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 8:21 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:54 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT