Commentary Magazine


Topic: chemical weapons

What Russia Gets Out of the Syria Deal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Long-Term Prospects of the Syria Deal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Obama Starts to Walk Back Syria Threats

Never mind. You don’t have read too far between the lines of a series of interviews President Obama has just given to several news networks to understand that what we may be seeing this week is not so much the titanic struggle in Congress about authorizing the use of force against Syria as a slow-motion walk-back of the White House’s intentions to launch air strikes against the Assad regime. It will be impossible for the White House to ask Congress for tough votes in favor of Syrian strikes so long as the president is grasping onto proposals that eliminate the threat of strikes and thus the vote in the Senate is being put off. Which means the arguments we’ve been having about the issue are now unofficially moot. Game, set, and match to Assad, Iran, and Russia and complete defeat for Obama and those who supported the faltering president.

In the interviews the president conveyed not only his trademark ambivalence about the use of force but also a crucial shift in his phrasing about his plans for punishing Syria’s government for using chemical weapons against their own people. By referring to the “threat” of strikes rather than his actual intentions, he made it clear that he wants to slow down the process by which Congress would vote on the proposals that he floated in the last couple of weeks. In part, this reflects the political reality in which the president has failed to rally support—either in the general public or Congress—for a principled stand against Assad’s atrocities. But by grasping on to the foolish proposal put forward by Secretary of State Kerry today to embrace a Russian offer to get Syria to surrender its chemical weapons (authoritatively debunked by our Max Boot), Obama appears to be waving the white flag on the whole controversy. Since this is an idea that has little chance of being effectively implemented, the president is using it as an excuse to weasel his way out of a fight that he wasn’t tough enough to fight or win. If so, it will be a fitting, if disgraceful, end to an episode of almost unprecedented incompetence and cowardice that will put an end to any pretensions Obama might have had about being anything but a lame duck until the end of his term of office.

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Never mind. You don’t have read too far between the lines of a series of interviews President Obama has just given to several news networks to understand that what we may be seeing this week is not so much the titanic struggle in Congress about authorizing the use of force against Syria as a slow-motion walk-back of the White House’s intentions to launch air strikes against the Assad regime. It will be impossible for the White House to ask Congress for tough votes in favor of Syrian strikes so long as the president is grasping onto proposals that eliminate the threat of strikes and thus the vote in the Senate is being put off. Which means the arguments we’ve been having about the issue are now unofficially moot. Game, set, and match to Assad, Iran, and Russia and complete defeat for Obama and those who supported the faltering president.

In the interviews the president conveyed not only his trademark ambivalence about the use of force but also a crucial shift in his phrasing about his plans for punishing Syria’s government for using chemical weapons against their own people. By referring to the “threat” of strikes rather than his actual intentions, he made it clear that he wants to slow down the process by which Congress would vote on the proposals that he floated in the last couple of weeks. In part, this reflects the political reality in which the president has failed to rally support—either in the general public or Congress—for a principled stand against Assad’s atrocities. But by grasping on to the foolish proposal put forward by Secretary of State Kerry today to embrace a Russian offer to get Syria to surrender its chemical weapons (authoritatively debunked by our Max Boot), Obama appears to be waving the white flag on the whole controversy. Since this is an idea that has little chance of being effectively implemented, the president is using it as an excuse to weasel his way out of a fight that he wasn’t tough enough to fight or win. If so, it will be a fitting, if disgraceful, end to an episode of almost unprecedented incompetence and cowardice that will put an end to any pretensions Obama might have had about being anything but a lame duck until the end of his term of office.

Since the signals of retreat on Syria coming from the White House today seem to put a period on even the most remote hope that the administration can find the will to act on Syria, it’s time for the second-guessing and recriminations about the president’s staggering incompetence to begin with a vengeance.

There’s little doubt that if the president had matched his predictions of Assad’s fall with even minimal action two years ago when the rebellion began in Syria, the results would have been very different. Assad would probably not have survived, let alone go on to largely win the war against the rebels, as he seems to have now done. Islamist radicals would not have gained a foothold in the country and the apparent victory of the regime would not enhance the power and prestige of Assad’s ally Iran. Nor would we have been treated to the spectacle of the president enunciating a “red line” about chemical weapons and then not enforcing it.

But let’s forget about what might have happened two years ago and just concentrate on the last month. Had the president acted expeditiously and struck quickly without punting the ball to Congress (as he need not have done using the authority granted him by the War Powers Act), there would have been no test of American credibility. By demanding the right to use force and then backing away Obama has trashed his credibility and that of the United States.

While the administration will attempt to spin their embrace of the Russian proposal as some kind of victory, the American people know better. What we have just witnessed is one of the most discreditable displays of presidential leadership in our history. Though I think those who have argued against the use of force against Syria were wrong, I cannot fault those who said President Obama was not to be trusted with the power that he sought. By surrendering even before he began to fight, the president has done more to trash his reputation as a leader in the last two weeks than five years of Republican criticism.

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Why I’m Against a Military Strike On Syria

One of the strongest arguments for voting “yes” on authorizing strikes against Syria is that a “no” vote will do significant damage to the credibility of the United States.

“It is to President Obama’s great discredit that he has staked his credibility on a vote whose outcome he failed to game out in advance,” Ross Douthat of the New York Times has written. “But if he loses that vote, the national interest as well as his political interests will take a tangible hit: for the next three years, American foreign policy will be in the hands of a president whose promises will ring consistently hollow, and whose ability to make good on his strategic commitments will be very much in doubt.”

That’s a very reasonable case. But it’s one that’s worth examining with some care.

It’s quite true, and I believe quite regrettable, that American credibility will suffer if the president is denied the authority he seeks. But it’s not clear to me that if Mr. Obama gets the authority to strike Syria, American credibility will be that much greater. 

I say that for several reasons, the most obvious of which is that the strike the president intends to deliver is not meant to alter the balance of power in Syria. The president himself has described what he intends to do as a “shot across the bow”–a revealing locution, since a “shot across the bow” means a harmless strike. Mr. Obama has signaled, in as many ways as he can, that a strike in Syria is meant to be de minimis. And Secretary of State John Kerry, in London earlier today, put it this way: “We will be able to hold Bashar al-Assad accountable without engaging in troops on the ground or any other prolonged kind of effort in a very limited, very targeted, short-term effort that degrades his capacity to deliver chemical weapons without assuming responsibility for Syria’s civil war. That is exactly what we are talking about doing – unbelievably small, limited kind of effort.” [emphasis added].

Is it possible that the president unleashes his inner John McCain and decides to alter the course of the Syrian civil war? I suppose so, but let’s just say it’s highly unlikely. Let’s assume, then, that the president does what he’s said he would do. How much credibility would that have?

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One of the strongest arguments for voting “yes” on authorizing strikes against Syria is that a “no” vote will do significant damage to the credibility of the United States.

“It is to President Obama’s great discredit that he has staked his credibility on a vote whose outcome he failed to game out in advance,” Ross Douthat of the New York Times has written. “But if he loses that vote, the national interest as well as his political interests will take a tangible hit: for the next three years, American foreign policy will be in the hands of a president whose promises will ring consistently hollow, and whose ability to make good on his strategic commitments will be very much in doubt.”

That’s a very reasonable case. But it’s one that’s worth examining with some care.

It’s quite true, and I believe quite regrettable, that American credibility will suffer if the president is denied the authority he seeks. But it’s not clear to me that if Mr. Obama gets the authority to strike Syria, American credibility will be that much greater. 

I say that for several reasons, the most obvious of which is that the strike the president intends to deliver is not meant to alter the balance of power in Syria. The president himself has described what he intends to do as a “shot across the bow”–a revealing locution, since a “shot across the bow” means a harmless strike. Mr. Obama has signaled, in as many ways as he can, that a strike in Syria is meant to be de minimis. And Secretary of State John Kerry, in London earlier today, put it this way: “We will be able to hold Bashar al-Assad accountable without engaging in troops on the ground or any other prolonged kind of effort in a very limited, very targeted, short-term effort that degrades his capacity to deliver chemical weapons without assuming responsibility for Syria’s civil war. That is exactly what we are talking about doing – unbelievably small, limited kind of effort.” [emphasis added].

Is it possible that the president unleashes his inner John McCain and decides to alter the course of the Syrian civil war? I suppose so, but let’s just say it’s highly unlikely. Let’s assume, then, that the president does what he’s said he would do. How much credibility would that have?

Abdel Jabbar Akaidi, the Free Syrian Army’s chief for Aleppo province, has said, “a light strike would be worse than doing nothing. If it’s not the death blow, this game helps the regime even more. The Syrian people will only suffer more death and devastation when the regime retaliates.” Senator McCain has said the same thing.

So the option isn’t between no strike at all and a massive strike that delivers a crushing blow to the Assad regime. The choice is between no strike and, if the president and his secretary of state are to be believed, an “unbelievably small,” inconsequential one. Are we then supposed to believe the latter would salvage America’s credibility? That the Iranian regime–which has not been slowed by anyone or anything to date–will be dissuaded from pursuing nuclear weapons after a strike against Syria that was only undertaken because the president had boxed himself into a corner and from which Bashar al-Assad will emerge undamaged and still in power? That is simply implausible, especially given Mr. Obama’s larger record of irresolution and incompetence.

No president in my lifetime has been more ambivalent about the use of American power; and if Mr. Obama does strike Syria, Peggy Noonan poses the right question: “If we bomb Syria, will the world say, ‘Oh, how credible America is!’ or will they say, ‘They just bombed people because they think they have to prove they’re credible’?” The restoration of American credibility will probably have to await a new American president (think of Reagan following Carter).

And what will Mr. Obama’s strike succeed in doing? It will involve us in a brutal and immensely complicated civil war that would test the skills of even the greatest statesmen. Dexter Filkins, one of the finest war reporters in America, has said the civil war in Syria is “a more violent and unpredictable conflict than any I’ve ever seen.” The rebels, he says, are scattered and divided. Al Nusra Front, a sister organization of al-Qaeda, has “emerged as the strongest group among many.” Ambassador Ryan Crocker, one of America’s finest diplomats, has written that the opposition to Assad “lacks cohesion and organization” and agrees that the most radical elements have demonstrated the greatest discipline. “The hard truth is that the fires in Syria will blaze for some time to come,” according to Crocker. “Like a major forest fire, the most we can hope to do is contain it.”

There are other, serious interpretations of the circumstances on the ground. But even advocates of a military strike against Syria would concede, I think, that the conditions for a political settlement simply are not in place. And what exactly has President Obama achieved to warrant confidence that he can navigate these violent waters and positively influence events in Syria? His mastery of events in Egypt? Iraq? Iran? Libya? Afghanistan? His reset with Russia? His skillful handling of our allies like Great Britain? The Czech Republic and Poland? Israel? Please cite for me the example we can look to that will inspire confidence that the president is up to the challenges posed by Syria. If such an example exists, it has eluded me. 

Which brings me to my final point. As a person who favors American engagement in the world–who has supported American interventions over the years, who believed we should support the relatively moderate Syrian rebels some time ago and who supported President Obama’s surge in Afghanistan–my concern is that for America to become militarily involved in Syria at this stage may well end up doing grave damage to the cause of internationalism. It could do more, in fact, to help the quasi-isolationist movement in the GOP than anything else–including denying Mr. Obama the authority he seeks. 

For the United States to go to war with around a quarter of the nation supporting intervention–even before the bombing has started–is a very dicey and unsettling proposition. If we get militarily involved in Syria and things go badly–which I think is likely, given both the intrinsic nature of the conflict and the ineptness of our commander-in-chief–it will strengthen, not weaken, the Rand Paul wing of the GOP.

To put it another way: Those who favor an active role by America in the world–hawks who have spent their lives rightly resisting the “America Come Home” siren call–need to be wise in their counsel. Because if the next military engagement isn’t well thought out, well executed, and doesn’t lead to a relatively swift and decent outcome, the blowback could be intense. Syria could do to America what George McGovern never could.

In saying all this, I recognize that I’m out of step with many people whose judgment I respect and with whom I have stood shoulder-to-shoulder over many years. Nor do I think the decision on the authorization of force is an obvious one. There are legitimate arguments to be made on both sides and potential downsides to each course of action. On top of that, we’re talking about predicting how a series of events will unfold in a Middle Eastern nation riven by war, sectarian divisions, and hatreds that reach back generations, which ought to elicit from us a touch of humility rather than certitude.

All we can do, all we can ever do, is to bring our best judgment to bear on the situation we face. The issue hinges on whether one believes a pointless and ill-considered strike by this president against the Syrian regime does more or less damage than a congressional “no” vote that would make America even more of a non-entity in international affairs. 

I will confess that I’m not fully comfortable with my position. But I’m more comfortable with it than the alternative. 

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The Politics of the Dueling Syria Resolutions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Obama’s Syria Blunder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Who Cares if Assad Gave the Order?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Shot Across the Bow

“A shot across the bow” has been a much-used metaphor of late, referring to the proposed strike against the Assad regime in Syria for its use of chemical weapons.

But what does that phrase mean, exactly? In the days before radio communications it was a warning that meant, simply, “stop or I’ll sink you.” It gave the other ship an opportunity to stand to before being attacked.

But the warning, necessarily, implied the possibility of further hostile action. After all, if you tell someone to “stop or I’ll sink you,” and they don’t stop, the next move is to hit them directly. If they still don’t stop, then you carry out the threat and sink them. In other words, a shot across the bow is the first step on a clearly determined ladder of escalation. It is not an end in itself.

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“A shot across the bow” has been a much-used metaphor of late, referring to the proposed strike against the Assad regime in Syria for its use of chemical weapons.

But what does that phrase mean, exactly? In the days before radio communications it was a warning that meant, simply, “stop or I’ll sink you.” It gave the other ship an opportunity to stand to before being attacked.

But the warning, necessarily, implied the possibility of further hostile action. After all, if you tell someone to “stop or I’ll sink you,” and they don’t stop, the next move is to hit them directly. If they still don’t stop, then you carry out the threat and sink them. In other words, a shot across the bow is the first step on a clearly determined ladder of escalation. It is not an end in itself.

President Obama has been desperately trying to convince a skeptical Congress, and an even more skeptical public, that this shot across the bow will be a one-off with no further military action afterwards. He has emphasized that this would be a surgical, limited strike with very limited effect on Assad’s military assets (especially as Assad has now had several weeks to get them out of harm’s way). Obama has ignored the possibility that Assad will ignore the warning.

As far as I know, only Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) has asked the question, what happens if, after a U.S. attack, Assad uses chemical weapons again? As she says, if we strike again, that is the very definition of “further involvement.” If we don’t strike again, then the United States is exposed as the maker of empty threats and can be safely ignored. No Great Power can allow itself to be so exposed.

The president will be interviewed tomorrow by no fewer than six TV networks (ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS, CNN, and Fox). I hope at least one of the interviewers will ask him—and insist on a clear answer to—the question, what happens if we hit Syria and they go on using chemical weapons?

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Untangling the Pro-Intervention Argument

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In Stockholm, Obama Loses Touch with Reality

Most presidents, having presided over the Syrian debacle, would be chastened. But not the Great and Mighty Obama. He’s decided to begin to rewrite history so that he emerges as the hero.  

Consider what Mr. Obama, in Stockholm earlier today, said in response to a question about Syria:     

First of all, I didn’t set a red line. The world set a red line. The world set a red line when governments representing 98 percent of the world’s population said the use of chemical weapons are abhorrent and passed a treaty forbidding their use, even when countries are engaged in war. Congress set a red line when it ratified that treaty. Congress set a red line when it indicated that in a piece of legislation entitled the Syria Accountability Act that some of the horrendous things happening on the ground there need to be answered for. So, when I said in a press conference that my calculus about what’s happening in Syria would be altered by the use of chemical weapons, which the overwhelming consensus of humanity says is wrong, that wasn’t something I just kind of made up. I didn’t pluck it out of thin air. There’s a reason for it.

The president added this:  

My credibility is not on the line. The international community’s credibility is on the line and America and Congress’s credibility is on the line because we give lip service to the notion that these international norms are important. 

So literally everyone else in the world is to blame except the president.

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Most presidents, having presided over the Syrian debacle, would be chastened. But not the Great and Mighty Obama. He’s decided to begin to rewrite history so that he emerges as the hero.  

Consider what Mr. Obama, in Stockholm earlier today, said in response to a question about Syria:     

First of all, I didn’t set a red line. The world set a red line. The world set a red line when governments representing 98 percent of the world’s population said the use of chemical weapons are abhorrent and passed a treaty forbidding their use, even when countries are engaged in war. Congress set a red line when it ratified that treaty. Congress set a red line when it indicated that in a piece of legislation entitled the Syria Accountability Act that some of the horrendous things happening on the ground there need to be answered for. So, when I said in a press conference that my calculus about what’s happening in Syria would be altered by the use of chemical weapons, which the overwhelming consensus of humanity says is wrong, that wasn’t something I just kind of made up. I didn’t pluck it out of thin air. There’s a reason for it.

The president added this:  

My credibility is not on the line. The international community’s credibility is on the line and America and Congress’s credibility is on the line because we give lip service to the notion that these international norms are important. 

So literally everyone else in the world is to blame except the president.

Mr. Obama appears to be suffering from a variation of what psychiatrists refer to as dissociation, which is characterized by everything from mild to severe detachment from reality and one’s immediate surroundings. 

In this particular case, the president seems to have dissociative amnesia, apparently having forgotten that a year ago last month he did, in fact, draw a red line. (Note the use of the first-person pronouns by the president–”That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”) The president may have forgotten, too, that he promised that crossing this red line would be a “game changer” (it was not). That Assad had to go (Assad is still in power, stronger than before). That he promised to arm Syrian rebels (he hasn’t). That his “coalition of the willing” may include, if we’re lucky, one other country besides America. And that on the matter of the Use of Force Resolution he was against going to Congress before he was for going to Congress. 

The cause of Mr. Obama’s dissociation appears to be the psychological trauma induced by his multi-year fiasco in Syria. And in order to cope, we are seeing signs of anger, petulance, and hero syndrome and, as is always the case with this president, blame shifting. 

On a slightly more serious note, Mr. Obama’s presidency is being wrecked by reality. He’s being exposed at every turn, and in every crisis, as inept. He can’t handle that truth so he’s trying to distort it. 

There’s something poignant and painful in watching Obama’s presidency collapse and seeing what it’s doing to the man who promised to repair the world and slow the rise of the oceans. 

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Obama’s Path Forward on Syria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Case for a Presidential Address on Syria

Politico’s Glenn Thrush caused a minor stir this morning when he tweeted, regarding Syria: “Is POTUS going to address the nation directly before embarking on military action in Syria? Many of his aides think it’s a passé tactic.” He followed up a few minutes later: “Not saying Obama won’t address nation. But will he do it a) BEFORE acting and b) from Oval? Obama hates direct-to-camera – prefers audience”.

It’s possible the president strongly disagrees with the unnamed advisors here; it would be quite ironic for the president whose career was propelled by speechmaking to dismiss the power of his own words. Yet Obama has been relatively quiet on this issue recently and he is even hesitant to go to Congress to get authorization for entering the Syrian civil war. But the president’s concerns here are justified; it’s just that he’s chosen the wrong way to respond.

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Politico’s Glenn Thrush caused a minor stir this morning when he tweeted, regarding Syria: “Is POTUS going to address the nation directly before embarking on military action in Syria? Many of his aides think it’s a passé tactic.” He followed up a few minutes later: “Not saying Obama won’t address nation. But will he do it a) BEFORE acting and b) from Oval? Obama hates direct-to-camera – prefers audience”.

It’s possible the president strongly disagrees with the unnamed advisors here; it would be quite ironic for the president whose career was propelled by speechmaking to dismiss the power of his own words. Yet Obama has been relatively quiet on this issue recently and he is even hesitant to go to Congress to get authorization for entering the Syrian civil war. But the president’s concerns here are justified; it’s just that he’s chosen the wrong way to respond.

The president no doubt has seen the polling. The latest Reuters/Ipsos poll found that: “About 60 percent of Americans surveyed said the United States should not intervene in Syria’s civil war, while just 9 percent thought President Barack Obama should act.” A coalition of the willing starts at home, and nine percent is not encouraging. But there’s a silver lining. As the AP reported in a roundup of Syria polling, “The Pew Research Center has tracked public attention to news about the conflict in Syria since May 2011, and has consistently found most Americans are tuned out. Each time they’ve asked, a majority said they were not following closely.”

The question is whether there is anything Obama can do to change their minds. The answer is yes–he’s already done it, to an extent. As the Washington Post reported in December, Obama had been personally opposed to intervening in the Syria civil war but in August 2012 set Syrian chemical weapons use as his “red line.” Wouldn’t you know it, four months later a poll found a majority of Americans opposed intervention in Syria–unless the regime used chemical weapons. Then all bets were off, and suddenly support for military action in Syria went from 17 percent to 63 percent.

Perhaps the American public had coincidentally formed their own opinion of what constitutes a red line in Syria independent of the president. But that’s unlikely. What seems to have happened is that Americans weren’t following the conflict closely but set their conditions for involvement precisely as the president had. The point here is not only that the crossing of the red line is likely to change at least a few minds. It’s that the public has shown both that it is not paying close attention to Syria and that it broadly trusts Obama’s judgment on American action. The opportunity, then, for Obama to build support for action the administration seems intent on taking is staring the president in the face.

Whether or not the president thinks Reddit AMAs and Twitter town halls are the way to reach young Americans, on matters of war and peace a serious address in a serious setting is the way to get Americans’ attention, and it will almost surely get results. As I wrote last year, when discussing the efficacy of presidential rhetoric it’s important to make a distinction between foreign and domestic policy. I noted that Obama has experienced this as well. Like past presidents, he has had difficulty selling the public on major domestic reforms, but also like his predecessors, he has had much more success selling the public on the deployment of American military forces. The president is the commander in chief, and the public treats him that way. Obama, after all, won a nine-percent jump in public support for the war in Afghanistan after his announcement of a troop surge there.

Additionally, while it’s true that the country is war weary and that there are those in Congress just itching to vote against more foreign intervention, Obama is underestimating the support he would have. He should go to Congress for approval; he’d get it. That will at least somewhat insulate him from charges of warmongering or recklessness, and certainly of partisanship or double standards. And he should address the American people, make the case for his desired course of action, and ask for their support. If past is prologue, he’ll get that too.

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Why Is Obama Leaking Syria Plans?

After years of inaction on atrocities in Syria, President Obama is finally prepared to act. The reason for this decision is clear: having said that the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” that the Assad regime could not cross, the evidence that he has done so has convinced the president that his already diminished credibility would be destroyed if he did nothing. But the leaks coming from figures inside the administration detailing what this reaction will entail raise more questions about the president’s policies than anything else. First among them is why what the New York Times describes as “a wide range of officials” have been empowered to lay out the plan, time, and extent of the attacks on the Syrian army.

As the Wall Street Journal notes in an editorial today, the leaks make the administration’s pursuit of Edward Snowden seem hypocritical, since the giving away of operational military plans strikes one as being every bit as dangerous, if not more so, than his giveaway of secrets about the National Security Agency’s counter-terror operations. But there is more to the leaks than mere hypocrisy. The signals emanating from the White House and the Pentagon constitute more than clear warnings to Damascus about what will happen. They are an attempt to spin the impending strikes to a skeptical American public that polls say wants no part of any involvement in the Syrian civil war no matter what horrors the participants have employed. If this were a novel, we might speculate the information coming from Washington is part of a plan of deception covering a more ambitious plan, but this isn’t a novel and no one in this administration appears to be that clever. Instead, what we are faced with is a military action whose purpose is to have as little effect on the war in Syria and the future of the Assad regime as possible. If true, it is hard to argue with those who will ask why the president is putting U.S. forces in jeopardy to accomplish so little.

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After years of inaction on atrocities in Syria, President Obama is finally prepared to act. The reason for this decision is clear: having said that the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” that the Assad regime could not cross, the evidence that he has done so has convinced the president that his already diminished credibility would be destroyed if he did nothing. But the leaks coming from figures inside the administration detailing what this reaction will entail raise more questions about the president’s policies than anything else. First among them is why what the New York Times describes as “a wide range of officials” have been empowered to lay out the plan, time, and extent of the attacks on the Syrian army.

As the Wall Street Journal notes in an editorial today, the leaks make the administration’s pursuit of Edward Snowden seem hypocritical, since the giving away of operational military plans strikes one as being every bit as dangerous, if not more so, than his giveaway of secrets about the National Security Agency’s counter-terror operations. But there is more to the leaks than mere hypocrisy. The signals emanating from the White House and the Pentagon constitute more than clear warnings to Damascus about what will happen. They are an attempt to spin the impending strikes to a skeptical American public that polls say wants no part of any involvement in the Syrian civil war no matter what horrors the participants have employed. If this were a novel, we might speculate the information coming from Washington is part of a plan of deception covering a more ambitious plan, but this isn’t a novel and no one in this administration appears to be that clever. Instead, what we are faced with is a military action whose purpose is to have as little effect on the war in Syria and the future of the Assad regime as possible. If true, it is hard to argue with those who will ask why the president is putting U.S. forces in jeopardy to accomplish so little.

It bears repeating that if the point of any such strikes is to hold Assad accountable, then a limited number of missile strikes on Syrian army targets that will neither topple the dictator (a goal that has been repeatedly endorsed and predicted by President Obama) or cripple his ability to go on committing atrocities doesn’t exactly fit the bill. If the strikes are what we are being led to expect, then what we are in store for is a noisy and dramatic version of a diplomatic note expressing American indignation.

As I noted yesterday, if the president doesn’t finish what he starts this week in Syria, it’s not clear there will be any real gains from the use of so many expensive military weapons. No matter how carefully this legion of Washington leakers spins the attacks, wars have a way of spinning out of the control of their planners. Should the U.S. strikes lead to missile attacks on Israel by Hezbollah, as that terrorist group’s Iranian masters warn, then the situation will turn out to be more complicated than the president thinks.

Just as dangerous is the likelihood that if Assad is still standing once the dust settles from a few days of limited U.S. attacks, America’s credibility will be in even worse shape than it is now. If a few weeks from now, the regime is not only still in place but still winning its war with Russian, Iranian, and Hezbollah help, the president’s limited Syrian war will be seen as an empty gesture. Such an outcome would be a metaphor for a failed policy that will have serious implications for efforts to stop Iran’s nuclear program. Seen in that light, rather than worrying so much about reassuring Americans that he doesn’t intend to do much in Syria, the president should be concerned about the implications of an episode that will be viewed as a metaphor for foreign-policy disaster.

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Public Opinion, Obama, and Syria

How does a president who came into office decrying foreign interventions rooted in fear of weapons of mass destruction lead a war-weary country and a Congress that is more suspicious than ever of executive power into a complicated conflict in Syria? The answer is clear: Very carefully.

With reports swirling around the Internet predicting U.S. strikes on Syrian targets before the end of the week, it’s clear that the administration’s decision-making process has gone past the point where they were debating whether they would finally do something about Syria. After three years of talking about the Assad regime’s violations of human rights and the president predicting his fall, the use of chemical weapons last week was apparently the final straw. The White House knows that it must act lest the president’s talk of red lines become the epitaph for the failure of its approach to foreign policy. But with one poll showing that 60 percent of Americans think we should not intervene in Syria even if Assad is proven to have used chemical weapons, and with a considerable portion of both parties in Congress also showing a distinct lack of enthusiasm for the idea, a policy shift on the issue is going to be a tough sell for the administration.

But as problematic as this sounds, the comparisons being floated in some circles between Obama and Bush aren’t accurate. Barack Obama will not become a focus of anti-war protests over Syria for two reasons: one is that he is Obama and Democrats are always in a far stronger position to go to war than Republicans. The other is that it is probable that the Syrian strike will be a tactical rather than a strategic move. Even though a symbolic strike that leaves Assad untouched and the balance of power in Syria unchanged would be meaningless, Obama is probably still far more concerned about committing the country to another conflict than he is about Assad’s atrocities or the long-term costs of allowing this Iranian ally to survive.

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How does a president who came into office decrying foreign interventions rooted in fear of weapons of mass destruction lead a war-weary country and a Congress that is more suspicious than ever of executive power into a complicated conflict in Syria? The answer is clear: Very carefully.

With reports swirling around the Internet predicting U.S. strikes on Syrian targets before the end of the week, it’s clear that the administration’s decision-making process has gone past the point where they were debating whether they would finally do something about Syria. After three years of talking about the Assad regime’s violations of human rights and the president predicting his fall, the use of chemical weapons last week was apparently the final straw. The White House knows that it must act lest the president’s talk of red lines become the epitaph for the failure of its approach to foreign policy. But with one poll showing that 60 percent of Americans think we should not intervene in Syria even if Assad is proven to have used chemical weapons, and with a considerable portion of both parties in Congress also showing a distinct lack of enthusiasm for the idea, a policy shift on the issue is going to be a tough sell for the administration.

But as problematic as this sounds, the comparisons being floated in some circles between Obama and Bush aren’t accurate. Barack Obama will not become a focus of anti-war protests over Syria for two reasons: one is that he is Obama and Democrats are always in a far stronger position to go to war than Republicans. The other is that it is probable that the Syrian strike will be a tactical rather than a strategic move. Even though a symbolic strike that leaves Assad untouched and the balance of power in Syria unchanged would be meaningless, Obama is probably still far more concerned about committing the country to another conflict than he is about Assad’s atrocities or the long-term costs of allowing this Iranian ally to survive.

As a liberal Democrat, Obama has an advantage in this situation that no Republican or conservative would possess. Though his party has always had an isolationist left-wing faction, Democrats are, by and large, inclined to support wars or interventions initiated by their party that they would probably oppose if they had been the responsibility of a Republican. Since most Republicans are always ready to follow the flag and support just about any war, even those with little connection to U.S. national interests, that gives a Democratic president something close to carte blanche for starting wars that no Republican could ever claim. That means that no matter how badly things go for the U.S. in a putative Syrian entanglement, the chances of there being massive liberal street protests against the decision are virtually nil.

Since, as Elliott Abrams writes in the September issue of COMMENTARY, Obama came into the presidency with a constrained view of America’s role in the world and its right to defend its interests and values, it is particularly awkward for him to wake up nine months into his second term of office leading a foreign crusade against a tyrant employing weapons of mass destruction. But the juxtaposition isn’t merely ironic. It’s also why the American response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons is likely to be less decisive than it should be. Given the president’s fears of getting stuck in Syria, few believe his response, no matter how noisy or theatrical it may seem at first glance, will involve action that will alter the tide of war or push Assad out.

The Syrian civil war is a mess with bad guys on both sides of the conflict. A rebel victory that placed Damascus into the hands of allies of al-Qaeda would be disastrous. But, after predicting Assad’s fall and warning that his use of chemical weapons would generate consequences, Obama is in no position to throw up his hands and do nothing. Doing so would establish a precedent that the use of chemical weapons brings no consequences from the international community. Even more to the point, an Assad victory would not only show that a dictator could gas his own people with impunity, it would also be a strategic triumph for Iran and Hezbollah, which are heavily invested in the regime’s survival. As such, a failure to act now in Syria would more or less guarantee that Tehran would have no reason to take President Obama’s warning about their development of nuclear weapons seriously.

For all of the skepticism about involvement in Syria, President Obama may have more leeway than he thinks. Though many on the right will instinctively oppose anything he does and some on the left are always leery of foreign interventions, he has the political leeway he needs to do far more than merely lob a few missiles into Assad’s strongholds or knock down some empty buildings. The question today is whether he has the courage to use it. 

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Will Obama Finish What He Starts in Syria?

The fact that United Nations weapons inspectors came under fire today in Syria as they attempted to visit the site of last week’s chemical weapons attacks didn’t do much to enhance the credibility of a mission that never had a chance of success. This episode will only make it even likelier that, at long last, the Obama administration will respond forcefully to the latest atrocity committed by the Assad regime. If the noises emanating from Western European capitals are to be believed, what follows may well be a mission with the imprimatur of NATO. If the optimists about President Obama finally having made up his mind to act on Syria after years of dithering are right, then the response may be some sort of concerted air campaign rather than a symbolic yet meaningless strike consisting of lobbing a few missiles that change nothing on the ground.

If true, better late than never will probably be the response of many observers to such a decision. But even if he does shed the restraint he has showed and does something, the question we should be asking right now is not so much whether the president finally makes good on his year-old threat about “red lines” about chemical weapons, but whether the United States is prepared to finish what it starts in Syria. If, as may be likely, a strike on Syria comes under the NATO flag, the credibility of the West won’t be vindicated by symbolism. Having chosen to avoid involvement in the Syrian civil war when Assad might have been toppled without that much trouble, the president must understand that the stakes are far higher today than one or two years ago. With Iran and Hezbollah now heavily invested in the conflict and Russia still committed to keeping Assad afloat, the West probably won’t be able to get away with a repeat of its Libyan intervention or even a more large scale Kosovo-style air offensive and think it will change the tide of war there.

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The fact that United Nations weapons inspectors came under fire today in Syria as they attempted to visit the site of last week’s chemical weapons attacks didn’t do much to enhance the credibility of a mission that never had a chance of success. This episode will only make it even likelier that, at long last, the Obama administration will respond forcefully to the latest atrocity committed by the Assad regime. If the noises emanating from Western European capitals are to be believed, what follows may well be a mission with the imprimatur of NATO. If the optimists about President Obama finally having made up his mind to act on Syria after years of dithering are right, then the response may be some sort of concerted air campaign rather than a symbolic yet meaningless strike consisting of lobbing a few missiles that change nothing on the ground.

If true, better late than never will probably be the response of many observers to such a decision. But even if he does shed the restraint he has showed and does something, the question we should be asking right now is not so much whether the president finally makes good on his year-old threat about “red lines” about chemical weapons, but whether the United States is prepared to finish what it starts in Syria. If, as may be likely, a strike on Syria comes under the NATO flag, the credibility of the West won’t be vindicated by symbolism. Having chosen to avoid involvement in the Syrian civil war when Assad might have been toppled without that much trouble, the president must understand that the stakes are far higher today than one or two years ago. With Iran and Hezbollah now heavily invested in the conflict and Russia still committed to keeping Assad afloat, the West probably won’t be able to get away with a repeat of its Libyan intervention or even a more large scale Kosovo-style air offensive and think it will change the tide of war there.

A lot has changed since President Obama first starting predicting that Assad’s fall was inevitable. Rather than giving up, he has dug in, and with the help provided by Russia as well as the Iranian “volunteers” from Tehran’s Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah reinforcements, he has seized the initiative in the war. While air strikes could cripple his chemical supplies, heavy weapons, and air power, it’s a trifle optimistic to believe a series of bombing raids or cruise missile strikes will defeat Assad.

That means that if President Obama is serious about Syria, he’s going to have to risk a long-term commitment to the conflict. Though he is probably not contemplating putting any boots on the ground, the cost of a prolonged air offensive will not be cheap. Coming at a time when the American people are already weary of war after Afghanistan and Iraq, fighting another one even with airpower alone is quite a political risk.

Count me among those who believe that the U.S. cannot afford to make threats such as those made by Obama and let them slide. But if the U.S. attacks and Assad survives, America’s credibility—and that of the president—will be hurt, not enhanced. At this stage, mere gestures won’t be enough. To the contrary, once the West enters the war, nothing short of Assad’s defeat will be a satisfactory outcome. Indeed, with the administration preparing to engage in another round of diplomacy with Iran over its nuclear project, both the ayatollahs and their sometime allies in Moscow will be measuring the Western response in Syria and judging whether they should worry about continuing to stonewall Washington. A failure to finish what begins this week will leave Iran, Russia and Assad as big winners. Getting into Syria won’t be difficult; getting out with a result that will not make things in the region even worse won’t be so easy. 

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Obama Already Waited Too Long on Syria

I agree with our Michael Rubin who writes today that the fuss about a United Nations investigation into the use of chemical weapons by the Bashar Assad regime in Syria is largely meaningless. There’s little doubt which side in the Syrian civil war committed the atrocity, and the Obama administration is right to be signaling that it is unimpressed by Assad’s belated decision to let U.N. inspectors into the area to make a determination. However, the president’s characteristically slow decision-making process as he decides if and how to react to the incident may turn out to be equally irrelevant to the question of whether the tyrant of Damascus is called to account in a meaningful way for the latest evidence of his depravity.

Given the willingness of the administration to speak openly of their certainty about Assad crossing the “red line” that the president established last year about the use of chemical weapons, it’s obvious the White House is calculating some sort of response. What exactly that response will be is still a matter of speculation. If, as many think, the president orders some sort of a strike on Assad’s forces or that of his Iranian and Hezbollah allies that are currently winning the war in Syria by a clear margin, perhaps he thinks he will have vindicated his reputation as a man of his word since he has taken so much heat for letting Assad cross his “red line” earlier this year with impunity. But short of a shower of cruise missiles that would decapitate the Syrian regime and completely change the course of the war there, it’s likely that any American action now would be more about Obama’s self-regard than anything else. Having passed on the chance to deal with the situation in Syria when minimal action might have ended Assad’s reign of terror without opening the gates to the al-Qaeda-related forces that currently play a huge role in the opposition, it’s just too late for a single show of force to make a difference.

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I agree with our Michael Rubin who writes today that the fuss about a United Nations investigation into the use of chemical weapons by the Bashar Assad regime in Syria is largely meaningless. There’s little doubt which side in the Syrian civil war committed the atrocity, and the Obama administration is right to be signaling that it is unimpressed by Assad’s belated decision to let U.N. inspectors into the area to make a determination. However, the president’s characteristically slow decision-making process as he decides if and how to react to the incident may turn out to be equally irrelevant to the question of whether the tyrant of Damascus is called to account in a meaningful way for the latest evidence of his depravity.

Given the willingness of the administration to speak openly of their certainty about Assad crossing the “red line” that the president established last year about the use of chemical weapons, it’s obvious the White House is calculating some sort of response. What exactly that response will be is still a matter of speculation. If, as many think, the president orders some sort of a strike on Assad’s forces or that of his Iranian and Hezbollah allies that are currently winning the war in Syria by a clear margin, perhaps he thinks he will have vindicated his reputation as a man of his word since he has taken so much heat for letting Assad cross his “red line” earlier this year with impunity. But short of a shower of cruise missiles that would decapitate the Syrian regime and completely change the course of the war there, it’s likely that any American action now would be more about Obama’s self-regard than anything else. Having passed on the chance to deal with the situation in Syria when minimal action might have ended Assad’s reign of terror without opening the gates to the al-Qaeda-related forces that currently play a huge role in the opposition, it’s just too late for a single show of force to make a difference.

President Obama’s pitiful performance on Syria over the past three years doesn’t need to be rehashed in depth. Suffice it to say that there isn’t much debate about the fact that had the United States chosen to act when the rebellion first began, Assad might well have been soon toppled without it opening the gates for radical Islamists to replace him. But instead he waited and did nothing except for incessantly predicting that Assad’s fall was imminent. Even a “lead from behind” strategy that was used in Libya might have been better than that because as the chaos in Syria spread, other forces entered the fray, complicating the conflict and reducing America’s options. On the one hand, groups related to al-Qaeda infiltrated the opposition to Assad, making regime change a less attractive option. On the other, Iran and Hezbollah’s entrance into the war raised the stakes in a regional conflict in which possession of Damascus becomes key to Tehran’s hopes for regional dominance that should scare the West more than anything else.

In the coming days we may be treated to the spectacle of a demonstration of American power in Syria. Expect the usual photos out of the situation room in the White House as the president and his team are depicted waiting for news of the strike and the subsequent celebration in the manner which we saw when the president took credit for the heroism of the Navy SEALs that killed Osama bin Laden. But nobody should mistake such theatrics for a coherent policy.

President Obama didn’t create this mess by himself, but he worsened it with rhetoric that he chose not to back up with action. So now that the world turns to the United States and ponders what it will do about Assad’s atrocities three years on, all Washington can offer is a gesture that is unlikely to make a whit of difference in Syria. At this point, even a full-fledged American decision to get involved in the military effort to oust Assad may be too little, too late.

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Obama’s Chemical “Never Again” Expired

I’ve already mentioned the Halabja chemical weapons attack once, but before this National Security Council statement goes down the memory hole, it’s worth reproducing in full:

“Statement by NSC Spokesperson Caitlin Hayden on the 25th Anniversary of the Halabja Massacre”

March 16, 2013

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the horrific massacre by Saddam Hussein’s regime of over 5,000 innocent civilians in a chemical weapons attack on the city of Halabja, in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region. At least 10,000 people were blinded and maimed. This terrible crime was but one of many in Hussein’s Anfal Campaign, in which tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis were slaughtered. On this solemn occasion, we honor the memories of the husbands, wives, sons, and daughters who perished at Halabja and throughout the Anfal, as we continue our efforts to prevent future atrocities, and help ensure that perpetrators of such crimes are held accountable.

Let us see whether President Obama and UN Ambassador Samantha Power still believe that they should hold the perpetrators of such crimes accountable.

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I’ve already mentioned the Halabja chemical weapons attack once, but before this National Security Council statement goes down the memory hole, it’s worth reproducing in full:

“Statement by NSC Spokesperson Caitlin Hayden on the 25th Anniversary of the Halabja Massacre”

March 16, 2013

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the horrific massacre by Saddam Hussein’s regime of over 5,000 innocent civilians in a chemical weapons attack on the city of Halabja, in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region. At least 10,000 people were blinded and maimed. This terrible crime was but one of many in Hussein’s Anfal Campaign, in which tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis were slaughtered. On this solemn occasion, we honor the memories of the husbands, wives, sons, and daughters who perished at Halabja and throughout the Anfal, as we continue our efforts to prevent future atrocities, and help ensure that perpetrators of such crimes are held accountable.

Let us see whether President Obama and UN Ambassador Samantha Power still believe that they should hold the perpetrators of such crimes accountable.

Certainly, not only the Syrians are watching, but also the North Koreans, Iranians, Russians, and the broader international community. Or, perhaps to President Obama, “Never Again” expires after five months.

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Of Chemical Weapons, Halabja, and East Ghouta

It has been just over a quarter century since Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his defense minister Ali Hassan al-Majid, better known as “Chemical Ali,” ordered and executed the chemical weapons bombardment of Halabja, an Iraqi Kurdish town in the foothills of the Zagros Mountains, along the Iran-Iraq border. At the time, Iran and Iraq were engaged in their brutal war. Many American politicians were willing to blame the fog of war and several suggested that Iran rather than Iraq could be to blame. That was nonsense in the case of Halabja at least, but demanding ever more time to investigate became a good excuse for doing nothing. Many realists argued that Iraq’s containment of Iran should effectively give Saddam Hussein a free pass and, even after the war ended, the United States and Europe did their best to take no action in the face of the chemical weapons use.

As an aside, how disappointing it is that the (Iraqi) Kurdistan Regional Government that now governs Halabja has been so silent on the chemical weapons strikes inside Syria. The ethnicity of the victim should not matter: It is the lack of response when the chemical weapons red line is crossed which lowers the threshold to the repeat of history.

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It has been just over a quarter century since Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his defense minister Ali Hassan al-Majid, better known as “Chemical Ali,” ordered and executed the chemical weapons bombardment of Halabja, an Iraqi Kurdish town in the foothills of the Zagros Mountains, along the Iran-Iraq border. At the time, Iran and Iraq were engaged in their brutal war. Many American politicians were willing to blame the fog of war and several suggested that Iran rather than Iraq could be to blame. That was nonsense in the case of Halabja at least, but demanding ever more time to investigate became a good excuse for doing nothing. Many realists argued that Iraq’s containment of Iran should effectively give Saddam Hussein a free pass and, even after the war ended, the United States and Europe did their best to take no action in the face of the chemical weapons use.

As an aside, how disappointing it is that the (Iraqi) Kurdistan Regional Government that now governs Halabja has been so silent on the chemical weapons strikes inside Syria. The ethnicity of the victim should not matter: It is the lack of response when the chemical weapons red line is crossed which lowers the threshold to the repeat of history.

Alas, when it comes to both the targeting of civilians and the lack of U.S. response, it’s déjà vu all over again. The Obama administration seems not to want to upset Russia or China in its response; after all, mightn’t that not upset diplomacy, Secretary of State John Kerry likely argues. And Ambassador Samatha Power—whose claim to fame comes from her book on genocide—has been a Twitter warrior from her seat at the United Nations, but she has not been willing to put her job or ambition on the line. Perhaps someone will someday write a sequel in which she comes off as cynical, detached, and careerist, as did the UN bureaucrats and Clinton administration officials about whom she once wrote.

The world is lucky it has taken 25 years for a madman to again target civilians on this scale with chemical munitions. This does not mean that the United States should arm the opposition or intervene directly in the conflict with boots on the ground—not only would that lead to mission creep, but the organized opposition has radicalized and is really not much better than Assad himself—but there should be symbolic action against the regime if for no other reason than to restore the credibility of red lines and make clear how unacceptable chemical weapons are. U.S. airpower might be used to target Syrian airfields and Bashar al-Assad’s palaces. If the Israelis can strike multiple times into Syria with nary an anti-aircraft battery going off inside Syria, then there is no reason why the United States might not demonstrate the same capability. One thing is certain: the cost of no response may ultimately become an invitation to increase exponentially the use of chemical weapons against civilians.

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Red Line Crossed—Now What?

After months of trying to deny the undeniable—namely, that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons—the White House finally ended its equivocating today and admitted it. 

Today’s official White House statement says:

Following a deliberative review, our intelligence community assesses that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year.  Our intelligence community has high confidence in that assessment given multiple, independent streams of information.  The intelligence community estimates that 100 to 150 people have died from detected chemical weapons attacks in Syria to date.

Moreover, the White House lays blame for the use of these weapons squarely at Bashar Assad’s door. “We believe that the Assad regime maintains control of these weapons,” the statement goes on. “We have no reliable, corroborated reporting to indicate that the opposition in Syria has acquired or used chemical weapons.”

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After months of trying to deny the undeniable—namely, that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons—the White House finally ended its equivocating today and admitted it. 

Today’s official White House statement says:

Following a deliberative review, our intelligence community assesses that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year.  Our intelligence community has high confidence in that assessment given multiple, independent streams of information.  The intelligence community estimates that 100 to 150 people have died from detected chemical weapons attacks in Syria to date.

Moreover, the White House lays blame for the use of these weapons squarely at Bashar Assad’s door. “We believe that the Assad regime maintains control of these weapons,” the statement goes on. “We have no reliable, corroborated reporting to indicate that the opposition in Syria has acquired or used chemical weapons.”

The statement also reiterated what Obama had previously said: “The President has been clear that the use of chemical weapons—or the transfer of chemical weapons to terrorist groups—is a red line for the United States, as there has long been an established norm within the international community against the use of chemical weapons.” But Obama has never said what he would do if Assad crossed this red line, and today’s statement does not provide much new information.

Here is what the Obama administration announced by way of concrete actions: “the President has augmented the provision of non-lethal assistance to the civilian opposition, and also authorized the expansion of our assistance to the Supreme Military Council (SMC), and we will be consulting with Congress on these matters in the coming weeks.”

That’s it? No announcement of air strikes on chemical-weapons stockpiles or other government targets. No imposition of a no-fly zone. Not even an announcement that emergency shipments of arms would be rushed to the rebels.

All Obama is doing in response to the crossing of the red line is providing more “non-lethal assistance” and also authorizing an unspecified “expansion” in U.S. assistance to the rebel military command. Administration officials say that means arms will indeed be provided but what kind, how many, or how quickly–all remain unknown.

This rethinking of Obama’s opposition to helping the rebels is welcome. But based on the administration’s dilatory track record on Syria, there is cause to fear that U.S. support to the rebels will not be sufficient to stop the onslaught by Assad and Hezbollah forces, assisted and financed by Iran, that has already reclaimed the town of Quasayr and now threatens to retake Aleppo too. 

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Still Doing Obama’s Dirty Work in Syria

The Obama administration’s ostentatious display of indecision over the threat of chemical weapons use in Syria will only be exacerbated by the report of Sarin gas use by the opponents of the Assad regime. But as Emanuele Ottolenghi noted earlier today, the notion that the dictator has lost control of all of Syria’s weapons of mass destruction should make it all the more imperative that the president’s Hamlet act about treating the “red line” he set for the country end as soon as possible. But the Israeli attacks on Hezbollah and possible chemical targets in Syria have again made it clear that for all the scurrilous talk from conspiracy theorists and anti-Semites who promote the Walt-Mearsheimer “Israel Lobby” theory about the pro-Israel tail wagging the American dog, it is once again Israel that is doing America’s dirty work in the Middle East.

It is true, as Alon Pinkas writes in today’s Haaretz, that the Israeli strikes on Syrian targets are likely not directly related to the question of the use of chemical weapons. Israel’s interests in the Syrian conflict are immediate and tactical rather than strategic, meaning that it is far more concerned with the transfer of Iranian weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon than the ultimate fate of the regime. However, far from dragging the United States into the conflict, as Israel-haters were alleging after Israeli sources confirmed the use of chemical weapons, it is the armed forces of the Jewish state that are playing a vital role in keeping a lid on the conflict. While Israel has no desire to become embroiled in a Syrian civil war between factions that likely share only their hate for the Jews, its ability to interdict the regime’s efforts to transfer its weapons to a fellow ally of Iran is giving Obama time to continue to make up his mind.

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The Obama administration’s ostentatious display of indecision over the threat of chemical weapons use in Syria will only be exacerbated by the report of Sarin gas use by the opponents of the Assad regime. But as Emanuele Ottolenghi noted earlier today, the notion that the dictator has lost control of all of Syria’s weapons of mass destruction should make it all the more imperative that the president’s Hamlet act about treating the “red line” he set for the country end as soon as possible. But the Israeli attacks on Hezbollah and possible chemical targets in Syria have again made it clear that for all the scurrilous talk from conspiracy theorists and anti-Semites who promote the Walt-Mearsheimer “Israel Lobby” theory about the pro-Israel tail wagging the American dog, it is once again Israel that is doing America’s dirty work in the Middle East.

It is true, as Alon Pinkas writes in today’s Haaretz, that the Israeli strikes on Syrian targets are likely not directly related to the question of the use of chemical weapons. Israel’s interests in the Syrian conflict are immediate and tactical rather than strategic, meaning that it is far more concerned with the transfer of Iranian weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon than the ultimate fate of the regime. However, far from dragging the United States into the conflict, as Israel-haters were alleging after Israeli sources confirmed the use of chemical weapons, it is the armed forces of the Jewish state that are playing a vital role in keeping a lid on the conflict. While Israel has no desire to become embroiled in a Syrian civil war between factions that likely share only their hate for the Jews, its ability to interdict the regime’s efforts to transfer its weapons to a fellow ally of Iran is giving Obama time to continue to make up his mind.

There are still serious arguments to be made on behalf of U.S. caution in Syria, and it appears the president is sufficiently chastened by them so as to paralyze American action even after the “red line” he set was apparently crossed. The opposition is potentially as bad as Assad, and it may be that Washington has simply waited too long to act for an intervention to bring about a result that is even remotely palatable to Western interests. Short of a Western decision to enforce no-fly zones or to give heavy weapons to rebels, or at least those rebels the U.S. believes are not connected to al-Qaeda, the end of this war may not be in sight. Despite President Obama spending the last two years consistently calling for Assad to go, it may be that he will still be sitting in his Damascus palace three years from now when the president has left office. Given the bitter nature of the war, that may seem unimaginable. But the staying power of his regime and the value of the help he has received from Iran and its terrorist proxies has already been proved.

Short of the president arriving at a decision he seems unable to make, Israel remains a powerful deterrent against Iranian adventurism in Syria and Lebanon. Due to its hangover from Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States may choose to find a reason to stay out of the line of fire in Syria. Despite Israel’s ease in demonstrating that Syria’s vaunted air defenses are not able to stop attacks, America’s far superior forces may stand down no matter who is using chemical weapons there. That will create more problems that will only worsen. But so long as Israel is available to keep Assad and Iran in check, President Obama may feel free to continue “leading from behind.”

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