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The Syrian Tragedy and Obama’s Absence

The more you read about Syria, the worse it looks for the Obama administration. In its weekend edition, the Wall Street Journal has a long article exploring what happened when the Syrian regime used chemical weapons on a massive scale on August 21, killing an estimated 1,400 people.

The article reveals that the White House not only refused to provide arms to the rebels but it even refused their requests for protective equipment to deal with chemical weapons attacks:

Syrian opposition leaders made their first formal appeal to the U.S. for protection from chemical weapons back in June 2012. At a meeting in Washington, opposition representatives handed administration officials a request for various nonlethal supplies, including 2,500 gas masks, say people who attended….

White House advisers, they say, questioned whether the masks would make much of a difference. Some worried that if Islamic extremists in the opposition got their hands on them they might try to seize poison gas from the regime. Administrative lawyers worried about potentially running afoul of domestic and international law.

“It was never ‘no.’” says one opposition representative about what would become a series of requests. “But it would never happen.”

This is shameful and bizarre. None of the reasons the White House gave for refusing to provide gas masks, etc., stand up to much scrutiny–especially when the administration was already ostensibly committed to providing non-lethal supplies to the opposition. This was simply inertia and foot-dragging, all a result of the fatal ambivalence and irresolution in the Oval Office.

When Assad’s goons stepped up their use of chemical weapons, Obama was briefly spurred into contemplating tougher action, before just as quickly backing off, and seizing a face-saving Russian offer to destroy the Syrian chemical-weapons stockpile. The Journal article reports: “U.S. intercepts show a Russian official later boasting to a Syrian counterpart about how easy it had been to get the U.S. to back off strike plans.”

Given Obama’s mishandling of Syria, it is a shame that Republicans have let him off the hook–first by not coalescing around a tough-minded position (how could the GOP knock Obama for being soft while refusing to endorse air strikes?), and then by changing the subject to the completely unnecessary and unproductive government shutdown. The tragedy of an irresolute and weak U.S. foreign policy is compounded by the tragedy of an equally weak and irresolute opposition party, which doesn’t know where it stands on foreign policy. It tells you something that the most devastating critique in recent days of the Obama foreign policy has been delivered by a member of the Saudi royal family who aptly summed it up as “just complete chaos. Confusion. No policy.”


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