Obama’s “Jefferson Gambit” in the Syria Crisis (Part 1)


As China and Iran seem to fall in line with the emerging Kerry-Lavrov agreement on the modality and timetable of destroying Syria’s recently acknowledged arsenal of chemical weapons, most US foreign policy analysts, covering a wide spectrum of opinions, from centrists like Fareed Zakharia to neo-conservatives like Charles Krauthammer and political adversaries like John McCain, criticize the President’s handling of this latest crisis as a show of “provocative weakness”. The picture that emerges from their comments is that of a naïve and amateurish politician, uncomfortable as Commander-in-Chief and out of his depth as President, who failed to show American leadership on the global stage and abandoned the initiative to the “auld enemy”, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who not only masterfully outmaneuvered him and his blunder-prone Secretary of State over the past week, but managed to re-vitalize Russian power and influence at the UN and around the world.  Even such gurus of American diplomacy as Henry Kissinger and Zbiginiew Brezinksi, appearing this morning on Zakaria’s GPS Sunday program, agreed that the President’s actions “were misconceived – badly calculated”, and resulted in diminishing America’s hegemony in the Middle East whilst allowing Russia to become a significant player in the region. “What would the Founding Fathers say” may they all well think, “to see a President who so emasculates the powers of his office as to ask Congress to vote on the use of force in a matter he claims is of high national interest, then beg it to delay such a vote based on the promises of two dictators who didn’t hesitate, under the cover of the sovereign non-interference principle enshrined in the UN Charter, to massacre their own citizens in order to consolidate their hold on power?”


Whilst theirs may be a rhetorical question, the President’s supporters should not hesitate to dust up the history books and answer their query in detail.  Thomas Jefferson, revered author of the US Declaration of Independence, as well the young Republic’s first Secretary of State, second Vice-President and third President, found himself in a similar predicament almost exactly 200 years ago, when, on 22 June 1807, the USS Chesapeake was captured by the HMS The Leopard and four of its crew were removed as deserters under the British impressment laws – and one subsequently hung. Jefferson was so affected by the public uproar to this British act of war and by the ensuing clamor to declare war against the UK as to state that “[n]ever since the battle of Lexington have I seen this country in such a state of exasperation as at present…” Jefferson acted immediately and banned armed British ships from US waters, then asked the individual states to proceed with mobilization of their militiamen and ordered the purchase of arms, ammunitions and supplies. Only after the fact did he seek Congress’ approval, who ratified his actions and confirmed his authority to act unilaterally in times of crisis.


The question still remained whether “War, Embargo or Nothing shall be the course” the US would take in this matter. The President was well aware both of the threat to the young Republic that a large military establishment might cause, and of the impossibility of building a fleet that could, in the short term, challenge the British on the high seas; yet he was also stung by his opponents’ comments that “procrastination includes the whole compass of Mr. Jefferson’s policy”. However, by the time Congress reconvened, in November 1807, the war fever had passed and Jefferson was aware that the majority of the legislators were “extremely disposed for peace”; so he asked them to proclaim an embargo against both imports and exports from Britain, rather than go to war, although he knew that this might well hurt the US economy much more than affect British trade. He believed time was on the side of the US and that peace in Europe would remove all causes of the conflict between America and its former colonial master. Congress quickly proceeded to ratify the Embargo Act on 22 December 1807 – “a breathtaking bill, a projection of governmental power than surpassed even the hated Alien and Sedition Acts” Jefferson had so passionately opposed during his first successful Presidential campaign, in 1800.


The results of the Embargo Act were threefold: institutional, economic, and political. As John Meacham writes in his recent work Thomas Jefferson – The Art of Power, “[t]he embargo turned American politics upside down. Jefferson became the explicit advocate of strong central power. Republicans who favored less government became the most meddlesome of regulators”. At the same time, it also affected US commerce to the extent that it soon was respected more in the breach than observance by both US and foreign merchants, and ultimately became a financial disaster for America. Finally, although it managed to delay armed conflict with the UK, war still eventually broke out, in 1812, four years after Jefferson’s departure from the White House. The annals of history mark the 1807 Embargo as the low point of Jefferson’s Presidency and one of the biggest Presidential foreign policy blunders in the country’s three centuries of existence. In the last days of his Presidency, on 1 March 1809, Jefferson finally repealed the ill-fated Embargo Act 1807, in an atmosphere of popular division and distrust exemplified by one of the many letters he received shortly thereafter: “You have brought the government to the jaws of destruction… I do not undertake to day whether by supineness, timidity, or enthusiasm. The effect is certain. On the cause I cannot pronounce.”


We can safely assume that Barak Obama, a keen student of history and former constitutional law lecturer, was fully aware of this dark chapter of US diplomacy when he virtually single-handedly decided, last week, to consult Congress rather than order a missile strike attack on Syria, and then asked for such a vote to be delayed in order to give the Russian peace initiative the chance to play out and remove entirely the US need to intervene militarily. He may well have said, like his illustrious predecessor, some two hundred years ago, that “[w]hat is good in this case cannot be effected… we have, therefore, only to find out what is least bad”. He also most likely believed, like him, that time was on the US side and would help him both in avoiding a full-scale military intervention in Syria he did not want, as well as a limited missile strike he did not truly think would be effective in actually curbing the atrocities perpetrated by both the Assad Regime and its radical Islamist opposition during the past two years of civil war. Yet he also knew that morally, in the wake of Assad’s chemical attack which resulted in over 1,400 deaths and countless graphic photos and videos illustrating the shocking atrocities committed by Assad against his own people, the US could ill afford to just “turn back to the world” and “do nothing” in response.


To truly understand President Obama’s actions we need to come to grips with his long-term strategy- not the compressed “long term” of US politics that looks no further than, at most, the next Presidential election, but Braudel’s “longue durée” defined as a long arc of history, measured in centuries, and characterized by radically different political and institutional arrangements from those which preceded it, at both domestic and international levels of governance.  This long-term strategy can best be gleaned from two key sources: the President’s 2009 Nobel Lecture, given at the beginning of his first mandate, and a unique initiative undertaken by Thomas Jefferson in 1786, during his years as US Ambassador to France, before the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars had set the then newly-emerging “longue durée” matrix of international relations as one of conflictual, zero-sum power struggles between ideologically-opposed nation-states –the one in which we still live to this day.