Having made his remark over a year ago that use of CW (chemical weapons) by the Assad regime in Syria would cross the 'red line,' Obama is now faced with either eating his words or taking military action with few allies and no covering UN Security Council resolution. As far as the latter is concerned, Russia and China have no intention of being bamboozled again as happened when they voted in favor of an ambiguous resolution that was used by the USA, UK and France to launch military action in Libya. Either or both would veto any such resolution in the UN Security Council, no matter how woolly the language. Indeed, following the London vote, it may even be impossible for the UK to vote for its own draft resolution that is now before the Council!
Here in the USA, by going to Congress, Obama has compromised his presidential authority and probably that of his successors. Even if that tortured body comes to a clear view and Obama decides to authorize a carefully limited strike, the USA will be taking action that is unlawful in the eyes of the international community. And what message does that send to others (such as Russia, China, India) if at some time in the future they find themselves faced with a situation in which they believe that military action is required in their own national interests? Military action for national self-defense is permitted by the UN Charter, which the USA has ratified as international law, but military action outside that circumstance requires UN Security Council approval under Chapter VII of the UN Charter and so the USA will, not for the first time, be showing itself as hypocritical.
On the other hand, having said what he said, if Obama declines to follow through with some measure of force, the USA will look weak and impotent. And what message does that send to those (such as Iran, North Korea, and perhaps others) who want to pull the bald eagle's feathers? In either event, the USA will come out of this imbroglio politically damaged.
In the end, I have come to believe that the least bad of all the options available is that the Assad government should remain in place, albeit injured by a carefully selected U.S. strike. Although the writ of the Assad government will continue to be challenged by rebels in Syria, the overthrow of the government appears increasingly unlikely, and furthermore any replacement 'government' might be a collection of fundamentalist rebels and jihadists who would not exercise civil control and would easily turn out to be even worse for US and Western interests than Assad.
As for the damage to the US/UK relationship that will probably result from the House of Commons vote, perhaps it will be the final nail in the coffin of the "special relationship." Back in 1962 Dean Acheson once said that Great Britain had lost an empire but not yet found a role. Here we are 50 years later and it is as true today as it was then. Far from being able to serve as a unique bridge between the USA and the EU, the UK appears more and more to be a country without a role and one that can be safely left by its colleagues in the international community to take itself to the margins of significance.
In sum, words and votes have consequences. Sad days.
Derek Boothby is a former arms control specialist with the United Nations and a resident of Manchester.