has earned him criticism both at home and abroad. But how much damage has it really done him? FRANCE 24 interviewed Dr. Larry Sabato, a leading political analyst at the University of Virginia.
F24: Interviewed in the French press, Peter Feaver, a political scientist at Duke University, likened the impact of the Syrian crisis on President Obama to the effect Hurricane Katrina had in undermining former president George W. Bush. What do you make of that comparison?
LS: The Syrian crisis certainly hasn’t helped Obama. Domestically, Obama will be okay with the electorate as long as the US-Russian alliance works and Syria discloses and destroys its chemical weapons stockpile. That will avert war, and this is what the American public wants. Opposition to the Syrian intervention was as strong and widespread as I have ever seen in the US. Of course, public opposition never stopped presidents such as Truman, Johnson, Nixon, Reagan and George W. Bush from going to war.
F24: What about on the world stage? Has the Syria crisis weakened Obama internationally?
LS: The world stage is a different matter. Other leaders saw an indecisive, dithering president who was unwilling to take military action after having clearly threatened it. This encourages testing of Obama’s resolve and power by the many around the globe who oppose Western interests.
F24: What are the principal objections to Obama’s handling of the crisis among members of his own party?
Dr. Larry Sabato is the director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics and is the author of 24 books on American politics, including "Barack Obama and the New America" and the upcoming "The Kennedy Half-Century". He has previously taught at Oxford University and Cambridge University in England.
In 2006, Sabato was named the most accurate politcal prognosticator by FOX News, MSNBC, CNBC, and Pew's Project for Excellence in Journalism. He is known for predicting Obama's exact 53% popular vote victory in 2008, and for being just one vote away in his forecast of the Electoral College tally.
LS: The left, and to a great degree the middle, believed that Obama was elected to be the polar opposite of Bush – no more Iraq Wars. Afghanistan still rages, then there was Libya, and now Syria. They say, “What happened to the principled Obama who opposed Iraq?” War weariness is a big factor here, plus more than a half-century of unhappy involvement in the Middle East.
F24: To what extent is the criticism from Republicans on Obama’s handling of Syria the usual across-the-board anti-Obama that the American right has put up since the president’s election in 2008?
LS: No question, the deep Republican antipathy to President Obama shone brightly in this case. If a Republican president had proposed Syrian intervention, over 90 percent of Republican members of Congress would have backed him vociferously. As always in politics, where you stand depends on where you sit.
The nation is united in one perspective. We’ve been through a long, deep recession, and the economy still hasn’t bounced back. Americans want our focus to be domestic until we recover fully – even many conservatives.
F24: Would you say the lack of international backing for joint military action in Syria reflects a failure on Obama’s part, or is it a failure of other countries to step up to the plate?
LS: It’s a combination of several factors. The disaster of the Iraq War, with its phony justification of weapons of mass destruction, continues to haunt the US and its allies. This is a Bush legacy. But blaming Bush isn’t sufficient. The war weariness extends across the international community, and isolationism isn’t just an American disease.
Plus, what we see domestically, in his lack of personal rapport with other politicians, seems to extend to leaders abroad. Very few appear to be willing to sacrifice much for him.
F24: What could Obama have done differently on Syria? And how can he best proceed going forward?
LS: I’m glad Obama approached Congress, because the US has long needed a better balance in war powers; our Constitution says those powers are to be shared between the president and Congress, yet modern presidents have hogged them. Nonetheless, Obama personally would have been better off either not drawing his red line a year ago, or in going ahead unilaterally a few weeks ago with his cruise missile strike. The latter assumes it would have been over quickly with no wider war or terrorism implications.
For now, Obama has no choice but to follow the Russian-brokered agreement. If it breaks down, he’ll have to launch an attack on Syria one way or the other. The question is whether he goes back to Congress for approval. He might say, “I tried that route already and we’ve moved on” or it may be that Congress will go along with an attack if Syria is clearly evading the chemical weapons agreement.
F24: What is the probable impact of the Syria situation, and Obama's handling of it, on the remainder of his presidency? I’m thinking of the 2014 midterm elections, Obama’s legislative agenda and his influence in world matters.
LS: The president’s agenda wasn’t going anywhere in Congress before Syria, so I don’t think this changes much of anything legislatively. Syria won’t be a big factor in the 2014 midterm elections unless we go to war. Finally, President Obama is at a low point in world influence. At the same time, no nation has a military like America’s. You never know what might happen to enable Obama to demonstrate that anew.