Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Is Obama's re-election delaying action on Syria?

By Frida Ghitis, Special to CNN
updated 2:19 PM EDT, Thu August 16, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Frida Ghitis: Obama tries to keep the crisis in Syria from interfering with reelection
  • Ghitis: Carnage in Syria could go on longer than in a nonelection year
  • She says electoral considerations are often a major factor in U.S. foreign policy
  • Ghitis: Tragedy in Syria isn't waiting till November; Obama should take action now

Editor's note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer/correspondent, she is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television." Follow her on Twitter: @FridaGColumns

(CNN) -- If Barack Obama could make three wishes, he would probably ask for the crisis in Syria to go away. That would help him receive another wish: Getting reelected as president of the United States.

Unfortunately for Obama, and tragically for the people in Syria, history has brought the American presidential campaign and the Syrian revolution to the same pages of the calendar. That means Obama will do whatever he can, for as long as he can, to keep the carnage in Syria from interfering with his reelection plan.

That means the killings in Syria could go on longer than if the uprising had erupted during a nonelection year.

Frida Ghitis
Frida Ghitis

Anyone who doubts that electoral considerations have become a major factor in U.S. foreign policy should look to Obama's own words from a few months ago. Obama did not realize his microphone was on during a meeting in Seoul with then-Russian President Dimitry Medvedev, so he leaned in close and whispered, "This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility." In this instance, Obama was referring to the contentious issue of missile defense.

It's not uncommon for presidents to worry about reelection while charting foreign policy. In Robert Caro's new biography of President Lyndon B. Johnson, "The Passage of Power," he describes how Johnson made decisions about Vietnam with an eye towards the elections. Caro concluded that "the steps he took had, as their unifying principle, an objective dictated largely by domestic — indeed, personal — political concerns."

96 dead as Syria opposition picks leader
AC: 'Pay attention' to violence in Syria
Struggle to save wounded kids in Syria

With less than five months until November, the last thing Obama needed on his already very full plate is another shockingly cruel, politically complicated conflict in the Middle East, complete with gruesome, heartrending images, a recalcitrant dictator, and prominent voices calling on Washington to do something.

Photos: In Syria, families flee and rebels fight

You can't put history on hold until after Election Day, but you can certainly try.

The Obama administration has put other major foreign policy issues on the back burner in order to avoid giving Republicans fodder for criticism, to prevent new risks to the economy, or simply to avoid stepping on a landmine while moving along a dangerous global landscape.

A report in Britain's Sunday Times claims that the White House asked Israel to delay an attack on Iran until after November. Many fear that a war with Iran would send oil prices skyrocketing and hurt Obama's reelection prospects. Although that scenario could be averted, the risk of armed conflict creates too much uncertainty during a pivotal year. For now, Obama and the West are backing slow-motion talks with Iran along with economic sanctions. They have significantly reduced their demands from a requirement that Iran stop enriching uranium to a call for Tehran to "curb" enrichment to higher grades.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, a top Palestinian leader said the Obama administration told Palestinians to be patient this year, with a promise that a reelected Obama, unbound by the need to win votes, would make a forceful return to his mediation efforts.

Even with Afghanistan, Obama has been perceived as putting political goals ahead of strategic decisions. Leslie Gelb, President Emeritus of Council on Global Relations, suggested that the November election is the main reason why Obama has not ordered a faster draw-down of troops. "But wait till next year," he wrote. "The fig leaf of vital interests will no longer be sustainable in the postelection marketplace."

While the Obama administration tries to plug all the holes, or at least slow the leaks until it has more freedom of movement, its timid efforts in Syria are starting to look like an abdication of a fundamental moral duty. The death toll in Syria continues to rise, with more than 13,000 people killed. At this rate, the political cost of doing nothing will outweigh the risk of taking action.

There is no obvious, easy answer. And the American people so far seem to have no desire to see American forces step in to stop the horrifying massacres. But Washington could, without sending in American troops, take a stronger leadership role.

Pressure is mounting on Obama to launch a more muscular response as Syria unravels and risks creating chaos in other parts of the region. Even Democrats are making a case for American intervention. After all, Syria is Iran's closest ally. Helping to staunch the bloodshed there could help prevent a war with Iran by weakening Tehran's hand. The U.S. could also try to fortify the Syrian opposition and work with other Arab countries who want to see Assad removed from power.

For too long, the White House placed its faith in a plan negotiated by former U.N. chief Kofi Annan, which was doomed to fail from the very beginning. Washington has blamed Moscow for the diplomatic stalemate and the lack of progress in Syria, but not everyone buys that argument.

Obama would like to prevent a major crisis with uncertain political ramifications from standing in the way of his reelection. But the tragedy in Syria is not waiting until November.

Sure, everyone would like to see all the tough geopolitical problems solved by diplomacy, with a handshake and a smile, without massacres of civilians and lies from dictators. But the world does not work that way.

Sometimes history has lousy timing. And presidents don't get to make three wishes.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Frida Ghitis.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
updated 5:32 PM EDT, Sun September 21, 2014
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 3:17 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
updated 9:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 8:17 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT