Commentary Magazine


Topic: Bashar al-Assad

Veteran Intelligence Pros for Syria’s Assad

Earlier this month, a group of former intelligence analysts and operatives who call themselves the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) issued a statement regarding Syria. It began:

We regret to inform you that some of our former co-workers are telling us, categorically, that contrary to the claims of your administration, the most reliable intelligence shows that Bashar al-Assad was NOT responsible for the chemical incident that killed and injured Syrian civilians on August 21, and that British intelligence officials also know this. In writing this brief report, we choose to assume that you have not been fully informed …

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Earlier this month, a group of former intelligence analysts and operatives who call themselves the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) issued a statement regarding Syria. It began:

We regret to inform you that some of our former co-workers are telling us, categorically, that contrary to the claims of your administration, the most reliable intelligence shows that Bashar al-Assad was NOT responsible for the chemical incident that killed and injured Syrian civilians on August 21, and that British intelligence officials also know this. In writing this brief report, we choose to assume that you have not been fully informed …

Their statement continues to push the bizarre conspiracy theory that Israel had a part in the chemical attacks. Let’s put aside how poorly this theory reflects on the men and women of the U.S. intelligence community, who count these conspiracy-mongers among their distinguished alumni, and instead focus on the “our former co-workers are telling us” portion. There are two possibilities here: One, intelligence analysts are readily violating their oaths to protect and secure the information with which they work by gossiping with colleagues; or, two, the VIPS are simply lying about their access in order to look more relevant to the media.

Either way, VIPS’s actions are worth considering. A quick Lexis search shows that their most recent letter was picked up by the New York Times, the International Business Times-Germany, the Toronto Star, Iran’s Fars News Agency, and a number of blogs. If the intelligence veterans involved in VIPS are bluffing about their access, then that should be the first issue journalists address when reporting on the letter.

Let’s assume that the journalists did determine that men—many of whom have been out of the intelligence community for years—still gossip openly with colleagues on the inside, colleagues who must now be fairly senior in a bureaucracy that rewards seniority more than ability. Their chatter raises more problems. W. Patrick Lang, one of the signatories, once served as a registered foreign agent for a pro-Syrian Lebanese politician; in effect, he was a lobbyist for the Syrian regime. That members of the intelligence community would leak to such a figure should raise concerns. Lang also once confessed that his intelligence colleagues leaked information to influence the outcome of the 2004 U.S. presidential election. “Of course they were leaking,” the American Prospect reported Pat Lang as saying in the November 2005 issue. “They told me about it at the time. They thought it was funny. They’d say things like, ‘This last thing that came out, surely people will pay attention to that. They won’t re-elect this man.’”

VIPS are pushing policy and in a quite dishonest way. Rather than simply report on the VIPS statements, the New York Times would do better to consider the implications of the group’s actions. So, too, should the internal affairs and security wings of the various intelligence communities whose alumni now are members of VIPS. For VIPS condones and represents not only a problem with leaking among the intelligence community, but also a malicious and politically driven kind of leaking that, as the Fars News Agency demonstrates, already provides comfort and propaganda to the enemy.

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Video Shows Iranian Advisors in Syria

Al-Arabiya has posted a video which purports to show Iranian military advisors alongside Syrian regime forces inside Syria:

Believed to be uploaded by a group of Syrian opposition fighters, the rebels say the tapes belonged to an Iranian cameraman who died in the fighting. “The uploaded footage also shows that they [the Iranians] and the rest of the fighters are stationed at a building that looks like a school with notices posted on the walls both in Arabic and in Persian – indicating that the number of Iranians might be well more than the few that we see in the footage,” the BBC reported. At one point during the video, the camera falls to the ground and the view goes black as bullets can be heard in the background. This may have been the moment of the filmmaker’s death. Last June, Iran was to reportedly send 4,000 Iranian Revolutionary Guards to Syria to support President Bashar al-Assad in the fight against opposition forces, according to the The Independent.

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Al-Arabiya has posted a video which purports to show Iranian military advisors alongside Syrian regime forces inside Syria:

Believed to be uploaded by a group of Syrian opposition fighters, the rebels say the tapes belonged to an Iranian cameraman who died in the fighting. “The uploaded footage also shows that they [the Iranians] and the rest of the fighters are stationed at a building that looks like a school with notices posted on the walls both in Arabic and in Persian – indicating that the number of Iranians might be well more than the few that we see in the footage,” the BBC reported. At one point during the video, the camera falls to the ground and the view goes black as bullets can be heard in the background. This may have been the moment of the filmmaker’s death. Last June, Iran was to reportedly send 4,000 Iranian Revolutionary Guards to Syria to support President Bashar al-Assad in the fight against opposition forces, according to the The Independent.

That the Syrian regime is bad doesn’t make the alternative—two and a half years into the conflict—any better. If you put lipstick on the al-Qaeda, you’d get the Free Syrian Army. But it is useful to remember how involved the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is inside of Syria. Not only does it make the chance for Obama administration diplomacy between zero and nil, but it should also put to rest the myth out there that Iran has not acted aggressively toward any of its neighbors in the last two hundred years, as some pundits claim.

Any coherent strategy should include not only diplomacy, economic coercion, and military pressure, but also an informational component. This, alas, is too often lacking in American grand strategy which too often conflates information operations with propaganda. But such videos and evidence of Iranian malfeasance should be disseminated widely, including back into Iran where the ordinary populace may not fully recognize just how in-deep their government remains inside Syria.

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Obama’s Syria Stumbles Don’t Get Congress Off the Hook

President Obama’s hesitancy and confusion has united pretty much all Republicans in scathing criticism of his lack of leadership over Syria. I have joined in those criticisms. But we should not let Republicans and the rest of the political class—to say nothing of the nonpolitical mass—off the hook either for the loss of American credibility that will ensue from events of recent weeks.

Paul Mirengoff over at Power Line has a powerful and thought-provoking post on this subject. He writes “that the most serious and enduring loss to American credibility stems not from President Obama’s actions or decisions, but from the unwillingness of Congress and the American people to support him when he proposed taking military action against Assad.” Indeed, the failure of Congress to rally to President Obama’s side by supporting a military response to the use of chemical weapons effectively left the president little choice but to grasp the face-saving offer put forward by Russia that will supposedly remove Syria’s chemical weapons at the cost of keeping Bashar Assad in power indefinitely.

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President Obama’s hesitancy and confusion has united pretty much all Republicans in scathing criticism of his lack of leadership over Syria. I have joined in those criticisms. But we should not let Republicans and the rest of the political class—to say nothing of the nonpolitical mass—off the hook either for the loss of American credibility that will ensue from events of recent weeks.

Paul Mirengoff over at Power Line has a powerful and thought-provoking post on this subject. He writes “that the most serious and enduring loss to American credibility stems not from President Obama’s actions or decisions, but from the unwillingness of Congress and the American people to support him when he proposed taking military action against Assad.” Indeed, the failure of Congress to rally to President Obama’s side by supporting a military response to the use of chemical weapons effectively left the president little choice but to grasp the face-saving offer put forward by Russia that will supposedly remove Syria’s chemical weapons at the cost of keeping Bashar Assad in power indefinitely.

Now, it can be argued that part of the failure of Congress to support the president is due to his own vacillations—his strong rhetoric combined with vows that any strike would be “incredibly small” and would not be designed to topple Assad left national-security hawks scratching their heads. Undoubtedly some strong-on-defense types would have supported a more robust American response, but had so little confidence in what Obama was proposing that they indicated they would vote no.

But I don’t believe this is the whole picture. If President Obama had signaled a tough response designed to use air strikes in conjunction with arming the opposition to topple Assad, he would have picked up support from some hawks but would have lost even more support among the large number of doves of both parties.

It now appears clear that there was little chance of an authorization for the use of force passing whatever Obama said or did. Which is a good reason Obama should never have asked for congressional authorization to begin with—something he did, the Wall Street Journal reveals today, without bothering to consult with leaders of Congress in advance and over the objections of his own senior staff.

But I’m with Mirengoff: The president’s stumbles don’t excuse the mood of isolationism—or, if you prefer, non-interventionism—which is taking root in both parties and which applies far beyond Syria. The American people, through polls and their elected representatives, have made clear they are war-weary, eager to curtail overseas commitments, and sick of dealing with the world’s problems. Yet another manifestation of the same trend is the imposition of sequestration—across-the-board cuts in the defense budget amounting to more than $500 billion over the next ten years. A year ago there was widespread hope that such cuts would never be imposed or that, if they were, they would soon be repealed. Now there is a mood of resignation in Washington, and a growing realization that sequestration is never going to be repealed.

Even in the Republican Party, which since at least the days of Theodore Roosevelt has been the party of international engagement and military leadership (with a brief detour into isolationism that began under Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover and ended with Eisenhower’s defeat of Robert Taft for the 1952 presidential nomination), there are few voices speaking up for a tough response to the world’s predators. John McCain stands virtually alone in this regard and he is widely seen in the party as an outsider.

The most vocal Republican voice on foreign policy is Rand Paul, a born-again isolationist who, if he succeeds, will consign the GOP to perpetual irrelevance. We need to hear more from the Chris Christies, Marco Rubios, Jeb Bushes, and others who support a Reaganite policy of global leadership but are being drowned out by Tea Party isolationists. So, too, in the Democratic Party we need to hear more from the liberal internationalists such as the Clintons to explain why we can’t simply turn our backs on war crimes.

Just because we choose to ignore the world’s problems doesn’t mean they will go away. Just the opposite: Without American leadership, problems such as the Syrian chemical-weapons program or Iran’s nuclear-weapons program will simply become more dangerous. Ultimately we will be drawn into dealing with the fallout, like it or not, and a failure to engage early on all but guarantees we will have to face higher costs down the road. If most Americans don’t understand that, it’s up to their leaders to educate them—as an earlier generation of leaders educated Americans to support the Marshall Plan, NATO, and the containment policy. Unfortunately, there is scant evidence of that kind of leadership today in either party.

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The Obama Mythology Has Been Shattered

During a recent press briefing, White House press secretary Jay Carney–in attempting to defend President Obama’s Syria policy–said this:

I would simply say that when it comes to being Commander-in-Chief, I think that the American people, at least in my assessment, appreciate a Commander-in-Chief who takes in new information and doesn’t celebrate decisiveness for the sake of decisiveness.

Taking in new information is fine; pursuing a policy characterized by head-snapping shifts, ambivalence, ineptness, and bipolarity is not. 

Let’s see if we can help Mr. Carney out by summarizing for him some (but hardly all) of his boss’s epic incompetence, starting with declaring that Bashar al-Assad must leave–and now taking steps that secure Assad’s grip on power. Then there’s the president warning the Syrian regime not to cross the “red line” of using chemical weapons–and doing nothing when it did (on several different occasions).

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During a recent press briefing, White House press secretary Jay Carney–in attempting to defend President Obama’s Syria policy–said this:

I would simply say that when it comes to being Commander-in-Chief, I think that the American people, at least in my assessment, appreciate a Commander-in-Chief who takes in new information and doesn’t celebrate decisiveness for the sake of decisiveness.

Taking in new information is fine; pursuing a policy characterized by head-snapping shifts, ambivalence, ineptness, and bipolarity is not. 

Let’s see if we can help Mr. Carney out by summarizing for him some (but hardly all) of his boss’s epic incompetence, starting with declaring that Bashar al-Assad must leave–and now taking steps that secure Assad’s grip on power. Then there’s the president warning the Syrian regime not to cross the “red line” of using chemical weapons–and doing nothing when it did (on several different occasions).

But there’s more, including President Obama promising to arm rebels attempting to overthrow Assad–and delaying doing so for many crucial months; indicating he’d by-pass Congress when it came to seeking a use-of-force resolution–and then shocking everyone, including his entire staff, by reversing direction; putting British Prime Minister Cameron in a position where he needed to go to Parliament for a vote in order to approve an imminent strike–and then pulling back from the strike, leaving Mr. Cameron hung out to dry; insisting that Assad must be militarily punished for using chemical weapons–and now pursuing a fruitless diplomatic strategy in which Assad will not be on the receiving end of a military strike. And let’s not forget Mr. Obama’s secretary of state, who framed the conflict with Syria as (a) a “Munich moment” before (b) assuring people that a strike against our modern-day Hitler would be “incredibly small” followed by (c) engaging in negotiations destined to fail with the man he called “thug” and “murderer” who is guilty of committing a “moral obscenity.”

Poor Jay Carney. In the wake of this debacle he’s trying to recreate the mythic Obama–the post-ideological, objective, empirically driven statesman who would, through “smart diplomacy,” open an exciting new chapter in relations with the Arab and Islamic world.

It was all a mirage; and all the world now knows it was a mirage. The situation in virtually every nation in the broader Middle East and North Africa–including Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Jordan, Libya, Pakistan, Turkey, and Afghanistan–is worse now then it was when Mr. Obama was sworn in as president in 2009. With that in mind Mr. Carney might consider, for his own credibility, giving up his pathetic reinvention effort. Because all the president’s horses and all the president’s men can’t put Barack Obama’s presidency back together again.

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On “Decisiveness” and Obama’s Credibility

Though there were plenty of cringeworthy comments relating to foreign policy from some 2012 GOP primary candidates, Democrats got a bit too triumphal about ending the Republican Party’s polling advantage on foreign affairs. The right had plenty to figure out, of course, as any party out of power does. But it was always possible they could be helped by miscues in the Obama administration. The Republicans could gain back some of the ground they lost by staying in place if President Obama did something to lose the public’s trust.

According to the new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, the president has done just that with his Syria debacle: “Republicans are now rated higher than Democrats on handling the economy and foreign policy, and the GOP’s lead has strengthened on several other issues, including dealing with the federal deficit and ensuring a strong national defense.” That does not mean the right is out of the woods on foreign policy, but it does illustrate the extent to which Obama has hurt his administration’s credibility with its behavior on Syria.

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Though there were plenty of cringeworthy comments relating to foreign policy from some 2012 GOP primary candidates, Democrats got a bit too triumphal about ending the Republican Party’s polling advantage on foreign affairs. The right had plenty to figure out, of course, as any party out of power does. But it was always possible they could be helped by miscues in the Obama administration. The Republicans could gain back some of the ground they lost by staying in place if President Obama did something to lose the public’s trust.

According to the new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, the president has done just that with his Syria debacle: “Republicans are now rated higher than Democrats on handling the economy and foreign policy, and the GOP’s lead has strengthened on several other issues, including dealing with the federal deficit and ensuring a strong national defense.” That does not mean the right is out of the woods on foreign policy, but it does illustrate the extent to which Obama has hurt his administration’s credibility with its behavior on Syria.

A good example of why took place yesterday when White House spokesman Jay Carney tried to explain away the Syria reversal. As Roll Call reports:

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney defended his boss Thursday after a blistering few weeks of criticism in Congress and elsewhere over his handling of the Syria crisis.

Carney said the American people “appreciate a president who doesn’t celebrate decisiveness for decisiveness’ sake.” He also said Americans like that Obama is open to “new information” and adjusts his course accordingly.

This illustrates pretty clearly how difficult it is to defend the administration’s waffling on Syria, because this explanation is laughable. Sure, the president shouldn’t be decisive just for the sake of being decisive. But that’s completely irrelevant to the situation in Syria.

Let’s review. The civil war in Syria has been raging for two and a half years, with 100,000-plus casualties. President Obama wasn’t sure quite what to do about it, and didn’t think the U.S. could intervene in such a way as to bring about the desired outcome at a bearable cost. As the years went by, the president did say one thing: it may not be wise to jump into a Syrian civil war when both sides seem to be dominated (at this point, at least) by enemies of the West. However, the president said, there is a line Bashar al-Assad cannot cross: he cannot use chemical weapons.

Whatever one may think of Obama’s plan on Syria, that red line was eminently reasonable. What’s more, he had public support for it. Not only did a 2012 poll show a majority would support military intervention in Syria if Assad used chemical weapons, but an even larger majority approved of military intervention “If the Syrian government lost control of their stockpile of chemical weapons.” The president and the public agreed: the use of those chemical weapons must be prevented, and their whereabouts must be accounted for.

There was no danger of unthinking decisiveness, it seemed, as the war dragged on. The president had plenty of time think about it. Additionally, the red line was not rash or hasty either; it was perfectly logical and in keeping with international standards. The trouble started when it appeared the red line was crossed, and the administration kept a lid on those suspicions. The public could be forgiven for wondering: how red was that line?

Then came the massive gas attack the administration couldn’t ignore and for which they believed strongly that Assad’s forces were responsible. It was time for action. The red line was crossed. The president and his emissaries gave speeches likening the Assad regime to the Nazis. There was no lack of decisiveness, certainly not for its own sake.

But then the president said something strange: he didn’t need congressional approval for the strikes he said were necessary, but he was going to ask Congress for authorization anyway–and if they didn’t approve the strikes he was probably going to bomb Syria without them.

And then John Kerry opened his mouth, garbled the administration’s message, and the whole thing fell apart. The bombing campaign that Obama said would send a message and was absolutely necessary could wait. Maybe we could trust Assad, the man we were supposed to believe was aspiring to be his generation’s Hitler. And maybe we could trust Vladimir Putin, too. Maybe the world’s tyrants just needed Obama to wag his finger at them, and they would repent. ’Tis the season, after all.

The problem, in other words, is not simply indecisiveness. It’s that the president initiates decisive action and his team employs a full-court press to build a sense of urgency that would reflect the administration’s own and justify that decisive action. Then it reverses itself. The president is taking heat in the polls because if you tell the public that someone is Hitler they may believe you–once.

But now the public has reason to believe either that Obama and his advisors were being dishonest and didn’t really believe Syria is like Nazi Germany or that they do think Assad is like Hitler but they don’t think anything needs to be done about that right now. Neither option is likely to convince the public that the Democrats are serious about foreign policy, and it’s not surprising to see that sentiment start showing up in the polls.

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Obama’s Stirring Case Against Obama

Last night, President Obama addressed the American people to make the case for war–in general. He was speaking to build support for military action against Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, but he undermined that case by also highlighting the lack of urgency of such action, implying that the American people should support and Congress should approve action that would be either irresponsible or unnecessary at this point.

But he made a powerful case for the wars America has fought over his own objections. And he ruthlessly demolished whatever was left of Senator Obama’s breezy moralist posturing that began disintegrating when it collided with reality and the responsibilities of statecraft four years ago. And though he tried studiously to avoid it, after four years as president, Obama was unable to make the case against Bush-era intervention without implicitly but unmistakably indicting his own. It may have been overshadowed by the “pinprick” comment, but the full context of that remark is revealing. Obama said:

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Last night, President Obama addressed the American people to make the case for war–in general. He was speaking to build support for military action against Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, but he undermined that case by also highlighting the lack of urgency of such action, implying that the American people should support and Congress should approve action that would be either irresponsible or unnecessary at this point.

But he made a powerful case for the wars America has fought over his own objections. And he ruthlessly demolished whatever was left of Senator Obama’s breezy moralist posturing that began disintegrating when it collided with reality and the responsibilities of statecraft four years ago. And though he tried studiously to avoid it, after four years as president, Obama was unable to make the case against Bush-era intervention without implicitly but unmistakably indicting his own. It may have been overshadowed by the “pinprick” comment, but the full context of that remark is revealing. Obama said:

Let me make something clear: The United States military doesn’t do pinpricks.

Even a limited strike will send a message to Assad that no other nation can deliver. I don’t think we should remove another dictator with force. We learned from Iraq that doing so makes us responsible for all that comes next. But a targeted strike can make Assad or any other dictator think twice before using chemical weapons.

If we learned from Iraq that removing a dictator with force makes us responsible for all that comes next, then surely Obama believes the U.S. takes at least some responsibility for the violence in the wake of the removal of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. And lest the president or his supporters downplay the American role, here is how Obama himself sees the situation, as he expressed in a debate with Mitt Romney last year:

But you know, going back to Libya, because this is an example of — of how we make choices, you know, when we went into Libya and we were able to immediately stop the massacre there because of the unique circumstances and the coalition that we had helped to organize, we also had to make sure that Moammar Gadhafi didn’t stay there. And to the governor’s credit, you supported us going into Libya and the coalition that we organized. But when it came time to making sure that Gadhafi did not stay in power, that he was captured, Governor, your suggestion was that this was mission creep, that this was mission muddle.

Imagine if we had pulled out at that point. That — Moammar Gadhafi had more American blood on his hands than any individual other than Osama bin Laden. And so we were going to make sure that we finished the job. That’s part of the reason why the Libyans stand with us. But we did so in a careful, thoughtful way, making certain that we knew who we were dealing with, that those forces of moderation on the ground were ones that we could work with. And we have to take the same kind of steady, thoughtful leadership when it comes to Syria. That’s exactly what we’re doing.

Unambiguous: our involvement in Libya was to remove Gaddafi from power and shepherd the political transition. And shame on anyone, goes the president’s forceful argument, who would even suggest otherwise. Well, today is of course the anniversary not only of the September 11, 2001 attacks but also those carried out on our diplomatic mission in Benghazi last year.

And the situation there has not improved. As the Washington Post reported last week:

Even minor disputes escalate into frequent gun violence on the streets. Kidnappings and armed robberies are increasing, and government officials and others have been assassinated with guns and bombs. Militants and arms smugglers easily cross poorly protected borders shared with Niger and Chad….

“It’s impossible,” said Mahmoud Ibrahim Sherif, the Tripoli police chief, who blamed the government for failing to properly fund and equip his officers….

In the face of spiking numbers of kidnappings and armed robberies, he said, his officers rarely attempt to arrest anyone because “they have more guns than we do.” He said arrest attempts stopped after several incidents in which his cops were attacked with ­rocket-propelled grenades.

It’s certainly, it should be noted, in worse shape than Iraq, and might have made for a better example of the argument the president was trying to make. But the Iraq example is relevant for another reason. In justifying military action against Syria, President Obama asked, “What kind of world will we live in if the United States of America sees a dictator brazenly violate international law with poison gas and we choose to look the other way?”

That wasn’t the only time the president seemed to make the case that military action against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was taken later than it should have been. Earlier in the speech, Obama said this:

As the ban against these weapons erodes, other tyrants will have no reason to think twice about acquiring poison gas and using them. Over time our troops would again face the prospect of chemical warfare on the battlefield, and it could be easier for terrorist organizations to obtain these weapons and to use them to attack civilians.

If fighting spills beyond Syria’s borders, these weapons could threaten allies like Turkey, Jordan and Israel.

And a failure to stand against the use of chemical weapons would weaken prohibitions against other weapons of mass destruction and embolden Assad’s ally, Iran, which must decide whether to ignore international law by building a nuclear weapon or to take a more peaceful path.

This is not a world we should accept.

Of course, military action can be taken any number of ways following any number of strategies. But Obama wasn’t just against the way the war in Iraq was prosecuted. This was the war he called a “dumb war.” In that famous 2002 speech, Obama said that he has “no illusions about Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal man. A ruthless man. A man who butchers his own people to secure his own power.” However, Obama then added:

I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States or to his neighbors, that the Iraqi economy is in shambles, that the Iraqi military a fraction of its former strength, and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history.

How vigorously Obama now apparently disagrees with that assessment.

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What Russia Gets Out of the Syria Deal

One way to tell how abrupt and unexpected was the change in plans toward Syria is the fact that no one seems completely sure who gets credit for the idea of having Bashar al-Assad give up his chemical weapons. It is being pitched as the Russian proposal, which is true enough. But it’s also true that the idea seemed to have been sparked by Secretary of State John Kerry at a press conference yesterday. Then again it is also true that no one expected Kerry to say that, least of all the president.

In fact, President Obama was pushing for military action yesterday as the administration sent out key players to make the case publicly. Susan Rice, the national security advisor, gave a major speech justifying the administration’s plans. Harry Reid, the Democratic Senate majority leader, compared Syria to Nazi Germany. He’ll now have to temper that indictment ever so slightly, one suspects. The New York Times attempts to reconcile this discrepancy by crediting both the Russians and Kerry. The Times describes Russia as leading this diplomatic initiative, but buried in the story is this acknowledgement of its provenance:

Mr. Kerry returned to Washington on Monday after first raising the idea in a dismissive way in London on Monday, making clear that the idea of Mr. Assad giving up Syria’s weapons seemed improbable.

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One way to tell how abrupt and unexpected was the change in plans toward Syria is the fact that no one seems completely sure who gets credit for the idea of having Bashar al-Assad give up his chemical weapons. It is being pitched as the Russian proposal, which is true enough. But it’s also true that the idea seemed to have been sparked by Secretary of State John Kerry at a press conference yesterday. Then again it is also true that no one expected Kerry to say that, least of all the president.

In fact, President Obama was pushing for military action yesterday as the administration sent out key players to make the case publicly. Susan Rice, the national security advisor, gave a major speech justifying the administration’s plans. Harry Reid, the Democratic Senate majority leader, compared Syria to Nazi Germany. He’ll now have to temper that indictment ever so slightly, one suspects. The New York Times attempts to reconcile this discrepancy by crediting both the Russians and Kerry. The Times describes Russia as leading this diplomatic initiative, but buried in the story is this acknowledgement of its provenance:

Mr. Kerry returned to Washington on Monday after first raising the idea in a dismissive way in London on Monday, making clear that the idea of Mr. Assad giving up Syria’s weapons seemed improbable.

I doubt this will get much pushback from the Obama administration. If the effort to secure Syria’s chemical weapons succeeds, the administration can credit diplomacy while playing up Kerry’s role. If the effort fails, the White House can recall that everyone knew Kerry didn’t mean for it to be a serious proposal anyway.

That raises another question: the consensus is that since the president had no idea this was coming the Russians are “saving” him from congressional defeat; why would they do so? The answer seems to be that they have nothing to lose one way or the other. This isn’t regime change; in fact it leans against it for the time being. It’s unclear exactly what the plan will be, as Max noted this morning, but it would depend heavily on Russian cooperation and at least partially on cooperation with Assad. The Russian government, then, looks like a bunch of geniuses who simultaneously prevented the expansion of war in Syria while keeping their preferred Syrian client in office, all the while banking some American goodwill.

What about the role of a credible threat of force? As the votes line up against it and Kerry insists any strike, even if authorized, would be modest and telegraphed, there hasn’t been much of a threat and it certainly hasn’t been credible. Are the Russians actually increasing the chances of a strike by giving the administration an excuse to argue that all other options have failed? Perhaps, but the mere scent of a diplomatic solution–likely to be drawn out–inspired relief in both parties’ congressional delegations as public support for such a strike continued to drop.

In the interim, Assad will have time to solidify his recent gains against the rebels and the Russians can continue to help Assad stack the deck. It’s worth pointing out that the Russian government is flatly opposed to removing Assad if it means he is replaced by his current opposition. As Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, whose stock is surely on the rise this week, told Foreign Policy for an interview published in late April:

Military solution can have only two options: The government wins, or the opposition wins. If the opposition wins on the ground militarily, I am afraid the people who have been selected for this national coalition, the people who compose the Syrian National Council, they will not be invited to Syria because the people with the guns, the extremists, would have the day….

So we really have to understand what we are doing when we support one side or another. The people whom the French and the Africans are fighting in Mali now, those are the same people which Europeans supported in Libya. Some of the arms used against the French apparently are the arms the Libyan opposition received from France. So we must take a broader look at the situation. We cannot say, well, Libya is not Syria, Syria is not Mali, Mali is not Tunis, Tunis is not Egypt. This is absolutely true. Each country is different, but the process which is under way in the context of this Arab Spring is certainly a comprehensive issue involving so many aspects that we cannot afford the luxury of just limiting ourselves at every given moment by a situation in country X, forgetting about the ramifications.

Lavrov’s position is that the West would regret Assad’s fall, and that recent history is sufficient to justify Russia’s decision that it will not let the West make its own “mistakes” anymore. This is different from the concern that the Putin regime opposes military action in Syria because it believes it was snookered into regime change in Libya and cannot trust the Obama administration. Lavrov has made it clear this isn’t really about trust; it’s about saving the West from itself and the world from the West.

That is not exactly a ringing endorsement of America’s reputation in the world right now. But as much as the Obama administration has bungled the Syria issue from the beginning, it should be noted that congressional Republicans were happy about this proposed chemical-weapons deal too. Indeed, the Russian support for it probably signaled the end of the possibility of support for military action, at least for the moment, in this Congress. If Obama got played by Putin, so did they.

Throughout this crisis, the administration did not appear to have anything resembling a strategy. Now would be a good time to formulate one.

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The Long-Term Prospects of the Syria Deal

You can almost hear the collective sigh of relief in Washington over Syria’s apparent acceptance of a Russian plan to dismantle its chemical weapons. This offers the Obama administration an obvious out from what looked to be a losing vote to authorize military action against Bashar Assad. But is it a real out or a mirage?

It’s impossible to say for sure, without knowing the details of the “workable, precise, and concrete” plan that Russia has vowed to produce. But there is certainly room for considerable skepticism given what we know about the duplicity of the Syrian regime, Russia’s determination to keep that regime in power at all costs, and the ineffectuality of UN forces in the past.  

Start with the obvious question: how will the destruction of the Syrian chemical arsenal work anyway?

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You can almost hear the collective sigh of relief in Washington over Syria’s apparent acceptance of a Russian plan to dismantle its chemical weapons. This offers the Obama administration an obvious out from what looked to be a losing vote to authorize military action against Bashar Assad. But is it a real out or a mirage?

It’s impossible to say for sure, without knowing the details of the “workable, precise, and concrete” plan that Russia has vowed to produce. But there is certainly room for considerable skepticism given what we know about the duplicity of the Syrian regime, Russia’s determination to keep that regime in power at all costs, and the ineffectuality of UN forces in the past.  

Start with the obvious question: how will the destruction of the Syrian chemical arsenal work anyway?

The language coming from the Syrians and Russians suggests that Syria’s arsenal will not be moved out of the country. Rather, UN inspectors are somehow supposed to take control of tons of chemical agents in the middle of a war zone. It is unclear what then follows–will the inspectors somehow have to incinerate tons of these agents safely or will they simply camp out around the chemical-weapons sites indefinitely?

How this works, in practice, is almost impossible to imagine. Western intelligence agencies do not even know where all of Assad’s chemical-weapons stockpiles are located. Remember how much trouble UN inspectors had in verifying Saddam Hussein’s compliance with UN resolutions in the 1990s? The difficulties will increase ten-fold in Syria where the chemical-weapons arsenal is scattered across a large, dangerous battlefield. Saddam, it turns out, didn’t really have WMD; Assad does, and they won’t be easy to find.

The only way that Syria might fulfill its obligation to disarm is if it faces a credible threat of military action. Will Russia agree to a Chapter VII resolution at the United Nations that would authorize military action to compel Syrian compliance? Doubtful, but possible. Even if the UN does authorize action, what are the odds that Obama will act given the bipartisan resistance in Congress to any strikes? The House and possibly the Senate as well were already set to reject the authorization for the use of force. This “deal” is being peddled as a way to avoid a vote altogether. But if the U.S. is not seen as willing to strike Syria, what incentive does Assad have to comply with the terms of any disarmament deal? The most likely scenario is that Assad will agree to something in principle and then fudge on the implementation, knowing that Washington will have lost interest by that point.

The best thing that can be said in favor of the Russian deal is that it does offer an alternative to the immediate humiliation of Congress repudiating the president and refusing to authorize Syrian action. But the Russia resolution–unless it turns out to be unexpectedly binding–offers instead the prospect of a longer, more drawn-out strategic defeat in which Assad remains in power, keeps slaughtering his own people, and probably keeps at least part of his chemical-weapons arsenal.

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Russia’s Absurd Proposal on Syria’s Weapons

The debate over Syria took a new turn on Monday when Secretary of State John Kerry suggested that Bashar Assad could avoid American airstrikes if he would “turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week — turn it over, all of it, without delay and allow the full and total accounting.” Kerry added that Assad “isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done.”

But that didn’t stop Russia and other nations from jumping on the idea after the Syrian government said it welcomed the idea. Now this seemingly offhand suggestion–which Kerry apparently did not mean to float as a serious proposal–is being seriously debated as an alternative to American military action.

If Assad were serious about turning over his entire chemical weapons stockpile–not to mention destroying all capacity to manufacture more such weapons in the future–this might conceivably be a deal worth taking even at the risk of Assad rebuilding his chemical weapons capacity sometime in the future. But the odds of Assad assenting to such a deal are slight: Why should he when he knows that, worst case, he faces an “unbelievably small” American airstrike, as Kerry himself has said?

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The debate over Syria took a new turn on Monday when Secretary of State John Kerry suggested that Bashar Assad could avoid American airstrikes if he would “turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week — turn it over, all of it, without delay and allow the full and total accounting.” Kerry added that Assad “isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done.”

But that didn’t stop Russia and other nations from jumping on the idea after the Syrian government said it welcomed the idea. Now this seemingly offhand suggestion–which Kerry apparently did not mean to float as a serious proposal–is being seriously debated as an alternative to American military action.

If Assad were serious about turning over his entire chemical weapons stockpile–not to mention destroying all capacity to manufacture more such weapons in the future–this might conceivably be a deal worth taking even at the risk of Assad rebuilding his chemical weapons capacity sometime in the future. But the odds of Assad assenting to such a deal are slight: Why should he when he knows that, worst case, he faces an “unbelievably small” American airstrike, as Kerry himself has said?

Chemical weapons are an important source of power for the Assad regime, not only for the threat they pose to Israel but, more immediately, for the threat they pose to Assad’s rebellious subjects. He is unlikely to give up such an advantage, which is so crucial to his regime’s survival, unless he were convinced that his regime would crumble otherwise. But nothing that President Obama or his aides have said would lead him to come to that conclusion.

Even if Assad claimed to be serious about such a deal–and he has said no such thing yet, in fact he hasn’t even acknowledged that he possesses chemical weapons–it is hard to know how such a deal could be implemented or enforced. It is one thing for inspectors to travel to Libya in 2003 to make sure that Gaddafi was giving up his entire WMD program. Libya then was a peaceful if despotic place. It is quite another thing to do so now in Syria where violence is commonplace–in fact UN inspectors looking for evidence of chemical-weapons use have already been shot at. How on earth could international inspectors possibly roam Syria in the middle of a civil war to confirm that Assad has no more chemical weapons left?

The task is daunting, indeed nearly impossible, in no small part because of our lack of knowledge about the whereabouts of his arsenal. The New York Times reports: “A senior American official who has been briefed extensively on the intelligence noted in recent days that Washington has firm knowledge of only 19 of the 42 suspected chemical weapons sites. Those numbers are constantly changing, because Mr. Assad has been moving the stores, largely for fear some of them could fall into the hands of rebels.”

Even if we knew where all the stockpiles were, removing them and destroying them–presumably a process that would have to occur outside the country–would be an enormous undertaking that could easily involve thousands of foreign workers along with thousands, even tens of thousands, of soldiers to protect them. It is hard to imagine such an undertaking occurring in wartime; few if any nations will risk their troops on the ground in Syria to make the process possible and Syria’s government would be unlikely to grant them permission to do so.

This, then, is not a serious alternative to military action. It is a stalling tactic to allow Assad to retain his chemical-weapons capacity–and other weapons that have killed far more people. It is also a distraction from the real issue, which is not Assad’s chemical-weapons stockpile but the continuing existence of the Assad regime itself.

More than 100,000 people have already died in the Syrian civil war and more will continue to die as long as the Assad regime remains in power. There are admittedly real dangers in what post-Assad Syria will look like, but we already know what Syria under the Assad regime looks like today–it is a disaster, not only from a humanitarian but also from a strategic standpoint, because al-Qaeda is already consolidating control over parts of northern Syria while Iran is able to maintain a client regime in power in Damascus.

The U.S. policy should be not just the removal of the chemical-weapons stockpile but of the Assad regime itself. In fact Obama has said that is his goal–but he is not willing to take the actions necessary to bring it about. In the face of this leadership vacuum, it is hardly surprising that all sorts of odd ideas are being floated.

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The Politics of the Dueling Syria Resolutions

“Of all the unexpected turns in the Syria debate,” Politico intones this morning, “one stands out most: The GOP, the party of a muscular national defense, has gone the way of the dove.” Every word of that lead sentence is debatable: doubt about an unpopular war should not be unexpected, for example, and some hawks are skeptical about the Syria strikes because they are not considered robust enough–a strange basis on which to label them doves.

Additionally, some conservatives are put off by the president’s suggestion that he may act without congressional approval anyway, giving skeptics a free “no” vote while at the same time casting doubt on the president’s willingness to adhere to what these members of Congress see as the constitutionally appropriate line of action, making them even less inclined to green-light a Syria strike. Nonetheless, even if the characterization of the GOP as having “gone the way of the dove” is a bit exaggerated, it’s true that some right-of-center politicians are leaning on dovish rhetoric and tactics to derail the president’s proposed military action in Syria.

One of those politicians is California Republican Congressman Devin Nunes, who along with Democratic Senator Joe Manchin is preparing a congressional resolution as an alternative to the one supported by President Obama. The Washington Examiner’s David Drucker reported over the weekend:

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“Of all the unexpected turns in the Syria debate,” Politico intones this morning, “one stands out most: The GOP, the party of a muscular national defense, has gone the way of the dove.” Every word of that lead sentence is debatable: doubt about an unpopular war should not be unexpected, for example, and some hawks are skeptical about the Syria strikes because they are not considered robust enough–a strange basis on which to label them doves.

Additionally, some conservatives are put off by the president’s suggestion that he may act without congressional approval anyway, giving skeptics a free “no” vote while at the same time casting doubt on the president’s willingness to adhere to what these members of Congress see as the constitutionally appropriate line of action, making them even less inclined to green-light a Syria strike. Nonetheless, even if the characterization of the GOP as having “gone the way of the dove” is a bit exaggerated, it’s true that some right-of-center politicians are leaning on dovish rhetoric and tactics to derail the president’s proposed military action in Syria.

One of those politicians is California Republican Congressman Devin Nunes, who along with Democratic Senator Joe Manchin is preparing a congressional resolution as an alternative to the one supported by President Obama. The Washington Examiner’s David Drucker reported over the weekend:

Rather than grant Obama authority to launch a military strike against Syria — as other proposed resolutions would do — the Manchin-Nunes resolution would direct the administration to redouble its diplomatic efforts to convince Syria to forgo future use of weapons of mass destruction. Is also would require the White House to submit to lawmakers within 45 days a long-term strategy for dealing with the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad….

The Manchin-Nunes resolution is an attempt to satisfy Republicans and anti-war Democrats who oppose Obama’s war resolution but are uncomfortable allowing Syria to get away with using weapons of mass destruction with impunity. Manchin and Nunes have been working on similar resolutions separately, but started hammering out the final alternative proposal over the last few days.

This is one of two alternative resolutions Manchin is shopping around. The joint proposal he is developing with Nunes is based in part on a separate alternative he authored with Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., which would give Syria 45 days to sign an international chemical weapons ban.

The administration has been trying the diplomatic tack for two and a half years, in which time the Syrian civil war has gone from bad to worse, with more than 100,000 casualties and of course the recent chemical-weapons atrocity. Where would this new round of diplomacy take place? The UN Security Council has been ineffective on this because of Russia’s veto. Diplomatic summits have been proposed, but keep falling apart because Assad and the Russians/Iranians keep improving their prospects while the rebels fragment, weaken, and radicalize more as time goes by.

Why would Bashar al-Assad even sign a chemical-weapons ban other than because he has no intention of abiding by it? Diplomacy has gone virtually nowhere, and this particular resolution would not seem to carry the threat of force after the 45-day delay. It would seem, in fact, to mirror the kind of diplomatic tire-spinning Republicans have been so critical of with regard to Iran, only without the credible threat of force behind it and after the murderous regime has already proven willing to use the weapons in question.

But the Manchin-Nunes resolution should be watched not only to see how much GOP support it gets but also because it offers the president a way out of the corner into which he’s painted himself. When President Obama said he didn’t actually need congressional approval for limited strikes, he was almost certainly hedging his bets. He was about to take unpopular military action, and wanted Congress and the opposition party on the hook for it too.

He also knew he might lose the authorization vote, at least in the GOP-led House. (Manchin’s resolution will test whether the authorization would be in trouble in the Democratic-controlled Senate too.) He wanted to make the public aware that he might not do as Congress instructed him, as a way of managing expectations and devaluing congressional input on the issue. Yet even Democratic commentators on the Sunday political talk shows suggested the president can’t go it alone on Syria.

The message inherent in the Manchin-Nunes resolution is that this is a military action with no real support among the public or in either party’s congressional delegations (though it should be noted that Republican hawks in the Senate are trying to build support for it), and over which it is certainly not worth provoking a major battle between the legislative and executive branches. The Manchin-Nunes resolution (and similar efforts) may be intended to enable the president to save face without striking Syria. Whether Obama sees it that way or as an affront to his authority that undermines his belated outreach to Congress will reveal just how invested is the president in his own call to arms.

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Obama’s Syria Blunder

With his solitary, last-minute decision to ask Congress for authorization in advance for any military strikes on Syria–taken against the advice of his senior advisors–President Obama has set himself up for the biggest failure of his presidency, one that could haunt the United States for years to come.

Perhaps Obama figured that he would get easy approval from Congress–although why he thought the House, which has been growing increasingly isolationist, would go along with the strikes is a mystery. And indeed the publicly available evidence of House members’ voting intentions shows scant support for the Syria strikes. So far 118 House members have come out publicly against the strikes; only 25 have come out in favor of them. The Washington Post reports that another 119 are “leaning” against the resolution.

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With his solitary, last-minute decision to ask Congress for authorization in advance for any military strikes on Syria–taken against the advice of his senior advisors–President Obama has set himself up for the biggest failure of his presidency, one that could haunt the United States for years to come.

Perhaps Obama figured that he would get easy approval from Congress–although why he thought the House, which has been growing increasingly isolationist, would go along with the strikes is a mystery. And indeed the publicly available evidence of House members’ voting intentions shows scant support for the Syria strikes. So far 118 House members have come out publicly against the strikes; only 25 have come out in favor of them. The Washington Post reports that another 119 are “leaning” against the resolution.

There is still time to change minds and to twist arms. Perhaps the president’s speech on Tuesday will mark a turnaround on the Hill. But the trend seems to be running against the White House with public-opinion polls indicating growing popular opposition that has been expressed in a deluge of calls, emails, letters, and oral comments to members of Congress. The Senate is still likely to approve action, but the odds are growing that the House won’t. And if the House doesn’t go along it will, as a practical political matter, be virtually impossible for Obama to order strikes anyway.

The result if the U.S. does nothing: Bashar Assad will get away with the most significant use of chemical weapons since Saddam Hussein gassed the Kurds in 1988. This, in turn, will send a signal to weapons proliferators such as North Korea and Iran that the U.S. lacks the will to stop them. Any hopes of a negotiated stop to the Iranian nuclear program–admittedly slim to begin with–will disappear altogether. Israel will be left standing alone against the Iranians and their Hezbollah proxies. The opposition in Syria will suffer a substantial blow and Assad may well be emboldened to employ sarin gas again.

Beyond the Middle East, a failure to back up the president’s threats regarding the “red line” will be read–correctly, I fear–as proof that America is retreating from its global responsibilities, a development which will dismay allies from Taiwan to Poland, gladden rivals such as China and Russia, and cause American influence to plummet.

On the home front, meanwhile, Obama will be seen as a lame-duck president with the defeat shadowing his entire second term.

All this because Obama chose to do something he repeatedly stressed he didn’t need to do–ask Congress for approval for airstrikes of the kind that previous presidents from Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton routinely launched without asking for Congress’s approval in advance. Indeed the War Powers Act gives the president 90 days to seek congressional approval; it doesn’t require approval in advance. As a practical matter presidents only ask for such approval when they are contemplating the use of ground forces for a major campaign–e.g., in the Gulf War of 1991 or the Iraq War of 2003.

It would take a psychologist to unravel what the president was thinking in making this monumental blunder. I am still not convinced by those who claim he is consciously trying to diminish American power, because if the U.S. is less powerful so is our president. But even if he has no such conscious design, Obama’s actions are definitely leading in the direction of a diminished superpower–one that will be increasingly derided, not respected, on the world stage.

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Who Cares if Assad Gave the Order?

The Obama administration appears convinced that the Syrian regime rather than the opposition conducted the chemical-weapons strike on East Ghouta. The basis for the administration’s conclusion appears to be intercepted communication, method of delivery, and the behavior of the Syrian government after the fact.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, however, denies the attack, and German intelligence suggests the president himself did not order the attacks. If that is true does it exculpate Assad and should it immunize him from retaliation?

The answer to that is: absolutely not. Too often, rogue regimes seek to maintain plausible deniability. They seek to strike their targets, and then throw up enough smoke in order to avoid accountability.

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The Obama administration appears convinced that the Syrian regime rather than the opposition conducted the chemical-weapons strike on East Ghouta. The basis for the administration’s conclusion appears to be intercepted communication, method of delivery, and the behavior of the Syrian government after the fact.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, however, denies the attack, and German intelligence suggests the president himself did not order the attacks. If that is true does it exculpate Assad and should it immunize him from retaliation?

The answer to that is: absolutely not. Too often, rogue regimes seek to maintain plausible deniability. They seek to strike their targets, and then throw up enough smoke in order to avoid accountability.

Take Iran, for example. In 1982, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini moved the Office of Liberation Movements—the predecessor to the Qods Force—from Tehran and into the home of Grand Ayatollah Husayn Ali Montazeri. If the group operated from a private house, then the Iranian government could shrug its collective shoulders every time it sponsored a terrorist attack and claim that the government itself had no responsibility.

In 1989, the West debated Iranian culpability for the murders in downtown Vienna of Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou, a dissident Iranian Kurd, and his entire delegation. The Austrian police let the hit squad go, and the perpetrators later received promotions in Tehran and within the Qods Force for a job well done.

Senior Iranian officials also plotted the 1992 Mykonos Café assassinations in Berlin and the bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires the same year. Two years later, it was the AMIA bombing, and two years later Khobar Towers. In each case, the Iranians sought to maintain plausible deniability. The same holds true for whether or not the Iranian leadership gave Hezbollah a direct order in 2006 to launch its war with Israel. Never mind that Hezbollah terrorists are trained by–and in some cases in–Iran, utilize Iranian weaponry, and—as I saw at the Hezbollah museum in Mlitta, Lebanon—have photographs of Ayatollahs Khomeini and his successor Ali Khamenei in their bunkers.

For too long, American policymakers have looked for reasons to exculpate dictators rather than hold them to account. It is behavior Iran and its allies know well, and from which they seek full advantage. How ironic it is that the same U.S. government which would hold parents responsible for unsecured guns or for providing alcohol to a minor who subsequently gets into an accident would bend over backwards to avoid punishing a dictator who acquires chemical weapons which have only a single purpose. When a regime uses chemical weapons, there should be no mitigating factors. Let’s put the carefully constructed myth of Assad as a Western educated eye doctor or reformer to bed. He is one thing only: a murderer. It is time to hold Assad personally accountable.

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Untangling the Pro-Intervention Argument

Many different arguments about attacking Syria are underway among media voices and policymakers. One unfortunate result of the Obama administration’s wavering is that it has served to conflate various strands of the pro-intervention position. What we’re left with is an unintelligible mush that can be hard to defend.  The moment one makes a case regarding interests they are mocked on grounds of ideals. Defending intervention in terms of ideals guarantees an objection regarding precedents, and so on. It is, therefore, useful to untangle the different aspects of the case for action. There are three levels to the pro-intervention argument.

1. What we want out of the Syrian situation. The United States wants Bashar al-Assad out and wants the moderates among the rebels to shape the post-Assad future. This would be good for the Syrian people and bad for the radicals. It would also remove Iran’s biggest ally, put Vladimir Putin back in his place, and give the U.S. some degree of influence in a post-Assad Syria (and, however minimally, in the region).

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Many different arguments about attacking Syria are underway among media voices and policymakers. One unfortunate result of the Obama administration’s wavering is that it has served to conflate various strands of the pro-intervention position. What we’re left with is an unintelligible mush that can be hard to defend.  The moment one makes a case regarding interests they are mocked on grounds of ideals. Defending intervention in terms of ideals guarantees an objection regarding precedents, and so on. It is, therefore, useful to untangle the different aspects of the case for action. There are three levels to the pro-intervention argument.

1. What we want out of the Syrian situation. The United States wants Bashar al-Assad out and wants the moderates among the rebels to shape the post-Assad future. This would be good for the Syrian people and bad for the radicals. It would also remove Iran’s biggest ally, put Vladimir Putin back in his place, and give the U.S. some degree of influence in a post-Assad Syria (and, however minimally, in the region).

If you think not acting is good, look at what inaction has done so far: It’s allowed for more than 100,000 dead; the repeated use of chemical weapons; and the strengthening of Assad, and thus of Iran and Russia as rising powers who oppose an American-led global order. Perhaps worst of all, American inaction has reinforced the idea for thousands of Syrians (and Arabs and Muslims generally) that they should not look to America for help when fighting off tyrants. Even if one is not sentimental about such things, this is hugely problematic because it has driven these thousands into the arms of Islamist radicals they increasingly see as the only hope for support in fights of liberation. If this is the wisdom of restraint, we’ve become wise beyond comprehension.

2. What kind of world we want to live in. The abolition of all dangerous tyrants and oppressive regimes is, of course, a silly dream. But the idea of moving toward a world with fewer and fewer of them is completely possible. In fact, it’s been happening ever since the U.S. took the lead in ensuring global security after WWII. The world is a freer place than it was and this is not only good in the moral sense. It is also good because free countries are less likely to go to war with one another and more likely to trade with one another.

The problem is this doesn’t happen on its own. Peace doesn’t keep itself, as some have put it. Although there are many downsides to America’s policing the world, a) the benefit of a more peaceful order is invaluable and b) the U.S. is the only country that can do it. Without American intervention, imperfect as it is, for humanitarian (and pragmatic) reasons, a power vacuum emerges and the global order spirals out of control. That’s how we got into the current crisis to begin with. Many of the sinister developments mentioned in the first point might have been prevented or curbed if we had spent the last five years continuing to act as the strong and self-assured defender of a (relatively) free and peaceful global order. Staying away creates chaos. This very chaos, if left to grow, will manifest on a larger scale and ultimately cause us great harm—even, perhaps, on our own soil. Rising bad actors like to challenge America to affirm that their rise is real, official, and inevitable.

3. What kind of America we want to be. Many who believe in intervention in Syria want us to take the assertion of our founding documents seriously—particularly the points about all men being free. The United States is unique in world history: it is a country founded on the idea of God-given personal liberty. It hasn’t always honored this idea in managing its foreign affairs, but past infractions only obligate us even more to do the right thing when we can. If we believe that the God-given right to freedom is universal, and if we alone can defend that right around the world, then we must do so. All over Europe, love of country is based on a simple affection for one’s own kind. That type of nativism is the norm in Asia and Africa. Americans are different. We love our country because we love the idea it was founded on and love the perpetuation of that idea. If the United States decides that it’s too risky to defend freedom around the world we will have fundamentally changed the understanding of what our nation is. We will be, as Marco Rubio once put it, just another big country.

These are good reasons for wanting to intervene in Syria. The question is: are they President Obama’s reasons? Despite some fine speeches from John Kerry, it doesn’t seem so. It is widely assumed Obama is looking to make good on his “red line” with minimal sacrifice. But what the administration sees as restrained and measured is, paradoxically, provocative. Obama’s preference for a less ambitious American campaign in Syria is more likely to foment long-term unrest than if he called for decisive action against Assad. But the latter would mean embracing American power as a force for good in an unfriendly world; that’s not likely. The president’s inability to make a strong case for intervention in Syria, however, doesn’t mean that there isn’t one.  

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Send the Right Signal to WMD Proliferators

It is hard to exaggerate the Obama administration’s degree of confusion over Syria. On the one hand, the president has said that Bashar Assad should go and vowed to enforce his famous “red line” against the use of chemical weapons. On the other hand, as the Wall Street Journal reports, the administration still has not supplied arms to the rebels, as it vowed to do all the way back in June. Why not? According to the Journal: “The Obama administration doesn’t want to tip the balance in favor of the opposition for fear the outcome may be even worse for U.S. interests than the current stalemate.”

Granted, there is a risk of what will come after Assad–but that risk has only grown because of the administration’s vacillation over the past two years. Lack of American support for the moderate opposition factions has allowed jihadists to grow stronger, even if they are still not, as widely believed (and as claimed by Assad), the dominant force in the rebel coalition. The administration’s argument is circular and self-fulfilling: We won’t back the moderate rebels, so the extremists grow stronger, providing further arguments against providing any help to any rebel faction.

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It is hard to exaggerate the Obama administration’s degree of confusion over Syria. On the one hand, the president has said that Bashar Assad should go and vowed to enforce his famous “red line” against the use of chemical weapons. On the other hand, as the Wall Street Journal reports, the administration still has not supplied arms to the rebels, as it vowed to do all the way back in June. Why not? According to the Journal: “The Obama administration doesn’t want to tip the balance in favor of the opposition for fear the outcome may be even worse for U.S. interests than the current stalemate.”

Granted, there is a risk of what will come after Assad–but that risk has only grown because of the administration’s vacillation over the past two years. Lack of American support for the moderate opposition factions has allowed jihadists to grow stronger, even if they are still not, as widely believed (and as claimed by Assad), the dominant force in the rebel coalition. The administration’s argument is circular and self-fulfilling: We won’t back the moderate rebels, so the extremists grow stronger, providing further arguments against providing any help to any rebel faction.

Admittedly, it would have been much better to start arming and building up the moderate opposition two years ago. But we have no choice but to try now, otherwise the victor is either going to be the Iran-Hezbollah-Assad axis or al-Qaeda and its ilk. Neither one speaks for the majority of Syrians and there is still an opportunity–albeit an opportunity much smaller today than two years ago–to buttress the more moderate factions of the Free Syrian Army. But in order to do that the Obama administration will have to provide heavier weapons to vetted rebel factions, especially anti-tank missiles that can stop Assad’s armored vehicles.

The rebels also require anti-aircraft missiles to shoot down Assad’s aircraft. The administration is on more solid ground in refusing to grant this weapons request because of the danger that portable anti-aircraft systems such as the Stinger could fall into the wrong hands and wind up being used against civil aviation. As I have been arguing for a while, instead of providing anti-aircraft missiles to the rebels, the U.S. and its allies should simply use their air and naval forces to ground Assad’s aircraft. That could be achieved from stand-off range by cratering runways and blowing up aircraft on the ground. It would be achieved even more surely by imposing a no-fly zone backed up by airstrikes; Assad’s anemic air defenses, weakened by defections and two years of fighting, would be no match for an American-led air assault.

Unfortunately there is little indication that, even if granted the power to act by Congress, Obama will take any of these steps. More likely are a few days of cruise missile strikes expressly designed not to topple the Assad regime–and not even to eliminate its chemical weapons arsenal because of the threat that air strikes could simply disperse dangerous chemicals into the air. Of course Assad, because he reads the news too, knows all this. The New York Times quotes a former friend of his: “This is what Bashar Assad has told the top elite: that it will be a cosmetic attack. They believe it deeply.”

It is critically important to upset Assad’s expectations–to ensure that an American attack, if there is one, is not simply cosmetic. Congress cannot force Obama to act decisively, but with a lopsided vote for a strong resolution which gives the president full freedom of action, it can at least create the conditions for decisive action should administration hawks, led by Secretary of State John Kerry, prevail in their internal deliberations.

The alternative–of not granting the administration authorization to act–is too dangerous to contemplate: It would be a green light to WMD proliferators from North Korea to Iran who will now know that the U.S. will do nothing to stop them. Thus, congressional skeptics have no choice but to hold their noses and vote “aye,” all the while hoping that the administration’s use of force will be less anemic than widely advertised.

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Thinking Through Our Syrian Options

On the lead-up to a likely strike against Syria by the United States, there are some things most of us can agree on.

One is that Bashar al-Assad is a malevolent figure. Two, a de minimis strike–one that 
is mostly symbolic and does nothing to alter the course of the war–is worse than doing nothing. And three, President Obama has handled the Syrian situation with staggering incompetence.

The list of mistakes by Mr. Obama includes, but is by no means limited to, declaring two years ago that Assad must go (and doing nothing to achieve that end); declaring one year ago that if Syria used chemical weapons it would be crossing a “red line” that would constitute a “game changer” (Assad crossed the “red line,” for months nothing happened, and whatever Obama does, he’s made it clear it will not constitute a “game changer”); signaling to our enemies, in advance, the details of our expected operation–thereby making a strike, if it occurs, the most telegraphed and reluctant military action in American history; doing a miserable job building a coalition to support a military strike (Obama’s “coalition of the willing” might include all of two nations); doing a miserable job building support among the American people (they are decidedly unenthusiastic about a military intervention in Syria); and signaling he was going to bypass congressional authorization for military use of force before reversing course and declaring on Saturday that he would seek authorization–but only after Congress returns from its summer recess (thereby sending the message to Congress, the American public, and the world that there’s no real urgency to a strike, despite the secretary of state saying that what Syria has done is “morally obscene”). This is Keystone Cops material. 


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On the lead-up to a likely strike against Syria by the United States, there are some things most of us can agree on.

One is that Bashar al-Assad is a malevolent figure. Two, a de minimis strike–one that 
is mostly symbolic and does nothing to alter the course of the war–is worse than doing nothing. And three, President Obama has handled the Syrian situation with staggering incompetence.

The list of mistakes by Mr. Obama includes, but is by no means limited to, declaring two years ago that Assad must go (and doing nothing to achieve that end); declaring one year ago that if Syria used chemical weapons it would be crossing a “red line” that would constitute a “game changer” (Assad crossed the “red line,” for months nothing happened, and whatever Obama does, he’s made it clear it will not constitute a “game changer”); signaling to our enemies, in advance, the details of our expected operation–thereby making a strike, if it occurs, the most telegraphed and reluctant military action in American history; doing a miserable job building a coalition to support a military strike (Obama’s “coalition of the willing” might include all of two nations); doing a miserable job building support among the American people (they are decidedly unenthusiastic about a military intervention in Syria); and signaling he was going to bypass congressional authorization for military use of force before reversing course and declaring on Saturday that he would seek authorization–but only after Congress returns from its summer recess (thereby sending the message to Congress, the American public, and the world that there’s no real urgency to a strike, despite the secretary of state saying that what Syria has done is “morally obscene”). This is Keystone Cops material. 


That said, where there is a real difference of opinion, including among conservatives, is whether an effective show of force that would alter the balance of power in Syria would be worthwhile.

Some military analysts, like (retired) General Jack Keane, believe the more moderate and secular rebel forces (like the Free Syrian Army) are in fairly strong shape and, if given the training and arms they need, could emerge as a powerful force in a post-Assad Syria. Others, like Colonel Ralph Peters, believe the rebel forces that are strongest in Syria right now and most likely to emerge as dominant in a post-Assad Syria are al-Qaeda affiliates like Jabhat al-Nusra. I will admit it’s unclear to me–and I suspect fairly unclear to almost everyone else–what would happen if Assad left the scene. Which makes knowing what to do, and what to counsel, difficult.

So what is the best outcome we can reasonable hope for? What is the worst outcome we should be most prepared for? What are the odds of each one happening? How likely, and in what ways, will Syria retaliate? How reliable is the FSA? Is Jabhat al-Nusra (an al-Qaeda affiliate) “generally acknowledged to be the most effective force fighting al-Assad,” in the words of CNN’s Peter Bergen? If the (relatively) moderate rebels did receive the aid they need, what are their chances of success? And what would success look like? Taking control of Syria (which is hardly likely)? Taking control of parts of Syria? Participating in a coalition government? Comprised of whom? 

These are just some of the difficult, and largely unknowable, questions one has to ask prior to endorsing a military strike.

There would be a significant cost to doing nothing in Syria. There could be significant benefits if we act militarily (including delivering a damaging blow to Syria’s sponsor states, Iran and Russia, as well as to Hezbollah). And it’s also possible that things could be worse–from the standpoint of America, Israel and the region–if Assad is attacked and/or overthrown and jihadists emerge in a dominant position. “The hard truth is that the fires in Syria will blaze for some time to come,” according to Ambassador Ryan Crocker. “Like a major forest fire, the most we can do is hope to contain it.”

In all of this I’m reminded of what Henry Kissinger wrote in his memoir White House Years:

Statesmanship requires above all a sense of nuance and proportion, the ability to perceive the essential among a mass of apparent facts, and an intuition as to which of many equally plausible hypotheses about the future is likely to prove true.

Barack Obama has no such perception and intuition; he has proved to be singularly inept at such presidential decision-making. But we cannot unwind what has happened. We are where we are. Syria is a nation that has been ripped apart. The window for a useful American intervention may have closed. And even if it hasn’t, it would require a strategic thinker and statesman of remarkable skill to deal with a dozen moving parts, all which need to be carefully calibrated, in order to help Syria heal; in order for a stable, non-sectarian and non-virulent regime to emerge.

It’s much clearer to me what we shouldn’t do than what we now should do. I suppose that’s sometimes where we find ourselves living in this most untidy world. And when it comes to predicting the course of events and anticipating various contingencies, especially in the Middle East, modesty is probably more appropriate than certitude.

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Obama’s Path Forward on Syria

It is hard to quarrel with the decision of any president to ask Congress for authorization to use military force. Even if such authorization is not, strictly speaking, necessary, it is always a good thing to have the legislative branch on board, if possible. In the case of President Obama, however, it is hard to escape the conclusion that his decision to wait to strike Syria until such time as Congress approves a strike–if it ever does–is a sign not of his commitment to the division of powers but, rather, of his crippling ambivalence about whether it is worth getting involved in Syria at all.

This is, after all, the president who called more than two years ago, all the way back in August 2011, for Bashar Assad to step down but then turned down the recommendation of CIA Director David Petraeus and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to arm the Syrian opposition. He also ignored the recommendations of outside analysts, including me, that he impose a “no-fly” zone, a “no-drive” zone, and “buffer zones” to help force Assad from power, back in the days when the Syrian civil war was still relatively young and it was much easier to imagine a post-Assad transition that did not involve the country fracturing apart.

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It is hard to quarrel with the decision of any president to ask Congress for authorization to use military force. Even if such authorization is not, strictly speaking, necessary, it is always a good thing to have the legislative branch on board, if possible. In the case of President Obama, however, it is hard to escape the conclusion that his decision to wait to strike Syria until such time as Congress approves a strike–if it ever does–is a sign not of his commitment to the division of powers but, rather, of his crippling ambivalence about whether it is worth getting involved in Syria at all.

This is, after all, the president who called more than two years ago, all the way back in August 2011, for Bashar Assad to step down but then turned down the recommendation of CIA Director David Petraeus and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to arm the Syrian opposition. He also ignored the recommendations of outside analysts, including me, that he impose a “no-fly” zone, a “no-drive” zone, and “buffer zones” to help force Assad from power, back in the days when the Syrian civil war was still relatively young and it was much easier to imagine a post-Assad transition that did not involve the country fracturing apart.

Instead of doing any of those things, Obama warned, ominously, that his calculations would change if and when Assad used chemical weapons. So Obama stood aside as the civil war killed more than 100,000 people–almost all of them killed with bullets and bombs and shells, not with poison gas. But finally the evidence became inescapable that Assad was using sarin gas as well, and after much hemming and hawing Obama publicly admitted as much in June. His response? Not air strikes. Instead, a pledge to arm the Syrian opposition–a pledge that has still gone unfulfilled.

This is the background to the latest flare-up, with U.S. intelligence estimating that Assad killed some 1,400 people with chemical weapons at the end of August–a claim that is not speculative, as with earlier claims about Iraqi WMD, but rests on solid evidence–to wit, corpses that bear no mark of any bullet or puncture wound. This provoked Secretary of State John Kerry, the chief advocate within the administration of strong action in Syria, into high dudgeon to denounce the “moral obscenity” that Assad had committed. Obama followed with similar, only moderately more temperate language, vowing retribution for this violation of international norms against using WMD.

But at the same time the White House leaked like crazy to make clear to the whole world that any military action would not be designed to topple Assad–it would only be a “shot across the bow” to signal American displeasure. The leaks went so far as to specify that only a few cruise missiles would be employed and that the strikes would last only a few days.

Still, there was an expectation that strikes would occur momentarily–it doesn’t take long to spin up cruise missiles from warships in the Mediterranean. Then the British House of Commons voted against authorizing action and second thoughts seemed to set in within the administration. Now President Obama has announced that he will await congressional action which, in the case of the House, won’t come until the week of Sept. 9, if at all.

Funny, he didn’t think it was necessary to ask congressional authorization before bombing Libya–but that was a cause he was committed to. Not so in the case of Syria, where Obama’s driving desire, it is plain, is to stay as far away from the conflict as humanly possible. The New York Times reporter John Harwood recently tweeted: “Ex-Obama foreign pol aide, asked if any doubt we’ll hit Syria: ‘No.’ Is administration already having 2nd thoughts? ‘Yes. Not a great combo’.”

Not a good combination, for sure–an ambivalent commander in chief thinking of launching a few missiles without any obvious strategic intent beyond signaling anger with Assad and now perhaps secretly hoping that Congress will get him off the hook by blocking action. As numerous commentators, including me, have noted, firing a few cruise missiles risks giving Assad a victory by allowing him to emerge from his bunker after the air strikes to proclaim that he stood up to the American bully. The chances of achieving any results with cruise missile strikes–already slim–decline further with the delay of weeks that congressional action will entail. This will give Assad plenty of time to disperse and harden his missile launchers and other key assets.

None of this is to say that Congress should reject Obama’s request for authorization to use force. On the contrary, a rejection of the resolution would have disastrous consequences–it would signal American retreat to the world and give predators from North Korea to Iran a green light to commit greater atrocities in the future. The best we can hope for now is that an overwhelming vote of support in Congress–however unlikely it appears in the case of the increasingly isolationist House–will stiffen Obama’s spine and lead him to launch smarter strikes that will actually cripple Assad’s air force and other military forces that he is using to commit atrocities, mostly without recourse to chemical weapons.

This should be the first step in a concerted campaign, waged with cooperation from non-jihadist elements of the Syrian rebellion (which, as analyst Elizabeth O’Bagy makes clear, are more numerous than commonly supposed) to finally make good on Obama’s publicly enunciated desire to topple Assad. Anything less, at this point, will not restore the credibility that the United States desperately needs to defend its interests around the world–and most especially to stop the spread of WMD.

And however repellent to elements of his own party a strategy of regime change might be (even if it does not involve sending U.S. ground forces, which no one advocates), Obama may find that by signaling seriousness he may pick up more support from GOP “Jacksonians” who believe that, if force is to be used, it should be decisive–not symbolic.

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What Will the Syria Strikes Accomplish?

Yesterday I wrote about President Obama’s three options on Syria–light bombing designed to “send a message,” medium bombing combined with Special Operations raids to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, and heavy, sustained bombing in combination with ground action by rebel forces to topple Bashar Assad. All of the news coverage since yesterday morning makes clear that–unless the administration is engaging in strategic deception on a gigantic scale–only the lightest of light options is likely to be implemented.

News accounts suggest that the likeliest scenario is a few days of strikes employing cruise missiles fired from warships in the Mediterranean safely out of the range of Syrian retaliation. Their target list would not include the actual depots where chemical weapons are stored but “would instead be aimed at military units that have carried out chemical attacks, the headquarters overseeing the effort and the rockets and artillery that have launched the attacks.”

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Yesterday I wrote about President Obama’s three options on Syria–light bombing designed to “send a message,” medium bombing combined with Special Operations raids to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, and heavy, sustained bombing in combination with ground action by rebel forces to topple Bashar Assad. All of the news coverage since yesterday morning makes clear that–unless the administration is engaging in strategic deception on a gigantic scale–only the lightest of light options is likely to be implemented.

News accounts suggest that the likeliest scenario is a few days of strikes employing cruise missiles fired from warships in the Mediterranean safely out of the range of Syrian retaliation. Their target list would not include the actual depots where chemical weapons are stored but “would instead be aimed at military units that have carried out chemical attacks, the headquarters overseeing the effort and the rockets and artillery that have launched the attacks.”

The amount of damage that will be done, if only Tomahawk cruise missiles are used, will be strictly limited since they carry relatively small warheads of 260-370 pounds, compared with 500-pound, 1,000-pound, 2,000-pound, and even 15,000-pound bombs (the BLU-82 “Daisy Cutter”) that can be carried by aircraft. The use of airdropped munitions can make it possible to penetrate bunkers and incinerate chemical weapons stockpiles without risking the dispersion of the deadly weapons. And even if aircraft were to be employed, they would have to bomb for considerable periods to achieve any strategic effects–witness the 78 days of bombing of Kosovo in 1999 or the even longer bombing of Libya in 2011.

A few days of attacks with cruise missiles is a pinprick strike reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s attacks on al-Qaeda and Iraq in 1998. What did those strikes achieve? Precisely nothing beyond blowing up a poor pharmaceutical plant in Sudan wrongly suspected of manufacturing, ironically, chemical weapons. Actually, worse than nothing: those strikes, which Osama bin Laden survived easily, convinced him that the U.S. was a “weak horse” that could be defied with impunity.

Similar strikes would likely have a similar effect in Syria: It would convince Bashar Assad, and a lot of other people in the region, that he successfully defied the superpower. It could have, in other words, the effect of enhancing Assad’s aura of power–precisely the opposite of what Obama intends.

The U.S. goal in Syria, as enunciated by no less than the president himself, is to topple Assad and to end the suffering created by the Syrian civil war. That will not be achieved with cruise missiles. It will require months of bombing, combined with the arming, training, and coordination of rebel forces. Even a lesser goal of destroying Assad’s chemical weapons stockpiles–a reasonable objective given the strategic threat posed by WMD–would require weeks of bombing combined with commando raids. A few days of cruise missile strikes, by contrast, will only make the U.S. appear to be a weak, posturing giant.

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Will the Pottery Barn Rule Save Assad?

The same vague aloofness that has served Barack Obama well at various points in his political career does not make Jay Carney’s job any easier. The White House press secretary must field questions from the media to explain the president’s position on a host of issues almost daily. When the administration’s policy is hazy, secretive, or to be determined, as is often the case, Carney stammers through his press briefing with a defeated, resigned series of non-answers.

Such is the case with the apparently imminent military attack on Bashar al-Assad’s side in the Syrian civil war. After the West could no longer ignore the use of chemical weapons, the administration sent Secretary of State John Kerry out yesterday to make a statement that danced around the subject of a military response. He then took no questions and left. But the message came through clearly enough that it is now taken for granted that action will be taken.

Carney naturally took questions on the subject today, and when pressed for specifics, he gave an answer that became the focus of several news agencies’ write-ups of the briefing: “It is not our policy to respond to this transgression with regime change.” The goal of the (presumed) strikes will not be to take out Bashar al-Assad.

The follow-up question, which elicited no further explanation, was: Why not? To elaborate: it is the opinion of the government of the United States that Assad should no longer be in control of the country, and the U.S. may now strike at Assad’s regime–but doesn’t want to depose him. That may sound incongruous, but the strange truth is that the president most likely does not want to take out Assad–and it’s not because Obama doesn’t actually want Assad out.

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The same vague aloofness that has served Barack Obama well at various points in his political career does not make Jay Carney’s job any easier. The White House press secretary must field questions from the media to explain the president’s position on a host of issues almost daily. When the administration’s policy is hazy, secretive, or to be determined, as is often the case, Carney stammers through his press briefing with a defeated, resigned series of non-answers.

Such is the case with the apparently imminent military attack on Bashar al-Assad’s side in the Syrian civil war. After the West could no longer ignore the use of chemical weapons, the administration sent Secretary of State John Kerry out yesterday to make a statement that danced around the subject of a military response. He then took no questions and left. But the message came through clearly enough that it is now taken for granted that action will be taken.

Carney naturally took questions on the subject today, and when pressed for specifics, he gave an answer that became the focus of several news agencies’ write-ups of the briefing: “It is not our policy to respond to this transgression with regime change.” The goal of the (presumed) strikes will not be to take out Bashar al-Assad.

The follow-up question, which elicited no further explanation, was: Why not? To elaborate: it is the opinion of the government of the United States that Assad should no longer be in control of the country, and the U.S. may now strike at Assad’s regime–but doesn’t want to depose him. That may sound incongruous, but the strange truth is that the president most likely does not want to take out Assad–and it’s not because Obama doesn’t actually want Assad out.

The answer to that question has a lot to do with an interesting debate among commentators on the left about the lessons and legacy of the Iraq war. Matt Yglesias argued that a humanitarian intervention should be done through explicitly humanitarian (that is, non-military) means. Jonathan Chait responded that the left would do well to stop assuming every military intervention is Iraq all over again–what about the first Gulf war or the Balkans?

Yglesias questions the idea that the Libyan intervention succeeded, and Chait disagrees. But it’s Chait’s description of Libyan success that helps explain why President Obama may not want to be responsible for ending Assad’s rule directly. Here’s Chait:

The argument for intervening in Libya was not that doing so would turn the country into a peaceful, Westernized democracy moving rapidly up the OECD rankings. It was that it would prevent an immediate, enormous massacre of civilians. Libya remains an ugly place; it would have been so regardless of whether NATO intervened. But the narrow, humanitarian goal that drove the U.S. to act was unambiguously accomplished without the larger dangers of mission creep that foes warned against. It’s telling that, rather than arguing that the overall costs exceeded the benefits, opponents are resorting to listing any bad things that have happened since.

Chait isn’t arguing that the “bad things that have happened since” didn’t actually happen or aren’t really bad. He’s saying the mission had nothing to do with preventing the descent into violent anarchy and the destabilizing spread of Islamist violence that followed the intervention. Gaddafi’s dead. Mission accomplished.

But it’s not nearly so easy for a president to make that case. It can be simultaneously true that the narrowly defined mission in Libya succeeded and that what followed was disastrous. The reason it elicits comparisons to Iraq is because of Colin Powell’s famous “Pottery Barn rule” regarding foreign intervention: “You break it, you own it.”

Western military action in Libya decapitated the Gaddafi regime, raising the specter of the Pottery Barn rule. It’s true that the administration made no promises to stay and nation-build there. But President Obama learned with the fatal attack on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi that he could not so easily walk away from Libya by simply saying that he held up his end of the bargain.

The Pottery Barn rule is why Iraq looms over the various humanitarian disasters created by the Arab Spring, tempting American intervention. And the “bad things that have happened since” Gaddafi’s toppling are why Libya is being raised as a cautionary tale for intervention in Syria. If Obama’s directed action takes out Assad, and that leaves a chaotic vacuum that results in more death, destruction, and the suffering of innocents, it won’t be so simple to respond to the ensuing outcry with a protestation that all he promised to do was send a message.

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Syrian War Crimes and Selective Moral Outrage

On his program last night, Fox’s Bill O’Reilly, in speaking on the subject of strikes against Syria, said, “It’s got to be done quickly. Bang, boom. And then let the chips fall where they may. But no more dead kids breathing poison gas.” It appears the White House is considering the same strategy.

I happen to disagree with Mr. O’Reilly for reasons laid out by Max Boot and Eliot Cohen. Among the worst things to do in this situation would be a limited bombing of short duration which doesn’t alter the situation on the ground. It would be a transparently token gesture, done to balm our conscience (at least we did something) but achieving nothing useful or lasting. Indeed, the kind of strike O’Reilly has in mind–“bang, boom”–would probably elevate Bashar al-Assad’s reputation in much of the world (acting unbowed in the aftermath of an American military campaign) and make America appear weaker than we now do (if such a thing is even possible at this stage).

But I also want to pose some moral questions surrounding the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons. Secretary Kerry refers to the use of chemical weapons as a “moral obscenity” that “defies any code of morality” and that has “shocked the conscience of the world.”

I share the horror that others do when it comes to the use of chemical weapons. But what I find somewhat puzzling is the bright, bold moral demarcation that is being made between the use of chemical weapons, which killed several hundred Syrians (including women and children), and a 30-month-old civil war that has claimed more than 100,000 lives (many of them women and children). 

How is it, from a moral standpoint, that the use of chemical weapons that kills several hundred people is a far greater “moral obscenity” than prosecuting a civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people? Why didn’t the civil war “shock the conscience of the world,” since the body count is so much greater?

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On his program last night, Fox’s Bill O’Reilly, in speaking on the subject of strikes against Syria, said, “It’s got to be done quickly. Bang, boom. And then let the chips fall where they may. But no more dead kids breathing poison gas.” It appears the White House is considering the same strategy.

I happen to disagree with Mr. O’Reilly for reasons laid out by Max Boot and Eliot Cohen. Among the worst things to do in this situation would be a limited bombing of short duration which doesn’t alter the situation on the ground. It would be a transparently token gesture, done to balm our conscience (at least we did something) but achieving nothing useful or lasting. Indeed, the kind of strike O’Reilly has in mind–“bang, boom”–would probably elevate Bashar al-Assad’s reputation in much of the world (acting unbowed in the aftermath of an American military campaign) and make America appear weaker than we now do (if such a thing is even possible at this stage).

But I also want to pose some moral questions surrounding the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons. Secretary Kerry refers to the use of chemical weapons as a “moral obscenity” that “defies any code of morality” and that has “shocked the conscience of the world.”

I share the horror that others do when it comes to the use of chemical weapons. But what I find somewhat puzzling is the bright, bold moral demarcation that is being made between the use of chemical weapons, which killed several hundred Syrians (including women and children), and a 30-month-old civil war that has claimed more than 100,000 lives (many of them women and children). 

How is it, from a moral standpoint, that the use of chemical weapons that kills several hundred people is a far greater “moral obscenity” than prosecuting a civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people? Why didn’t the civil war “shock the conscience of the world,” since the body count is so much greater?

The scale of death, then, matters. But so does something else. The Assad regime has long been guilty of war crimes. From the start of the conflict it targeted schools and hospitals. In cities like Houla, forces loyal to Assad went on systematic killing sprees, including targeting women and children. A U.N. representative reported that the victims in Houla included 49 children who were younger than 10. “The Syrian dictator is trying to restore a balance of fear, perhaps the most powerful weapon in the hands of tyrants throughout history,” according to this CNN report. “Killing children is supposed to intimidate the opposition.”

“It’s very hard for me to describe what I saw, the images were incredibly disturbing,” a Houla resident who hid in his home during a massacre told the Associated Press. “Women, children without heads, their brains or stomachs spilling out.”

So we’re dealing with a regime that routinely committed war crimes–indeed, that inflicted mass atrocities as a matter of policy. But these kinds of actions mostly escaped the attention of the world (as well as the attention of the president).

I’m not, by the way, using this argument as a pretext to get more involved in the Syrian conflict. It’s simply to argue that while I understand the abhorrence of using WMDs, the moral outrage we’re hearing over the atrocities in Syria strikes me as somewhat affected. Why now? The humanitarian slaughter was gruesome long before chemical weapons were used, and chemical weapons are no more a gruesome way to die than the other barbarous actions sanctioned by Assad. And if another 100,000 Syrians perished at the hands of the Assad regime, but without the use of chemical weapons, one suspects that not much would be said and the moral outrage meter would, for the most part, hardly register.

I understand that all of us are selective in focusing on the atrocities that most trouble our consciences. None of us are equipped to absorb the pain of this world. And I don’t blame Mr. O’Reilly or anyone else for feeling rage at what Bashar al-Assad has done in using chemical weapons. But my basic point still stands, I think. Why have Assad’s latest atrocities provoked such outrage and his previous ones such silence? Should we be more troubled by what happened last week–or by the war crimes that routinely occurred in all the weeks that came before? 

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Obama’s Three Options in Syria

A week truly is a lifetime in politics. Just a week ago–Tuesday, August 20–there was approximately zero chance that American airpower would be employed against the Assad regime in Syria. The following day, however, Assad’s henchmen employed chemical weapons to kill perhaps 1,000 people on the outskirts of Damascus. Now Secretary of State John Kerry is calling Assad’s actions a “moral obscenity” and vowing: “President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people.”

Given such remarks by America’s top diplomat, it is little wonder that the conventional wisdom in Washington is that President Obama will soon authorize air strikes in Syria. The only question is what will be the scope and intent of American action. As I see it, there are essentially three options. Call them light, medium, and heavy.

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A week truly is a lifetime in politics. Just a week ago–Tuesday, August 20–there was approximately zero chance that American airpower would be employed against the Assad regime in Syria. The following day, however, Assad’s henchmen employed chemical weapons to kill perhaps 1,000 people on the outskirts of Damascus. Now Secretary of State John Kerry is calling Assad’s actions a “moral obscenity” and vowing: “President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people.”

Given such remarks by America’s top diplomat, it is little wonder that the conventional wisdom in Washington is that President Obama will soon authorize air strikes in Syria. The only question is what will be the scope and intent of American action. As I see it, there are essentially three options. Call them light, medium, and heavy.

The light option is to employ cruise missiles fired by U.S. and allied warships and aircraft a safe distance from Syria’s shores to blow up a few chemical weapons stockpiles and other regime targets to signal the world’s displeasure with the use of chemicals–a weapon that has carried special opprobrium ever since the dark days of World War I. This would entail a few days of air strikes whose import would be largely symbolic–to “send a message” to Assad without actually trying to topple him or to get rid of all of his chemical weapons stockpiles. This option might even extend to trying to kill Assad himself, but with little likelihood of success–witness failed decapitation strikes on Saddam Hussein in 2003 and (arguably) on Muammar Gaddafi in 1986.

The medium option would to go after the chemical weapons stockpiles in a more concerted manner, employing not just airpower but also Special Operations Forces if necessary. The object of this exercise would be not only to reinforce the norm against chemical weapons use but also to ensure that Assad’s chemical weapons are never used again–either in Syria or, heaven help us, outside of it. This would largely obviate the danger of chemical weapons slipping out of Syria amid the chaos that grips the country, but it would increase the degree of difficulty and danger to U.S. forces because such a campaign could not be conducted safely from long range. Even to support limited Special Operations incursions, the Pentagon would likely demand massive conventional forces be mobilized in the vicinity of Syria to safeguard the commandos.

The heavy option would involve months of air strikes to enable rebel forces to topple the Assad regime. The obvious model here is Libya 2011, but this would also carry echoes of Kosovo 2009. In both cases U.S. airstrikes were potent because they were employed in conjunction with ground action by rebel forces.

History suggests that air strikes in isolation are likely to be indecisive. Witness Bill Clinton’s cruise missile attacks on al-Qaeda in 1998 in Sudan and Afghanistan and his Desert Fox bombing campaign of Iraq the same year. President George W. Bush later aptly summed up Clinton’s mistake when he said: “I’m not gonna fire a $2 million cruise missile at a $10 empty tent and hit a camel in the butt.” Of course, from Obama’s perspective, Bush made an even worse mistake–getting the U.S. embroiled in two costly wars on the ground. No one is suggesting, however, the introduction of U.S. ground forces in Syria beyond perhaps some commandos and CIA officers. Obama will be making a mistake if he is so leery of any greater U.S. involvement in the Middle East that he opts for the light option–a few symbolic air strikes that accomplish nothing beyond displaying American pique. This will not enhance American credibility. It will instead send a message of irresolution that predators around the world will sniff out all too clearly.

From a strategic if not political standpoint, I believe the real debate should be between the medium and heavy options. As someone who has been arguing for a U.S. no-fly zone and air strikes in Syria for almost two years, it might be expected that I would automatically opt for the heavy options. The problem is that in the intervening time, U.S. inaction has allowed the jihadists to become the strongest element within the opposition. U.S. action to topple Assad now, before we have properly armed and trained more moderate rebel forces, risks throwing the country into perpetual chaos or allowing jihadists to seize control of significant territory.

The medium option, on the other hand, would allow us to vastly reduce the risk of chemical weapons proliferation without toppling Assad quite yet. The problem is that this would be an option very hard to carry out–it would involve significant intelligence challenges to identify the location of Assad’s chemical weapons and it would involve significant risks for the insertion and extraction of Special Operations Forces. Otherwise, if it relies on airpower alone, this option likely would be ineffective.

So in the end I still think a strategy aimed at regime change–employing American and allied airpower in conjunction with coordinated ground action by vetted and responsible elements of the Free Syrian Army–is the best American response. But I have a lot more qualms about this option now than I had in 2011 when the Syrian civil war was still young and the country had not yet become so polarized.

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