Commentary Magazine


Topic: chemical weapons

The Obama Presidency Descends Into Farce

According to the Washington Post:

Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Thursday that he has seen “raw data” indicating that the Syrian government
has used chlorine gas as a chemical weapon in a “number of ­instances” in recent months.

“There will be consequences” if evidence of new chemical use is confirmed, Kerry said, but “we’re not going to pin ourselves down to a precise date, time, manner of action.”

Speaking after a meeting here of the Syrian opposition’s principal international backers, he also said they had agreed to expand humanitarian, diplomatic and military aid to the rebels.

“I’m not going to discuss what specific weapons or what country may . . . be providing or not providing” the arms, he said. “I will say that out of today’s meeting, every facet of what can be done is going to be ramped up. Every facet.”

We have now reached the farcical stage in the Obama presidency.

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According to the Washington Post:

Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Thursday that he has seen “raw data” indicating that the Syrian government
has used chlorine gas as a chemical weapon in a “number of ­instances” in recent months.

“There will be consequences” if evidence of new chemical use is confirmed, Kerry said, but “we’re not going to pin ourselves down to a precise date, time, manner of action.”

Speaking after a meeting here of the Syrian opposition’s principal international backers, he also said they had agreed to expand humanitarian, diplomatic and military aid to the rebels.

“I’m not going to discuss what specific weapons or what country may . . . be providing or not providing” the arms, he said. “I will say that out of today’s meeting, every facet of what can be done is going to be ramped up. Every facet.”

We have now reached the farcical stage in the Obama presidency.

Does Secretary Kerry understand how much of a joke it is for him to threaten “consequences” if evidence of new chemical weapons by the Assad regime turns out to be true? Given the Obama administration’s track record on Syria–with “red lines” drawn and erased, with its refusal to arm opposition groups early on, with agreeing to negotiations that have empowered the Syrian regime–it is better that Mr. Kerry keep his mouth shut than to speak and provoke ridicule.

The president and his secretary of state’s words long ago were emptied of meaning. So please, for your sake and ours, give up on the bluster. It only makes a shameful situation worse. 

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Assad’s Chemical War Continues

Human Rights Watch–not exactly an organization that has ever been accused of neocon warmongering–has just released a report concluding that there is strong evidence “that Syrian government helicopters dropped barrel bombs embedded with cylinders of chlorine gas on three towns in Northern Syria in mid-April 2014.” 

The organization reached this conclusion after “interviews with 10 witnesses, including five medical personnel,” and reviewing “video footage of the attacks, and photographs of the remnants.” HRW finds that “these attacks killed at least 11 people and resulted in symptoms consistent with exposure to chlorine in nearly 500 other people.”

Now in the greater scheme of things, 11 more dead people in Syria is hardly a shocking development–not when more than 150,000 people have already been killed in the awful civil war. But these 11 deaths are particularly inconvenient for the Obama administration which made such a big deal of its “red line” on the use of chemical weapons and which is hoping to tout the success of an agreement that has resulted in the removal of some 92 percent of Syria’s chemical weapons so far.

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Human Rights Watch–not exactly an organization that has ever been accused of neocon warmongering–has just released a report concluding that there is strong evidence “that Syrian government helicopters dropped barrel bombs embedded with cylinders of chlorine gas on three towns in Northern Syria in mid-April 2014.” 

The organization reached this conclusion after “interviews with 10 witnesses, including five medical personnel,” and reviewing “video footage of the attacks, and photographs of the remnants.” HRW finds that “these attacks killed at least 11 people and resulted in symptoms consistent with exposure to chlorine in nearly 500 other people.”

Now in the greater scheme of things, 11 more dead people in Syria is hardly a shocking development–not when more than 150,000 people have already been killed in the awful civil war. But these 11 deaths are particularly inconvenient for the Obama administration which made such a big deal of its “red line” on the use of chemical weapons and which is hoping to tout the success of an agreement that has resulted in the removal of some 92 percent of Syria’s chemical weapons so far.

What to do about the fact that Assad seems to be using chemicals again? My guess is nothing. The administration seems to be rather embarrassed about this gruesome development and is no doubt hoping it will go away. But it won’t. And if the U.S. does absolutely nothing about it, this will be only the latest sign of American prestige falling precipitously in ways that can only cheer our enemies and rivals in China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea–and discourage our allies around the world who must be wondering what American security guarantees are worth anymore. 

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Assad Misses Chemical-Weapons Deadline

The deadline has come and gone for Bashar Assad to turn over all of his chemical weapons. Naturally, he did not fully comply with his obligations, turning over some 93 percent while holding onto a substantial stockpile. The Washington Post reports that “Syria is holding on to 27 tons of sarin precursor chemicals as leverage in a dispute with the international community over the future of facilities used to store the deadly agents.”

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is overseeing the destruction of the Syrian arsenal, insists that the tunnels and buildings used to hold the weapons should be destroyed. Assad wants to keep them intact and he is holding onto the remaining 27 tons of precursors until he gets his way–in violation, of course, of the agreement reached between Russia and the U.S. back in September.

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The deadline has come and gone for Bashar Assad to turn over all of his chemical weapons. Naturally, he did not fully comply with his obligations, turning over some 93 percent while holding onto a substantial stockpile. The Washington Post reports that “Syria is holding on to 27 tons of sarin precursor chemicals as leverage in a dispute with the international community over the future of facilities used to store the deadly agents.”

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is overseeing the destruction of the Syrian arsenal, insists that the tunnels and buildings used to hold the weapons should be destroyed. Assad wants to keep them intact and he is holding onto the remaining 27 tons of precursors until he gets his way–in violation, of course, of the agreement reached between Russia and the U.S. back in September.

Nor is this Assad’s only apparent violation. There have also been widespread reports of the Syrian government dropping bombs filled with chlorine on residential areas. “The use of the widely available industrial chemical in munitions known as barrel bombs,” the Post notes, “would constitute a violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, which Damascus joined last fall under the threat of U.S. cruise missile strikes.” 

There is no sign of Assad being willing to give up his use of chlorine; indeed there are reports that Iran is replenishing his arsenal with Chinese-made chlorine bombs.

Why would Assad be flouting international norms in this way? Why not? The passing of the American red line on the use of chemical weapons last fall, without any military action on the part of the U.S., signaled clearly that Assad will not face any serious consequences no matter what he does. As long as he sort of–but not really–complies with the international agreement, he knows that President Obama will not launch air strikes. 

Indeed the U.S. has a strong incentive not to kick up too much of a fuss about Assad’s violations because everyone knows that last thing in the world that Obama wants is to get involved in another war. As Obama’s foreign policy goes from failure to failure, pretty much the only thing the president can boast of anymore is that he hasn’t gotten us involved in any fresh wars.

Of course Assad knows this. So does Putin. So does Khamenei. So does Xi Jinping. And Kim Jong-un. And pretty much everyone else who counts. They all know that they can get away with pretty much anything these days–and they are taking advantage of the opportunity.

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Reports of a Chemical Weapons Attack in Syria

The Open Source Center flags a report posted on a British blog purporting to show video of a new chemical weapons attack in Syria. From the blog:

While there’s been a number of small alleged chemical attacks reported in the months since the August 21st Sarin attack, this attack was unusual for a number of reasons.  First, earlier attacks have mostly (if not entirely) been on front-line positions with adult males being the victims, while in the Kafr Zita attack it appears children made up a significant number of victims.  Second, it’s a rare occasion both the government and opposition claim an attack took place, with the government claiming Jabhat al-Nusra launched the attack.  As reports claim a helicopter dropped the bomb, it seems highly unlikely Jabhat al-Nusra would have been operating a helicopter, unless they have a previously unheard of air-force the Syrian air defence system failed to detect. Syrian State TV felt confident enough to specify the type of agent used, “there is information that the terrorist Nusra Front released toxic chlorine… leading to the death of two people and causing more than 100 people to suffer from suffocation”.  Now, videos and photographs from Kafr Zita provides evidence of a second, failed chemical attack, on the night of April 12th, with the following video showing a container supposedly used in the attack.

On the original website, there are more photographs and explanations. That said, however, if the video linked above is accurate, then the logic of the explanation is sound, for as noxious as the Nusra Front might be, there is no indication that they would have helicopters from which to release chemical munitions. So much for the Russia-brokered breakthrough on chemical weapons disposal, or the contrition of the Assad regime in the wake of last summer’s apparent Sarin gas attack on the outskirts of Damascus.

The Open Source Center flags a report posted on a British blog purporting to show video of a new chemical weapons attack in Syria. From the blog:

While there’s been a number of small alleged chemical attacks reported in the months since the August 21st Sarin attack, this attack was unusual for a number of reasons.  First, earlier attacks have mostly (if not entirely) been on front-line positions with adult males being the victims, while in the Kafr Zita attack it appears children made up a significant number of victims.  Second, it’s a rare occasion both the government and opposition claim an attack took place, with the government claiming Jabhat al-Nusra launched the attack.  As reports claim a helicopter dropped the bomb, it seems highly unlikely Jabhat al-Nusra would have been operating a helicopter, unless they have a previously unheard of air-force the Syrian air defence system failed to detect. Syrian State TV felt confident enough to specify the type of agent used, “there is information that the terrorist Nusra Front released toxic chlorine… leading to the death of two people and causing more than 100 people to suffer from suffocation”.  Now, videos and photographs from Kafr Zita provides evidence of a second, failed chemical attack, on the night of April 12th, with the following video showing a container supposedly used in the attack.

On the original website, there are more photographs and explanations. That said, however, if the video linked above is accurate, then the logic of the explanation is sound, for as noxious as the Nusra Front might be, there is no indication that they would have helicopters from which to release chemical munitions. So much for the Russia-brokered breakthrough on chemical weapons disposal, or the contrition of the Assad regime in the wake of last summer’s apparent Sarin gas attack on the outskirts of Damascus.

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Libya’s Lesson for Syria

Sometimes small news stories come and go without their full significance being grasped. So it was with this February 2 report in the New York Times about Libya completing the destruction of its chemical weapons. This was a process that began all the way back in 2004–i.e., a full decade ago–under Muammar Gaddafi.

The destruction of Libya’s chemical weapons was such a lengthy process that it had not been completed by the time that Gaddafi was overthrown in 2011–in fact only half of Gaddafi’s arsenal had been destroyed–and the process has only now concluded under a pro-Western government.

What was really striking in this news article, however, was buried near the end:

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Sometimes small news stories come and go without their full significance being grasped. So it was with this February 2 report in the New York Times about Libya completing the destruction of its chemical weapons. This was a process that began all the way back in 2004–i.e., a full decade ago–under Muammar Gaddafi.

The destruction of Libya’s chemical weapons was such a lengthy process that it had not been completed by the time that Gaddafi was overthrown in 2011–in fact only half of Gaddafi’s arsenal had been destroyed–and the process has only now concluded under a pro-Western government.

What was really striking in this news article, however, was buried near the end:

Libyan officials also surprised Western inspectors by announcing the discovery in November 2011 and February 2012 of two hidden caches of mustard, or nearly two tons, that had not been declared by Colonel Qaddafi’s government. That brought the total declared amount of chemical to 26.3 tons.

Unlike the majority of Libya’s mustard agents, which were stored in large, bulky containers, the new caches were already armed and loaded into 517 artillery shells, 45 plastic sleeves for rocket launchings and eight 500-pound bombs.

Thankfully those final two tons of chemical weapons, already armed and ready for use, have been eradicated–but only, one assumes, because of a change of regime in Tripoli. Does anyone think that Gaddafi would have voluntarily turned over the remnants of his stockpile if he were still alive and in office? And how confident can anyone be that Western intelligence agencies would have found these hidden weapons on their own?

The answer says much about how much faith you have in arms-control agreements that have recently been negotiated with Syria and Iran–in the former case, to eradicate its chemical weapons, in the latter case to slow down its nuclear program. Already Syria has missed agreed-upon deadlines and has gotten rid of only 4 percent of its arsenal. Iranian compliance or noncompliance is hard to judge, but the example of Libya should be a cautionary tale about the danger of doing deals with dictators.

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Syrian Deal Missing Deadlines

In the State of the Union address, President Obama claimed that “Syria’s chemical weapons are being eliminated” because of “American diplomacy, backed by threat of force.” Not so fast. Like his claim that by the end of the year “America’s longest war,” the one in Afghanistan, “will finally be over” (tell that to the Taliban), this is a soaring goal which is at odds with reality.

Even Obama’s own secretary of defense now has to admit that “the Syrian government is behind in delivering these chemical weapons and precursor materials on time, and with the schedule that was agreed to.” Far behind, to be exact.

The New York Times notes:

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In the State of the Union address, President Obama claimed that “Syria’s chemical weapons are being eliminated” because of “American diplomacy, backed by threat of force.” Not so fast. Like his claim that by the end of the year “America’s longest war,” the one in Afghanistan, “will finally be over” (tell that to the Taliban), this is a soaring goal which is at odds with reality.

Even Obama’s own secretary of defense now has to admit that “the Syrian government is behind in delivering these chemical weapons and precursor materials on time, and with the schedule that was agreed to.” Far behind, to be exact.

The New York Times notes:

Two small shipments representing only a tiny percentage of the 600 tons of the most dangerous chemicals have been exported so far, one shipment on Jan. 7 and the other on Monday.

The deadline for exporting all 600 tons of the most dangerous chemicals passed on Dec. 31, and the deadline for exporting the total amount of all chemical materials, an estimated 1,200 tons, is Feb. 6. There is a widespread expectation that deadline will be missed as well.

The Syrian regime blames the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, based in The Hague, for not providing all the tools that it needs to dismantle and export its chemical weapons, but the UN body reports that it has given the Syrian government everything it needs. No doubt the heavy fighting going on in Syria is a contributing element to the delay as well–as is the Assad regime’s reluctance to part with these fearful weapons.

That’s why many of us were skeptical that the deal brokered by Russia would be carried out. The skeptics may still be proven wrong; Syria has until June 30 to destroy its entire chemical-weapons stockpile. But on the current trajectory the odds of success appear to be diminishing–which should, but almost certainly won’t, make the administration question whether any deal it can reach with Assad’s sponsors in Tehran will be worth the paper it is printed on.

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The Syrian Tragedy and Obama’s Absence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Diplomatic Progress–Real or Imagined?

If good intentions and soaring rhetoric were enough to translate into diplomatic achievements, the Obama administration would have wracked up more achievements in the past week than any preceding presidency since Woodrow Wilson attended the Versailles conference.

First Syria agrees to give up its chemical weapons. Now Obama chats with Hassan Rouhani in the first direct conversation between an American and Iranian leader since the 1970s. Add in a domestic achievement of sorts–goading House Republicans into an ill-advised showdown over Obama’s health-care plan that could result in a government shutdown that the president will try to wrap around the Republicans’ elephant ears–and it’s easy to see why White House aides are jubilant. Only a few weeks ago the president was being written off as a lame duck; now he has suddenly been transformed into a candidate for another Nobel Peace Prize.

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If good intentions and soaring rhetoric were enough to translate into diplomatic achievements, the Obama administration would have wracked up more achievements in the past week than any preceding presidency since Woodrow Wilson attended the Versailles conference.

First Syria agrees to give up its chemical weapons. Now Obama chats with Hassan Rouhani in the first direct conversation between an American and Iranian leader since the 1970s. Add in a domestic achievement of sorts–goading House Republicans into an ill-advised showdown over Obama’s health-care plan that could result in a government shutdown that the president will try to wrap around the Republicans’ elephant ears–and it’s easy to see why White House aides are jubilant. Only a few weeks ago the president was being written off as a lame duck; now he has suddenly been transformed into a candidate for another Nobel Peace Prize.

Alas, it remains far from clear that the diplomatic breakthroughs of recent days will result in concrete changes on the ground. Rouhani certainly charmed politicians and pundits on his recent New York visit (I was among many who saw him speak) but he also refused to admit that Iran is trying to acquire a nuclear weapon or to offer a halt in enrichment, which is drawing Tehran closer to its long-cherished goal. The phone call with Obama was nice, but there has been no sign of Iranian concessions yet, notwithstanding Rouhani’s promises to conclude a peace deal within months.

Over at the Weekly Standard, Reuel Gerecht makes a compelling case for skepticism about Rouhani’s intentions, noting that he has a long record as a regime stalwart and proponent of the nuclear program. As a tactical matter, Rouhani may well be willing to stop short of a nuclear weapon for now in return for a relaxation of sanctions, but it is doubtful he will abandon the revolutionary regime’s desire for the ultimate weapon which the mullahs see as the ultimate guarantor of their Islamic revolution.

Then there is Syria. The UN passed a resolution calling on Assad to give up his chemical weapons. This was hailed as a “milestone after years of inertia,” which it arguably was, but the impact of this milestone was considerably vitiated by the fact that it was a Chapter VI resolution, not a Chapter VII, which means there are no automatic penalties for Syrian noncompliance. Getting authorization to compel compliance would require another UN Security Council vote which Assad’s buddy, Vladimir Putin, would almost certainly block.

Meanwhile the Syrian civil war continues unabated. At Foreign Policy’s website, Oubai Shahbandar of the Syrian Support Group, a pro-rebel organization, points out at that the Putin-brokered deal at the UN has unleashed Assad’s conventional military forces:

The Syrian regime’s Russian-manufactured battle tanks and Sukhoi air-to-ground attack aircraft, once hidden away when Western air strikes seemed imminent, are now once again relentlessly pounding towns and villages in liberated areas. Bombs are yet again being dropped on bakeries in rebel-held regions and residents in Damascus have noted the thunderous bombardments from Assad’s batteries as they target the eastern Ghouta district — the district hit in the horrific chemical attack of August 21.

Mass gassing has now been replaced by a systemic ghetto eradication campaign to close off, isolate, starve, and pummel the inhabitants of rebel neighborhoods.

In the past Obama has spoken of the need for the U.S. government to stop atrocities abroad; he even created an Atrocities Prevention Board for this purpose. But in Syria he has confined his attention to preventing one small set of atrocities–those committed with chemical weapons–while ignoring the far more pervasive atrocities carried out with conventional weaponry which might at least partially been stopped by American air strikes. The White House may be claiming success in its diplomatic offensive, but it is doubtful that many ordinary Syrians see it that way.

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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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Time for Kerry to Stop Pretending on Syria

Right now, it seems most people in Washington are happy about President Obama’s astonishing retreat on Syria in which he has handed a major victory to Russian President Vladimir Putin and war criminal Bashar Assad. The president is glad to have found a way, no matter how humiliating, to talk his away out of the box in which he had placed himself on Syria’s chemical weapons and the red line he first enunciated last year. Democrats are glad not to have to defend a military action that they were never enthused about. And even some Republicans appear willing to give the administration’s hopes for a diplomatic solution the benefit of the doubt in order to spare themselves and the country a divisive debate about authorizing force that would have exposed the split between isolationists and internationalists in their own party. If that leaves the people of Syria exposed to further bloody depredations by an Assad regime that has been more or less given impunity to kill them so long as it is not with poison gas, so much the worse for them.

But the problem with the administration’s position is that in the course of moving from calling for Assad’s overthrow and punishment via military force that was “incredibly small” (according to Secretary of State John Kerry) but not a “pinprick” (President Obama’s words) to one in which they have embraced Russian-sponsored diplomacy is that they are still pretending to care about Syria. Thus, the U.S. and its allies are still talking tough about what would happen if Assad and his Russian and Iranian enablers don’t cooperate with those entrusted with rounding up the chemical weapons. Today, Kerry and his French and British colleagues called for a United Nations resolution on Syria that would include the use of force in order to make it clear to Assad that there would be consequences if he doesn’t keep his word about giving up the chemical weapons he has been telling the world he doesn’t have. Such threats are entirely appropriate. But there’s only one problem with them. Since Russia has made it just as clear they will countenance no threats of force against their Syrian ally, it is just talk. That leaves Assad free to answer the West’s talk of coercion with the traditional schoolyard response, “Or what?”

Having gone down the garden path with Putin on Syria, Kerry knows very well that there is no answer to that pointed question.

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Right now, it seems most people in Washington are happy about President Obama’s astonishing retreat on Syria in which he has handed a major victory to Russian President Vladimir Putin and war criminal Bashar Assad. The president is glad to have found a way, no matter how humiliating, to talk his away out of the box in which he had placed himself on Syria’s chemical weapons and the red line he first enunciated last year. Democrats are glad not to have to defend a military action that they were never enthused about. And even some Republicans appear willing to give the administration’s hopes for a diplomatic solution the benefit of the doubt in order to spare themselves and the country a divisive debate about authorizing force that would have exposed the split between isolationists and internationalists in their own party. If that leaves the people of Syria exposed to further bloody depredations by an Assad regime that has been more or less given impunity to kill them so long as it is not with poison gas, so much the worse for them.

But the problem with the administration’s position is that in the course of moving from calling for Assad’s overthrow and punishment via military force that was “incredibly small” (according to Secretary of State John Kerry) but not a “pinprick” (President Obama’s words) to one in which they have embraced Russian-sponsored diplomacy is that they are still pretending to care about Syria. Thus, the U.S. and its allies are still talking tough about what would happen if Assad and his Russian and Iranian enablers don’t cooperate with those entrusted with rounding up the chemical weapons. Today, Kerry and his French and British colleagues called for a United Nations resolution on Syria that would include the use of force in order to make it clear to Assad that there would be consequences if he doesn’t keep his word about giving up the chemical weapons he has been telling the world he doesn’t have. Such threats are entirely appropriate. But there’s only one problem with them. Since Russia has made it just as clear they will countenance no threats of force against their Syrian ally, it is just talk. That leaves Assad free to answer the West’s talk of coercion with the traditional schoolyard response, “Or what?”

Having gone down the garden path with Putin on Syria, Kerry knows very well that there is no answer to that pointed question.

Let’s be clear about what was said by the U.S. and its allies today. The Syrians and the Russians both know that there will be no attack by the West on Syria no matter what Assad does in the next year.

It is possible that if Assad were to use chemical weapons again on his own people that might prompt some sort of response from President Obama. He would then have every right to order a unilateral strike on Syrian forces, just as he could have done after the last chemical attack under the War Powers Act. Indeed, having already tried diplomacy his use of force would be even more justified than before. But after all we have been through in the last few weeks, does anyone seriously believe this president has the will to go to war in Syria even under those circumstances?

Assad would be mad to give the U.S. that kind of a justification. But let’s assume he’s not that crazy and ponder the more likely scenarios in which he merely drags out the process of surrendering these weapons or claims that most of them have been destroyed or lost or, as he already has claimed against all the evidence, that the rebels are the real culprits. With Russian diplomatic backing in the form of a Security Council veto, there is no chance of a UN resolution authorizing force against their client. And as we have seen, there is no appetite on either side of the political aisle in the United States for action on Syria, no matter how many people are dying there. The political classes in D.C. would prefer to get back to squabbling about ObamaCare and the budget and leave foreign policy alone. Though almost all politicians pay lip service to human-rights concerns, they might as well echo Neville Chamberlain and ask why they should be asked to fight in a “faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.”

As dispiriting as this indifference may be, perhaps it is better than the hypocritical display Kerry is putting on. The secretary’s rhetoric about Syria was (aside from the silly quote about the size of the U.S. military response) always stronger than that of the president. Indeed, in his testimony about the now-shelved administration request for a resolution authorizing force, Kerry seemed to rise to the occasion in a way he has seldom done before. Having been hung out to dry by the president’s indecisive response to the crisis, perhaps he feels his honor requires the pretense that the U.S. still intends to press the Syrians. Perhaps he even believes what he is saying about holding Assad’s feet to the fire. But if so, he is one of the few who does believe there is any chance of that happening.

Having decided to back down on Syria and let the Russians have their way, the administration would do better to stop the play-acting by the secretary. The boat has sailed on any chance of the U.S. ever attacking Syria or punishing Assad for his war crimes. American credibility is already in the gutter. The sooner the U.S. stops pretending that it will do something that will not happen, the easier it will be for it to begin repairing the damage on other issues.

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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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Obama Lost More than Style Points in Syria

President Obama is touting the deal Secretary of State John Kerry has made with the Russians over Syria’s chemical weapons as the “first step” toward a solution to all of that country’s problems. He is also, predictably, taking credit for creating the pressure that made all these good things possible. As for the chorus of criticism from across the political spectrum about the manifest incompetence and lack of leadership he displayed in the last few weeks, the president dismisses that as mere carping about “style” rather than substance. But by backing down on his threats to use force and then agreeing to a toothless deal that allows Russian President Vladimir Putin to save the Assad regime after President Obama had repeatedly called for the fall of the dictator, there is more wrong here than a sloppy presentation.

As our Max Boot noted earlier today, the Russian-sponsored process to get rid of Assad’s chemical weapons is an invitation for the Syrian tyrant to delay and obstruct any efforts to actually remove the toxic material and lock the U.S. into a partnership with a man that even United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon labeled as a criminal. Even worse, by authorizing Secretary Kerry to bow to Russian demands to remove any threat of force from operative UN resolutions that will govern the process, the president has virtually guaranteed that there will be no consequences for Assad cheating or a chance that this murderous ally of Russia and Iran will be deposed. Obama has avoided an embarrassing defeat in Congress over authorization of force against Syria and can pretend that he has advanced the cause of peace since no Americans will be involved in any fighting (in contrast to the Syrian people who continue to be slaughtered by Assad). But all he has accomplished in the last month is to trash U.S. credibility and to grant Putin an unexpected victory that will further embolden Iran and its friends. This gives the lie to those who blithely claim Obama’s supine stance on Syria will not inform his policy toward Tehran’s plans for its own weapons of mass destruction.

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President Obama is touting the deal Secretary of State John Kerry has made with the Russians over Syria’s chemical weapons as the “first step” toward a solution to all of that country’s problems. He is also, predictably, taking credit for creating the pressure that made all these good things possible. As for the chorus of criticism from across the political spectrum about the manifest incompetence and lack of leadership he displayed in the last few weeks, the president dismisses that as mere carping about “style” rather than substance. But by backing down on his threats to use force and then agreeing to a toothless deal that allows Russian President Vladimir Putin to save the Assad regime after President Obama had repeatedly called for the fall of the dictator, there is more wrong here than a sloppy presentation.

As our Max Boot noted earlier today, the Russian-sponsored process to get rid of Assad’s chemical weapons is an invitation for the Syrian tyrant to delay and obstruct any efforts to actually remove the toxic material and lock the U.S. into a partnership with a man that even United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon labeled as a criminal. Even worse, by authorizing Secretary Kerry to bow to Russian demands to remove any threat of force from operative UN resolutions that will govern the process, the president has virtually guaranteed that there will be no consequences for Assad cheating or a chance that this murderous ally of Russia and Iran will be deposed. Obama has avoided an embarrassing defeat in Congress over authorization of force against Syria and can pretend that he has advanced the cause of peace since no Americans will be involved in any fighting (in contrast to the Syrian people who continue to be slaughtered by Assad). But all he has accomplished in the last month is to trash U.S. credibility and to grant Putin an unexpected victory that will further embolden Iran and its friends. This gives the lie to those who blithely claim Obama’s supine stance on Syria will not inform his policy toward Tehran’s plans for its own weapons of mass destruction.

Putin is sealing his triumph over Obama by announcing his plans to visit Iran to confer with his partners in propping up the Assad regime. In doing so, the Russian authoritarian proclaimed his support for Iran’s right to a nuclear program including the enrichment of uranium. While the Obama administration and the rest of the West has assumed all along that Putin shared their fear of a nuclear Iran, he has always been operating from a different playbook. The keynote of Russian foreign policy under Putin remains his dream of reconstituting the old Soviet empire and to frustrate the U.S. at every turn. By demonstrating his lack of will to act on what he has rightly labeled a human-rights catastrophe, President Obama has not only secured the Russian base in Syria; he has sent the region a signal that the U.S. is a paper tiger.

The new Middle East that has emerged from Obama’s Syria fiasco is one in which the Russians are no longer marginal players clinging to a sole outpost in Syria. It is also one in which the Iranians and their Hezbollah allies who have actively intervened in the Syrian civil war are the victors in a power struggle with moderate Arabs. It was one thing for the president to spend two years dithering over Syria while more than 100,000 people died. It is quite another to sign on to a diplomatic process that ensures a murderer will not only not face justice but will also have impunity to use chemical weapons.

The Iranians have spent the five years of Obama’s time in the White House skillfully playing the West with diplomatic feints that have given it more time to develop a nuclear capability. With Russian backing and with Obama showing himself incapable of taking decisive action, there is no reason for them to back down or to treat rumblings from Washington about force being the last resort if the talks fail again seriously.

Had President Obama not played Hamlet about acting on his own authority to strike Syria none of this needed to happen. Several months ago the Russians feared they were about to lose the last vestige of their once-formidable sphere of influence in the region as Assad tottered. Now they are back in business and Assad is even deeper in their debt than before. Bolstered by victory in Syria, Iran also has good reason to be more confident about stalling or even defying the West on the nuclear issue. All this is something Obama handed to them free of charge on a silver platter. That isn’t “style” Mr. President; it’s substance. And the consequences will be suffered by the people of Syria, regional allies like Israel, and an American people who, despite their justified worries about trusting Obama with military force in Syria, will soon realize that American prestige and influence has never been so low since Jimmy Carter sat in the White House.

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Syria Deal Faces Long Odds

If John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov have concluded a deal that will really result in the elimination of Syria’s entire arsenal of chemical weapons by this time next year, they will win the Nobel Peace Prize–and, unlike so many previous Nobel recipients, they would have earned theirs. But there is good cause for concern that the deal will fall apart long before next year’s Nobels are handed out.

Indeed, if the deal is implemented as advertised, it would be an unprecedented and almost unbelievable achievement: UN inspectors will have to catalogue, seize, and destroy some 1,000 tons of chemical weapons while a brutal civil war rages around them. Little wonder that Kerry added, when he first offered a way for Syria to avoid American military action, that such a plan couldn’t and wouldn’t be accepted. Now it has been accepted at least by the U.S. and Russia but without any obvious sticks to compel Assad’s cooperation, with Russia steadily refusing to support a Chapter VII resolution to compel Syrian compliance.

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If John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov have concluded a deal that will really result in the elimination of Syria’s entire arsenal of chemical weapons by this time next year, they will win the Nobel Peace Prize–and, unlike so many previous Nobel recipients, they would have earned theirs. But there is good cause for concern that the deal will fall apart long before next year’s Nobels are handed out.

Indeed, if the deal is implemented as advertised, it would be an unprecedented and almost unbelievable achievement: UN inspectors will have to catalogue, seize, and destroy some 1,000 tons of chemical weapons while a brutal civil war rages around them. Little wonder that Kerry added, when he first offered a way for Syria to avoid American military action, that such a plan couldn’t and wouldn’t be accepted. Now it has been accepted at least by the U.S. and Russia but without any obvious sticks to compel Assad’s cooperation, with Russia steadily refusing to support a Chapter VII resolution to compel Syrian compliance.

The indications from Damascus are, at best, mixed: Assad most recently said he would eliminate his chemical weapons only if the U.S. stopped threatening him and stopped supporting the opposition. This, mercifully, President Obama has not pledged to do, but his misguided decision to seek congressional authorization for a strike against Syria–authorization which, it was clear, would not be forthcoming–has substantially weakened the threat of American military action which is necessary to compel Assad’s compliance.

The danger here–indeed the likelihood–is that Assad will drag this process out as long as possible, offering partial compliance, for example submitting a list of some, but not all, of his chemical weapons. Indeed, if he submitted a full and complete list of weapons and sites he would be in danger of putting a noose around his neck, since it would be tantamount to an admission that the chemical-weapons attack which killed some 1,400 civilians was carried out by government forces–something that Moscow and Damascus continue to strenuously deny, in no small part because Assad must know he faces the possibility of trial as a war criminal.

So the odds are that Assad will offer limited, not whole-hearted cooperation, and all the while this is going on the United States and the rest of what passes for the civilized world is, in effect, locked into a partnership with this murderous regime. Assad thereby gains added legitimacy on the international stage and decreases the threat of international military action against him.

If we could actually eliminate all of Syria’s chemical weapons, this might be a bargain worth taking but, again, the odds of success are not good.

It is imperative that, whatever happens, we not lose sight of the bigger strategic picture: Assad is a rabidly anti-American, anti-Israel leader, an ally of Iran and Hezbollah, whose overthrow is in America’s strategic interest. Whatever happens with his chemical weapons, we must not lose sight of the imperative to support the moderate elements of the Syrian opposition striving to overthrow him.

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Or Do We Do Pinpricks, After All?

The strike on Syria that the Obama administration has been talking about is perhaps not “unbelievably small,” as John Kerry said, but rather unbelievably unachievable. Here’s the Wall Street Journal on Syria’s Unit 450, “a branch of the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center that manages the regime’s overall chemicals weapons program”:

The U.S. wants any military strikes in Syria to send a message to the heads of Unit 450 that there is a steep price for following orders to use chemical weapons, U.S. officials said.

At the same time, the U.S. doesn’t want any strike to destabilize the unit so much that it loses control of its chemical weapons, giving rebels a chance to seize the arsenal.

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The strike on Syria that the Obama administration has been talking about is perhaps not “unbelievably small,” as John Kerry said, but rather unbelievably unachievable. Here’s the Wall Street Journal on Syria’s Unit 450, “a branch of the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center that manages the regime’s overall chemicals weapons program”:

The U.S. wants any military strikes in Syria to send a message to the heads of Unit 450 that there is a steep price for following orders to use chemical weapons, U.S. officials said.

At the same time, the U.S. doesn’t want any strike to destabilize the unit so much that it loses control of its chemical weapons, giving rebels a chance to seize the arsenal.

Ah, of course, a Goldilocks-zone strike on a dictator’s chemical-weapons handlers (located at as many as 50 separate sites) in the midst of a civil war. Now, why didn’t the administration just explain it that way in the first place.

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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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Putin Spikes the Football

More than 100,000 dead in Syria—a figure growing by 5,000 or so deaths every month. Millions more displaced. Chemical weapons used. Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah on the offensive. The United States humiliated and powerless on the sidelines. The situation in Syria is about as grim as you can imagine—and Vladimir Putin is loving every minute of it. That impression comes across very strongly in his New York Times op-ed today in which he takes a typically brazen victory lap after having wrestled global leadership, at least temporarily, away from a confused and hesitant American president.

As usual with Putin, he overdoes it—the man who parades around bare-chested to show off his pecs does not know the meaning of “subtlety.” Putin begins by claiming that only the UN Security Council can authorize the use of military force. Funny, I don’t remember the UN resolutions justifying Putin’s attack on Georgia in 2008 or his homicidal campaign in Chechnya which has killed tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands.

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More than 100,000 dead in Syria—a figure growing by 5,000 or so deaths every month. Millions more displaced. Chemical weapons used. Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah on the offensive. The United States humiliated and powerless on the sidelines. The situation in Syria is about as grim as you can imagine—and Vladimir Putin is loving every minute of it. That impression comes across very strongly in his New York Times op-ed today in which he takes a typically brazen victory lap after having wrestled global leadership, at least temporarily, away from a confused and hesitant American president.

As usual with Putin, he overdoes it—the man who parades around bare-chested to show off his pecs does not know the meaning of “subtlety.” Putin begins by claiming that only the UN Security Council can authorize the use of military force. Funny, I don’t remember the UN resolutions justifying Putin’s attack on Georgia in 2008 or his homicidal campaign in Chechnya which has killed tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands.

He warns specifically that a U.S. strike on Syria “could undermine multilateral efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and further destabilize the Middle East and North Africa.” No doubt Russian arms deliveries to Syria and Iran—including Russian help with Iran’s nuclear program and the rumored sale of a sophisticated air-defense system to Tehran—have been big factors in enhancing Middle Eastern stability.

Putin, moreover, claims: “We are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law. We need to use the United Nations Security Council and believe that preserving law and order in today’s complex and turbulent world is one of the few ways to keep international relations from sliding into chaos.” Uh, right: That’s why the Russian government is not willing to go along with a UN Security Council resolution threatening Assad with force for failing to disarm—it’s not because Russia is Assad’s ally, it’s because of Putin’s boundless respect for international law! There is, of course, no mention of Assad’s many violations of international law in his war against his own people.

Putin slides from the ridiculous to the comic when he next claims: “No one doubts that poison gas was used in Syria. But there is every reason to believe it was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces, to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons, who would be siding with the fundamentalists.” Actually, I think it’s safe to say that Putin and his minions are the only people who claim to believe that sarin was used by the rebels, not the government—and even the Russians can’t possibly believe that: it’s another convenient lie.

As if to rub salt into the wound, Putin ends with a pious denunciation of Americans who might claim that our country is exceptional: “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”

Sure, there are countries such as Russia where the unelected leaders oppress their own people and jail anyone who speaks out against them; then there are countries such as the United States where liberal democratic norms prevail, human rights are respected, and the rule of law is followed. But in Putin’s upside-down moral universe there is no difference between the two—in his relativist telling, they are simply differently democratic.

There is nothing especially surprising about the cynical worldview of this old KGB apparatchik. The only thing dismaying is that President Obama, through his failure of leadership, has allowed this malevolent troublemaker to usurp America’s leadership role in the Middle East and indeed the world. And Putin isn’t about to let us forget it.

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Can Diplomacy Be a Prelude to Force?

The spin being put forward by President Obama’s apologists in the wake of his extraordinary retreat from his position calling for a strike on Syria is that his strength made diplomacy possible. That this is patently false is not a secret. The president displayed weakness by not going ahead and ordering an attack on his own authority against the Assad regime following its use of chemical weapons to murder a thousand people last month. That weakness was compounded by the president’s failure to rally support for a congressional resolution authorizing force. His embrace of a Russian plan to take possession of Syria’s horde of illegal weapons was forced upon him by the knowledge that the odds were heavily against gaining passage for such a resolution. But that didn’t stop the president and his supporters from claiming that the Russian gambit was the result of his tough talk.

But even if we ignore that absurd assertion, the president also said that he has asked the U.S. military to “maintain their current posture to keep the press on Assad, and to be in a position to respond if diplomacy fails.” That also sounds tough. But is it credible? For those who think that diplomacy could possibly be a prelude to the use of force against Syria, there are two main obstacles: the president’s incapacity to convince Americans to back such a plan and his almost religious belief in diplomacy that will prevent him from facing the truth about the Russian ruse.

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The spin being put forward by President Obama’s apologists in the wake of his extraordinary retreat from his position calling for a strike on Syria is that his strength made diplomacy possible. That this is patently false is not a secret. The president displayed weakness by not going ahead and ordering an attack on his own authority against the Assad regime following its use of chemical weapons to murder a thousand people last month. That weakness was compounded by the president’s failure to rally support for a congressional resolution authorizing force. His embrace of a Russian plan to take possession of Syria’s horde of illegal weapons was forced upon him by the knowledge that the odds were heavily against gaining passage for such a resolution. But that didn’t stop the president and his supporters from claiming that the Russian gambit was the result of his tough talk.

But even if we ignore that absurd assertion, the president also said that he has asked the U.S. military to “maintain their current posture to keep the press on Assad, and to be in a position to respond if diplomacy fails.” That also sounds tough. But is it credible? For those who think that diplomacy could possibly be a prelude to the use of force against Syria, there are two main obstacles: the president’s incapacity to convince Americans to back such a plan and his almost religious belief in diplomacy that will prevent him from facing the truth about the Russian ruse.

The assumption is that though the president felt unable to order an attack on Syria prior to now, a collapse of the Russian initiative would enable him to convince a reluctant Congress and an American public that overwhelmingly opposed his plans to change their minds. However, the odds of that happening are virtually nonexistent. Though the president belatedly made a strong case for action in the opening section of his speech last night, what followed was an acknowledgement that most Americans, rightly or wrongly, wanted no part of an intervention in Syria. Nothing that happens in the coming days or weeks can change that because the problem was not that Americans had to be convinced that Assad’s regime was a criminal enterprise. Rather it is because they have been led to believe—by no less a figure than President Obama himself—that the use of force to intervene abroad to punish or topple tyrants was a neoconservative heresy that should never again be attempted.

The upsurge in isolationism is not so much, as some have asserted, a reaction to Obama’s policies, but the product of them as he abandoned the struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan.

More specifically, now that the momentum toward Western intervention in Syria has been halted by the president’s turnabout, it is almost impossible to imagine that anything Russia or Syria will do can reignite the president’s already faltering impetus toward action. The longer the delay in responding to the Syrian atrocities that the president described so graphically last night, the less compelling any call to respond or punish Assad will be. Since the president’s obvious ambivalence and distaste for being a war leader has largely vindicated the cynicism of his critics on both the left and the right, there is no going back to the moment when an attack on Syria would be possible.

Secondly, the lure of diplomacy for Obama and his team is such that there is no possible scenario that would be interpreted by them as a casus belli for an attack.

This is an administration that is in love with the United Nations and the notion of multilateralism. Though the prospect of genuine cooperation on chemical weapons from Assad is a fantasy, the White House and the State Department are so besotted with the lifeline that Russian President Putin has offered them that nothing short of a complete repudiation of the scheme by Syria and its enablers would be enough to spike it. No matter how transparent the fraud, President Obama will stick with it as long as he possibly can. This would repeat a pattern that has been clear throughout the last five years as the administration continues to fall for Iranian diplomatic overtures and to pretend that the Palestinians are actually interested in peace with Israel.

If there was a chance for the United States to act to curb Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons or to prevent more slaughter in Syria, the moment has passed and will not recur. Though their positions are wrongheaded, don’t blame this on the isolationists in Congress or even on Syria’s allies in Russia and Iran who have every right to be crowing today. The fault lies entirely with an indecisive president who seems to have an allergy to leadership. Remember that as the body count continues to rise in Syria and Iran gets closer to nuclear capability. 

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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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Obama’s Weak and Contradictory Speech

For a few minutes President Obama gave the speech on Syria that he should have made weeks if not years ago. In opening his address to the American people Tuesday night, he outlined a powerful case for action on Syria where the Assad regime has slaughtered over a hundred thousand people. He described Assad’s use of chemical weapons that resulted in the brutal deaths of a thousand victims including hundreds of children and even put this atrocity in the context of the Nazi use of poison gas. He explained why this is a threat not only to the people of Syria but also to the security of the entire Middle East and the United States.

But having done so, he then proceeded to explain why he would do nothing about any of it.

Of course, Obama claims that his embrace of Russia’s proposal to supervise the surrender of Syria’s chemical weapons rather than strike Assad’s forces is merely a diplomatic endeavor that will put Damascus to the test. But by asking Congress to postpone a vote on authorizing the use of force against Syria, he has effectively assured Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers that they’ve won. Having described the Syrian regime as having gone beyond the pale, he has now ensured that not only will Assad survive a civil war that he is already winning, but he told the victims of the dictator that, for all of his compassionate rhetoric, he thinks their suffering is irrelevant.

In short, while posing—as he habitually does—as the only adult in the room scolding critics of his Syria policy on both the right and the left, his contradictions and weakness made their critiques look smart. It’s not just that his claim that diplomacy will succeed because of a “credible threat” of U.S. force that we all know was not credible is a flat-out lie. Having already demonstrated incompetence on a historic scale in flubbing this crisis, no speech could have retrieved the situation and restored Obama’s credibility. But by encapsulating all the inconsistencies of his foreign policy in 15 minutes of rhetoric, Obama sealed his reputation as the most feckless American leader since Jimmy Carter.

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For a few minutes President Obama gave the speech on Syria that he should have made weeks if not years ago. In opening his address to the American people Tuesday night, he outlined a powerful case for action on Syria where the Assad regime has slaughtered over a hundred thousand people. He described Assad’s use of chemical weapons that resulted in the brutal deaths of a thousand victims including hundreds of children and even put this atrocity in the context of the Nazi use of poison gas. He explained why this is a threat not only to the people of Syria but also to the security of the entire Middle East and the United States.

But having done so, he then proceeded to explain why he would do nothing about any of it.

Of course, Obama claims that his embrace of Russia’s proposal to supervise the surrender of Syria’s chemical weapons rather than strike Assad’s forces is merely a diplomatic endeavor that will put Damascus to the test. But by asking Congress to postpone a vote on authorizing the use of force against Syria, he has effectively assured Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers that they’ve won. Having described the Syrian regime as having gone beyond the pale, he has now ensured that not only will Assad survive a civil war that he is already winning, but he told the victims of the dictator that, for all of his compassionate rhetoric, he thinks their suffering is irrelevant.

In short, while posing—as he habitually does—as the only adult in the room scolding critics of his Syria policy on both the right and the left, his contradictions and weakness made their critiques look smart. It’s not just that his claim that diplomacy will succeed because of a “credible threat” of U.S. force that we all know was not credible is a flat-out lie. Having already demonstrated incompetence on a historic scale in flubbing this crisis, no speech could have retrieved the situation and restored Obama’s credibility. But by encapsulating all the inconsistencies of his foreign policy in 15 minutes of rhetoric, Obama sealed his reputation as the most feckless American leader since Jimmy Carter.

The problem with this speech is that once the president latched onto the Russian ruse—which, as our Max Boot pointed out, has no chance of success—it made his appeal to Congress moot. At that point the address, which was seen when it was announced as a last-ditch attempt to rally a recalcitrant Congress behind a strike on Syria, should have been canceled. Since that would have caused the president more embarrassment than he was prepared to live with, he went ahead with the talk to the American people and asked his speechwriters to turn on a dime and give him some new talking points. But the final result of their labors was obviously a pastiche of drafts, with the opening section and part of the conclusion a remnant of an earlier impassioned plea for action.

We may never know which of the ghosts working in the West Wing came up with the line about the U.S. military not doing “pinpricks” in response to criticisms that the “incredibly small” attack promised by Secretary of State John Kerry wasn’t enough. But it will be enough to give late-night comedians plenty of fodder. But the problem here is that by grasping onto what we all know is merely a diplomatic fig leaf to excuse inaction, his assurances convinced neither right-wing nor left-wing isolationists that there was any reason to give him their support. Indeed, in the face of such feckless leadership, even internationalists who have backed his call for a strike have good reason to bail on the president. The only people who should be applauding this address are Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers since Obama’s backing down means the dictator has been assured of victory in the Syrian civil war.

But the point here is that just like his last-minute refusal to act on his own authority and asking Congress for permission to strike, the speech made a case for action while going on to say the president would not act. If there is a precedent for a president taking prime time to tell the American people that something should happen but that it won’t, I’m not aware of it. This was a dreadful show by the president. If there was any doubt that he is a lame duck, it was erased in those 15 minutes.

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Obama’s Syria Debacle Inflicts Historic Damage on America

Max Boot does an excellent job explaining why the new Russian proposal on removing chemical weapons from Syria is almost certainly a mirage. Not surprisingly, however, President Obama is eager to embrace it. After all, doing so will avoid Congress rejecting his request to use military strikes against Syria–and the de facto collapse of his presidency.

But this will come at quite a high cost. Russia is now establishing itself as the preeminent power in the region, having displaced the United States. American prestige and credibility lie in ruins. President Obama has succeeded in undermining the moderate rebels he promised to assist. He has strengthened the murderous anti-American regime he declared he wanted gone. A despot who used chemical weapons and committed, in the words of Secretary of State John Kerry, a “moral obscenity” will now escape any punishment (which after all was the stated purpose of Obama’s threats to strike Syria). And Iran and Hezbollah, having (along with Russia) come to the aid of Assad, will emerge from this whole thing in a much stronger position.

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Max Boot does an excellent job explaining why the new Russian proposal on removing chemical weapons from Syria is almost certainly a mirage. Not surprisingly, however, President Obama is eager to embrace it. After all, doing so will avoid Congress rejecting his request to use military strikes against Syria–and the de facto collapse of his presidency.

But this will come at quite a high cost. Russia is now establishing itself as the preeminent power in the region, having displaced the United States. American prestige and credibility lie in ruins. President Obama has succeeded in undermining the moderate rebels he promised to assist. He has strengthened the murderous anti-American regime he declared he wanted gone. A despot who used chemical weapons and committed, in the words of Secretary of State John Kerry, a “moral obscenity” will now escape any punishment (which after all was the stated purpose of Obama’s threats to strike Syria). And Iran and Hezbollah, having (along with Russia) come to the aid of Assad, will emerge from this whole thing in a much stronger position.

It is hard to overstate how much of a debacle Syria has been for America. The damage we have sustained is deep and durable. The balance of power has shifted dramatically against America. It may take decades for us to undo the damage, if even that is possible.

This period may well turn out to be a hinge moment in the Middle East–and one of the worst diplomatic chapters in modern American history. Such is the cost to a nation when a community organizer is promoted to the job of commander in chief.

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