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The US Administration is as Guilty as the UK Government of Poor Politicking over Syria

09/09/2013 12:24 BST | Updated 07/11/2013 10:12 GMT

As the G20 leaders leave St. Petersburg, all eyes are now back on Washington, where legislators have been receiving briefings on the intelligence underpinning the case set out by the US Administration last week for military intervention in Syria. With Congress set to return on Monday after its five-week break, the clock is surely ticking on the White House's efforts to get the votes it needs in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Of course, it is likely that none of this would have been necessary had the UK government not lost the vote in the House of Commons on the principle of military intervention in Syria last week.

Innumerable column inches have since been dedicated to the political farce which saw both party leaders make false promises (Cameron to President Obama and Miliband, apparently, to Cameron) on the basis of equally false assumptions over the support they enjoyed.

What the two votes in the House of Commons last Wednesday revealed was surprisingly poor politicking, given the gravity of the subject matter. Cameron and Miliband both seemingly failed to appreciate the pervasiveness of war-weariness among the British people and the extent to which the scars of Iraq have refused to heal, and consequently they did not anticipate the almost instinctive scepticism of their MPs towards another military intervention in the Middle East.

Yet they are not alone in being guilty of poor political analysis - perhaps even naivety - and inadequate relationship management. Within two days of the vote in the House of Commons, another political farce had unfolded on the other side of the Atlantic.

At the international level, the Obama Administration stands accused of ineffective leadership in failing to understand the political needs of a key ally which it hoped - indeed, assumed - would form the basis of a broad military coalition.

Having resisted David Cameron's calls for stronger action for the past two-and-a-half years, it seems President Obama felt compelled to act after the August attacks on the suburbs of Damascus and saw a small window of opportunity to do so before the G20 summit. The result, according to Cabinet Minister Ken Clarke, was US pressure on the UK for a quick decision on whether to support missile strikes, with the Prime Minister opening himself up to criticism of his 'cavalier and reckless leadership' in rushing to recall Parliament, the failure of both party leaders to do their due diligence properly and the panicked negotiations that ensued in the twelve hours before the vote.

Another charge levelled at the British government, particularly by former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, was that it did not make its case properly - either in the last two years or in the days immediately preceding the vote. Certainly, the intelligence estimate published by the UK's Joint Intelligence Committee appeared weak in comparison to that released by the US after the parliamentary vote. As such, it seems a cruel irony that the US Administration had originally planned its release for the day before the vote but decided to delay while it sought further intelligence. Although the UK Parliament should not have been swayed by the US Administration's case for intervention, David Cameron and Barack Obama will never know if the earlier presentation of the US case - based as it was on that country's vastly greater intelligence resources - would have made a difference.

Moreover, it seems to have taken two days for President Obama to fully appreciate the implications of the British vote. The loss of the UK as an ally in this instance not only translated into diminished political cover for the US Administration's plan of action, but it also drew attention to the possibility that the war-weariness of the American people might similarly have been underestimated. Seeking congressional approval was thus one way of addressing both of these considerations.

Yet by this time Secretary of State John Kerry had already made his cogent statement of why such intervention is in the United States' national interest. His was a powerful declaration of the importance of US leadership in defending international norms and the impact on the country's credibility should it not act.

At the national level, therefore, the failure to consider fully the ramifications of the British parliamentary vote before Secretary Kerry publicly declared US credibility to be on the line can be deemed very poor politics indeed.

The White House may have since cleared the first hurdle in seeking congressional approval on Wednesday when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a resolution authorising the use of military force in Syria; but the closeness of that vote does not augur well for when the resolution reaches Congress itself.

Should the congressional vote not go the President's way, however, it is not only his authority that will take a hit. In allowing John Kerry to make the US case for intervention before deciding to seek congressional approval, President Obama has left his Secretary of State high and dry, undermined by the impression that he might not always be acting on the President's final word.

The widely respected former Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has already proven his worth during his short tenure as the United States' top diplomat, having managed through intensive shuttle diplomacy to bring Israel and Palestine back to the negotiating table. Now, however, Kerry must wait for the congressional vote in the knowledge that it is his credibility, and reputation, which is truly on the line.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author alone and do not represent those of any institutions with which the author is associated.