Right now, it seems most people in Washington are happy about President Obama’s astonishing retreat on Syria in which he has handed a major victory to Russian President Vladimir Putin and war criminal Bashar Assad. The president is glad to have found a way, no matter how humiliating, to talk his away out of the box in which he had placed himself on Syria’s chemical weapons and the red line he first enunciated last year. Democrats are glad not to have to defend a military action that they were never enthused about. And even some Republicans appear willing to give the administration’s hopes for a diplomatic solution the benefit of the doubt in order to spare themselves and the country a divisive debate about authorizing force that would have exposed the split between isolationists and internationalists in their own party. If that leaves the people of Syria exposed to further bloody depredations by an Assad regime that has been more or less given impunity to kill them so long as it is not with poison gas, so much the worse for them.
But the problem with the administration’s position is that in the course of moving from calling for Assad’s overthrow and punishment via military force that was “incredibly small” (according to Secretary of State John Kerry) but not a “pinprick” (President Obama’s words) to one in which they have embraced Russian-sponsored diplomacy is that they are still pretending to care about Syria. Thus, the U.S. and its allies are still talking tough about what would happen if Assad and his Russian and Iranian enablers don’t cooperate with those entrusted with rounding up the chemical weapons. Today, Kerry and his French and British colleagues called for a United Nations resolution on Syria that would include the use of force in order to make it clear to Assad that there would be consequences if he doesn’t keep his word about giving up the chemical weapons he has been telling the world he doesn’t have. Such threats are entirely appropriate. But there’s only one problem with them. Since Russia has made it just as clear they will countenance no threats of force against their Syrian ally, it is just talk. That leaves Assad free to answer the West’s talk of coercion with the traditional schoolyard response, “Or what?”
Having gone down the garden path with Putin on Syria, Kerry knows very well that there is no answer to that pointed question.
Let’s be clear about what was said by the U.S. and its allies today. The Syrians and the Russians both know that there will be no attack by the West on Syria no matter what Assad does in the next year.
It is possible that if Assad were to use chemical weapons again on his own people that might prompt some sort of response from President Obama. He would then have every right to order a unilateral strike on Syrian forces, just as he could have done after the last chemical attack under the War Powers Act. Indeed, having already tried diplomacy his use of force would be even more justified than before. But after all we have been through in the last few weeks, does anyone seriously believe this president has the will to go to war in Syria even under those circumstances?
Assad would be mad to give the U.S. that kind of a justification. But let’s assume he’s not that crazy and ponder the more likely scenarios in which he merely drags out the process of surrendering these weapons or claims that most of them have been destroyed or lost or, as he already has claimed against all the evidence, that the rebels are the real culprits. With Russian diplomatic backing in the form of a Security Council veto, there is no chance of a UN resolution authorizing force against their client. And as we have seen, there is no appetite on either side of the political aisle in the United States for action on Syria, no matter how many people are dying there. The political classes in D.C. would prefer to get back to squabbling about ObamaCare and the budget and leave foreign policy alone. Though almost all politicians pay lip service to human-rights concerns, they might as well echo Neville Chamberlain and ask why they should be asked to fight in a “faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.”
As dispiriting as this indifference may be, perhaps it is better than the hypocritical display Kerry is putting on. The secretary’s rhetoric about Syria was (aside from the silly quote about the size of the U.S. military response) always stronger than that of the president. Indeed, in his testimony about the now-shelved administration request for a resolution authorizing force, Kerry seemed to rise to the occasion in a way he has seldom done before. Having been hung out to dry by the president’s indecisive response to the crisis, perhaps he feels his honor requires the pretense that the U.S. still intends to press the Syrians. Perhaps he even believes what he is saying about holding Assad’s feet to the fire. But if so, he is one of the few who does believe there is any chance of that happening.
Having decided to back down on Syria and let the Russians have their way, the administration would do better to stop the play-acting by the secretary. The boat has sailed on any chance of the U.S. ever attacking Syria or punishing Assad for his war crimes. American credibility is already in the gutter. The sooner the U.S. stops pretending that it will do something that will not happen, the easier it will be for it to begin repairing the damage on other issues.