Commentary Magazine


Topic: Syrian civil war

Obama Advisors Try to Salvage Their Reputations

Some of the headaches of a president’s second term stem from the “don’t blame me” stories in which administration officials seek to use the press to wipe their fingerprints off of their boss’s policy failures. It’s their way of updating their resumes; unlike the president, they’ll need a job in the near future. Sometimes that means trying to bury old hatchets, and sometimes that means anonymously leaking details of their unheeded prophecies to the New York Times, as “dozens of current and former members of the administration, foreign diplomats and Congressional officials” did for today’s deep dive into the administration’s feckless and confused Syria policy.

One of the more recent additions to President Obama’s Cabinet, Samantha Power, has turned this into an art form. While working for Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008, she called Hillary Clinton a “monster.” But now she realizes that the Democrats want to hand Clinton the next presidential nomination, and feels the need to tell NBC that she has “regretted it pretty much every day since,” and that the incident “just completely broke my heart that there is a fair amount of negativity heaped upon her that I find massively unfair, and the idea that I could have contributed in some way to that narrative, it was terrible.” And oh by the way, Power wants Hillary to know that she thinks Clinton is “a total rock star–she’s changed the world in a thousand ways.”

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Some of the headaches of a president’s second term stem from the “don’t blame me” stories in which administration officials seek to use the press to wipe their fingerprints off of their boss’s policy failures. It’s their way of updating their resumes; unlike the president, they’ll need a job in the near future. Sometimes that means trying to bury old hatchets, and sometimes that means anonymously leaking details of their unheeded prophecies to the New York Times, as “dozens of current and former members of the administration, foreign diplomats and Congressional officials” did for today’s deep dive into the administration’s feckless and confused Syria policy.

One of the more recent additions to President Obama’s Cabinet, Samantha Power, has turned this into an art form. While working for Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008, she called Hillary Clinton a “monster.” But now she realizes that the Democrats want to hand Clinton the next presidential nomination, and feels the need to tell NBC that she has “regretted it pretty much every day since,” and that the incident “just completely broke my heart that there is a fair amount of negativity heaped upon her that I find massively unfair, and the idea that I could have contributed in some way to that narrative, it was terrible.” And oh by the way, Power wants Hillary to know that she thinks Clinton is “a total rock star–she’s changed the world in a thousand ways.”

Vicious comments aimed at a rival in the heat of a presidential campaign are not unheard of, however. More difficult for Power to shake might be the fact that she spent her career naming and shaming Clinton administration officials she deemed bystanders to the atrocities in Rwanda and then she joined a presidential administration intensely focused on being bystanders to the atrocities in Syria. Because of Power’s career as a proponent of humanitarian intervention, the Obama White House gains much-needed credibility for sitting on the sidelines because the administration can point to Power’s presence in the Cabinet. For her silence, Power gets to live it up in the ambassador’s suite at the Waldorf Astoria hotel.

But she seems aware that history may not look kindly on her career trajectory. She’ll likely be asked, as the Bouncing Souls sang, “How high was your price, and was it worth it?” Thus, Power appears in the Times article waging a noble but losing battle to intervene with the president’s chief of staff:

Denis R. McDonough, the deputy national security adviser and one of the biggest skeptics about American intervention in Syria, was promoted to White House chief of staff. Mr. McDonough had clashed frequently with his colleagues on Syria policy, including with Samantha Power, a White House official who had long championed the idea that nations have a moral obligation to intervene to prevent genocide.

Ms. Power came to believe that America’s offers of support to the rebels were empty.

“Denis, if you had met the rebels as frequently as I have, you would be as passionate as I am,” Ms. Power told Mr. McDonough at one meeting, according to two people who attended.

“Samantha, we’ll just have to agree to disagree,” Mr. McDonough responded crisply.

It’s tempting to write this off as realism defeating idealism and present it as the theme of the Obama presidency. But as the Times article makes clear, the president didn’t seem to think or care enough about the mess in Syria to formulate anything resembling a coherent ideological or theoretical analysis. The Times’s sources stop just shy of accusing the president of playing Angry Birds during Syria briefings:

Even as the debate about arming the rebels took on a new urgency, Mr. Obama rarely voiced strong opinions during senior staff meetings. But current and former officials said his body language was telling: he often appeared impatient or disengaged while listening to the debate, sometimes scrolling through messages on his BlackBerry or slouching and chewing gum.

I’m not sure why it’s relevant that the president chewed gum other than for these sources to present the commander in chief in a disquietingly condescending manner–petty enough to remind the reader that many of these sources are grinding axes. Which brings us back to Power. The expected defense of her lavish, taxpayer-funded acquiescence to inaction seems to be that she wanted to intervene but cannot exactly force the president of the United States to heed her advice.

But what did she expect? She well knew the president’s outlook on foreign intervention, the Arab Spring, and on Syria specifically. Obama made no secret of the fact that he didn’t want to get involved and didn’t intend to do anything about ridding the Middle East of Bashar al-Assad. She cannot pretend to be some frustrated idealist stuck trying to change the system from the inside. The president’s policy of inaction on Syria was clear and close to unshakeable, and she accepted the president’s offer to sit in the Waldorf and not make trouble while this policy continued to be carried out.

And she’s not the only one. So while all these sources may have a point about Obama’s ambivalence on Syria, their self-serving revisionism should be taken with more than a grain of salt.

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Saudis, Turks Send Obama a Message

President Obama has been trying to reorient American policy in the Middle East. He is pulling back and either striking or looking to strike deals with longstanding American enemies such as Syria and Iran. He is also looking ever more hesitant and uncertain, a problem exemplified by his indecision over whether or not to bomb Syria. Such actions may not have much impact on domestic public opinion, which is focused on the economy and the budget crisis, but it has a large impact on our allies, who are increasingly concerned about the drift of American policy.

Saudi Arabia is making its concerns manifest. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief [Prince Bandar Bin Sultan al-Saud] told European diplomats this weekend that he plans to scale back cooperating with the U.S. to arm and train Syrian rebels in protest of Washington’s policy in the region.” This comes only days after the Saudis decided not to accept a coveted seat on the UN Security Council, which the U.S. had lobbied for.

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President Obama has been trying to reorient American policy in the Middle East. He is pulling back and either striking or looking to strike deals with longstanding American enemies such as Syria and Iran. He is also looking ever more hesitant and uncertain, a problem exemplified by his indecision over whether or not to bomb Syria. Such actions may not have much impact on domestic public opinion, which is focused on the economy and the budget crisis, but it has a large impact on our allies, who are increasingly concerned about the drift of American policy.

Saudi Arabia is making its concerns manifest. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief [Prince Bandar Bin Sultan al-Saud] told European diplomats this weekend that he plans to scale back cooperating with the U.S. to arm and train Syrian rebels in protest of Washington’s policy in the region.” This comes only days after the Saudis decided not to accept a coveted seat on the UN Security Council, which the U.S. had lobbied for.

What explains the Saudi actions? According to the Journal, the issue is “Riyadh’s frustration with the Obama administration and its regional policies, including the decision not to bomb Syria in response to its alleged use of chemical weapons in August.” The newspaper quotes Bandar telling diplomats: “This was a message for the U.S., not the U.N.”

This comes not long after the news that Turkey’s intelligence service, long a partner for the CIA, had burned a network of Iranians spying for Israel on Iran’s nuclear program. That action would not have been taken if the Turks seriously feared American retribution from President Erdogan’s friend, President Obama.

The fact that the Turks and Saudis are acting as they are suggests that they hold U.S. foreign policy in growing contempt and have less regard than in the past for America’s influence in the region. That is part of the damage that the Obama administration has wrought–damage that will take years to undo, assuming a more tough-minded leader is elected in 2016.

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Kofi Annan’s Ludicrous Syria Spin

The National Journal story today seeking to blame President Obama for missing an opportunity to end the bloodshed in Syria in 2012 is getting a lot of attention, but it does not deliver on its promise. The conceit of the piece is that the initial Geneva conference last summer, brokered by Kofi Annan (the reader’s first warning to have several grains of salt nearby), was close to a deal that would have ushered Bashar al-Assad out of power.

But the presidential election season was heating up and Obama felt cornered by Mitt Romney’s accusations that the president was not tough enough on the international stage. This, according to the sources for the story, prompted the Obama administration to call for Assad’s ouster publicly and keep military action on the table as a last resort. This angered Annan, who had somehow convinced himself he was more than a pawn in Assad’s play for time, and he quit. In an attempt to salvage their boss’s reputation, Annan’s former staffers give National Journal Annan’s version of events:

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The National Journal story today seeking to blame President Obama for missing an opportunity to end the bloodshed in Syria in 2012 is getting a lot of attention, but it does not deliver on its promise. The conceit of the piece is that the initial Geneva conference last summer, brokered by Kofi Annan (the reader’s first warning to have several grains of salt nearby), was close to a deal that would have ushered Bashar al-Assad out of power.

But the presidential election season was heating up and Obama felt cornered by Mitt Romney’s accusations that the president was not tough enough on the international stage. This, according to the sources for the story, prompted the Obama administration to call for Assad’s ouster publicly and keep military action on the table as a last resort. This angered Annan, who had somehow convinced himself he was more than a pawn in Assad’s play for time, and he quit. In an attempt to salvage their boss’s reputation, Annan’s former staffers give National Journal Annan’s version of events:

Former members of Annan’s negotiating team say that after then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on June 30, 2012, jointly signed a communique drafted by Annan, which called for a political “transition” in Syria, there was as much momentum for a deal then as Kerry achieved a year later on chemical weapons. Afterward, Annan flew from Geneva to Moscow and gained what he believed to be Russian President Vladimir Putin’s consent to begin to quietly push Assad out. But suddenly both the U.S. and Britain issued public calls for Assad’s ouster, and Annan felt blindsided. Immediately afterward, against his advice, then-U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice offered up a “Chapter 7” resolution opening the door to force against Assad, which Annan felt was premature.

Annan resigned a month later.

The story refers to a joint communiqué signed on June 30, 2012 but as Laura Rozen reported on June 29, Annan had personally drafted a “non-paper” a couple days earlier that was to serve as a proposal for that political transition in Syria. And Annan’s own proposal excluded Bashar al-Assad from the new government that this diplomatic process would seek to establish. As Rozen wrote:

The national unity government “could include members of the present government and the opposition and other groups,” the non-paper says, “but would exclude from government those whose continued presence and participation would undermine of [sic] the transition and jeopardize stability and reconciliation”–namely, Bashar al-Assad.

All the relevant parties clearly understood that at the time. Indeed, it was that demand that Assad personally be excluded from any “national unity government” after the “transition” that made the Russians hesitant to keep cooperating. Rozen followed up with a report on July 1:

Russia continued to oppose language in the statement calling for a political transition under which Bashar al-Assad would be required to leave power. But [Hillary] Clinton insisted the edits agreed on at the meeting convened by UN Syria envoy Kofi Annan Saturday did not alter that key demand.

That’s when Clinton said Assad had to go–the remark that supposedly angered Annan enough to quit. But the language of the dispute gives it away: the Russians “continued to oppose” the Syria working group’s demand for Assad’s ouster, which means both Annan and the U.S. were working under the assumption Assad would have to leave office–and willing to say so.

That means that according to the documentation released at the time, Annan was taking a hard line on Assad and the Russians got cold feet–presumably because Assad had told his Russian patrons the deal was a nonstarter. Even the National Journal story alludes to this; the report quotes Frederic Hof saying that the process was an uphill battle in part because “Assad had no interest whatever in being ‘transitioned.’ He was able to read the text of the Geneva agreement quite accurately.”

What exactly was Annan’s end game here? That he would pass a resolution vague enough to trick Assad into leaving office without realizing it? What kind of fantasy world was he living in? The Syria diplomacy was not derailed by President Obama trying to look tough to voters–who, by the way, do not want to go to war in Syria. There were three major states driving this process: the U.S., Russia, and Syria. Annan does not seem to have understood the political atmosphere in any of the three states, so it’s no wonder his efforts failed to achieve anything. But that failure is his, and he should stop blaming others.

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Mission Impractical

The Washington Post today provides fresh details about the anemic CIA program to train moderate Syrian rebels. Reporter Greg Miller writes that “the CIA program is so minuscule that it is expected to produce only a few hundred trained fighters each month even after it is enlarged, a level that officials said will do little to bolster rebel forces that are being eclipsed by radical Islamists in the fight against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.”

The fact that the CIA is providing so little support is not accidental, nor is it due to logistical constraints. It’s due to the mission statement given to the covert operators by their political masters in the White House. Writes the Post: “The CIA’s mission, officials said, has been defined by the White House’s desire to seek a political settlement, a scenario that relies on an eventual stalemate among the warring factions rather than a clear victor. As a result, officials said, limits on the agency’s authorities enable it to provide enough support to help ensure that politically moderate, U.S.-supported militias don’t lose but not enough for them to win.”

Now there’s an inspiring battle cry: Go out and risk your lives for a stalemate. One can only imagine what morale must be like among not only the Syrian rebels who are expected to risk their necks but also among the CIA handlers who are expected to prepare them for this pointless mission. Indeed the Post story suggests the CIA is already in CYA mode: “Mindful of the criticism and investigations that accompanied many of those operations, senior CIA officials have raised the concern that the limits imposed in Syria will do little to shield the agency from criticism if something goes wrong. ‘What happens when some of the people we trained torture a prisoner?’ said a former senior U.S. intelligence official familiar with agency operations in the Middle East.”

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The Washington Post today provides fresh details about the anemic CIA program to train moderate Syrian rebels. Reporter Greg Miller writes that “the CIA program is so minuscule that it is expected to produce only a few hundred trained fighters each month even after it is enlarged, a level that officials said will do little to bolster rebel forces that are being eclipsed by radical Islamists in the fight against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.”

The fact that the CIA is providing so little support is not accidental, nor is it due to logistical constraints. It’s due to the mission statement given to the covert operators by their political masters in the White House. Writes the Post: “The CIA’s mission, officials said, has been defined by the White House’s desire to seek a political settlement, a scenario that relies on an eventual stalemate among the warring factions rather than a clear victor. As a result, officials said, limits on the agency’s authorities enable it to provide enough support to help ensure that politically moderate, U.S.-supported militias don’t lose but not enough for them to win.”

Now there’s an inspiring battle cry: Go out and risk your lives for a stalemate. One can only imagine what morale must be like among not only the Syrian rebels who are expected to risk their necks but also among the CIA handlers who are expected to prepare them for this pointless mission. Indeed the Post story suggests the CIA is already in CYA mode: “Mindful of the criticism and investigations that accompanied many of those operations, senior CIA officials have raised the concern that the limits imposed in Syria will do little to shield the agency from criticism if something goes wrong. ‘What happens when some of the people we trained torture a prisoner?’ said a former senior U.S. intelligence official familiar with agency operations in the Middle East.”

History shows that covert operations, like standard military campaigns, are only likely to produce results if they are designed to produce victory–as in the case of the program to arm Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s. Aiming for stalemate is a prescription for failure.

Why would the Obama administration make this their goal? Their de facto policy–not their declared policy but their real policy–appears to be a variation of Henry Kissinger’s famous quip that it was a shame that both sides couldn’t lose in the Iran-Iraq War. Likewise in Syria it’s hard to choose between Hezbollah and the Quds Force on one side and, on the other, al-Qaeda affiliates such as ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) and the al-Nusra Front, even if the latter make up only a minority of rebel fighters. (The Post cites intelligence estimates that jihadists comprise 20 percent of the 100,000 rebel fighters.)

The problem is that, while it’s possible for both groups of extremists to lose (which is what would happen if moderate rebel factions prevail), it is also possible for both sides to win–which is what would happen if today’s stalemate were to continue indefinitely. Under those circumstances, the current trend of the country being split between jihadist and Assadist areas will accelerate: the al-Qaeda groups will continue to exercise sway in the north while Iran’s allies control Damascus and the Alawite strongholds.

This is not a win for the United States. It’s actually our nightmare scenario. And President Obama’s half-hearted policy of not really supporting the moderate rebels–or only supporting them enough to perpetuate the stalemate–is helping to bring it about. Incidentally, American apathy is also enabling the war to rage on and to kill thousands more people every month. This is neither moral nor strategically smart.

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Diplomatic Progress–Real or Imagined?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Syria’s Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

When President Obama addressed the nation two weeks ago, he explained his hesitancy in launching a punitive strike against Syria with his now common refrain: “I was elected to end wars, not to start them.” Joyce Karam already noted last June how this refrain appears increasingly as the central theme of Obama’s foreign-policy legacy.

President Obama certainly must have seen it that way when he ordered American airpower into action over Libyan skies in March 2011–and whatever the political outcomes of the Libyan civil war’s aftermath, Western airpower tilted the balance in the battlefield in such a dramatic way that it helped bring that war to an end.

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When President Obama addressed the nation two weeks ago, he explained his hesitancy in launching a punitive strike against Syria with his now common refrain: “I was elected to end wars, not to start them.” Joyce Karam already noted last June how this refrain appears increasingly as the central theme of Obama’s foreign-policy legacy.

President Obama certainly must have seen it that way when he ordered American airpower into action over Libyan skies in March 2011–and whatever the political outcomes of the Libyan civil war’s aftermath, Western airpower tilted the balance in the battlefield in such a dramatic way that it helped bring that war to an end.

There is only one problem: President Obama’s decision not to launch a strike against the Syrian regime contradicts, rather than flows, from his claim. An American intervention would, if anything, help end the war. By contrast, American inaction will prolong Syria’s civil war, and it will potentially make its outcomes worse for American interests.

One such outcome–the jihadi nature of part of the rebel forces–was routinely cited by administration officials as a reason for caution. And yet, it is increasingly obvious that there is a direct correlation between Western inaction and the rise of jihadis among the rebels.

Today, the Washington Post reports that the flow of weapons to Syria’s opposition is going mostly to Islamist rebels–thanks to a renewed commitment from Gulf donors not to let the Sunni rebellion lose out after America threatened and then cancelled a military strike.

Clearly, if there is no Western support for moderate forces, fears that aid to the rebels may end up strengthening jihadi elements will have become a self-fulfilling prophecy with far-reaching consequences. One will be that if Syria falls to the rebels, it will be a hub for jihadi activities. Another is that the more jihadi foreign fighters survive the war to return to their homes, the more jihadis will be ready for more action against the West in years to come. So much for defeating al-Qaeda and making it irrelevant, then–America’s choice of delegating a role in this conflict to regional powers will dilute American efforts to eradicate the al-Qaeda franchise from the region.

This is just one aspect of the Syria conundrum that clearly undermines the president’s rhetoric. It is not the only one, but it suffices to show that in fact, President Obama’s legacy will not be to end wars but only to ensure that America avoids them at all costs–whatever the long-term consequences for America and its vital interests.

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Rouhani’s Ruses: Syria and Nukes

Washington and the West remain infatuated with new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. The supposed moderate is set to make his debut on the international stage later this month at the opening of the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York where the comparison to his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will work to his advantage. All the hopes of those who wish to avoid a confrontation with the Islamist regime rest on the notion that Rouhani’s election in a faux democratic presidential vote represents a chance for real change in Iran. Though Iranians might hope genuine change might bring a less repressive theocracy—a proposition that it is difficult to imagine would hold much allure for a fundamentalist follower of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini such as Rouhani—for the West it means an Iran that will abandon its nuclear ambitions and cease sponsoring terrorism or intervening in the affairs of other nations in the region. And it is to those hopes that Rouhani is doing his best to pander.

On the nuclear front, there are reports claiming that Rouhani is prepared to allow Western inspectors into Iran’s key Fordow nuclear plant and even remove the centrifuges that are refining more uranium that adds to the ayatollah’s stockpile. Such concessions in exchange for a lifting of Western sanctions are said to reflect Rouhani’s desire for rapprochement in order to save his country’s economy. As for Syria, as the New York Times reports today, Rouhani told Revolutionary Guard commanders yesterday that Iran will support whomever Syria wants as their leader even if it is not Bashar Assad. But as even that article is forced to acknowledge, Rouhani’s statement is directly contradicted by the facts on the ground in Syria as Iranian forces have become a key element of the Assad regime’s murderous and successful war against rebels. As Michael Rubin noted earlier today, the surfacing of a video showing Iranians taking part in the fighting gives the lie to Rouhani’s statement.

The Times attempted to argue that the contradiction between Rouhani’s moderation and the policies of the regime he represents is a question of dueling interests or alternative tracks that show cracks in the regime’s solid front. But a more sensible reading of these contrasts shows that Rouhani’s feelers to the West are merely talk intended to fool the gullible, as it has successfully done repeatedly in the last decade.

After Ahmadinejad’s unrepentant anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, Rouhani’s apparent desire to make nice is a welcome change for those who view confrontation with Iran as a greater evil than the threat from their nuclear program and sponsorship of terrorism. But talk is cheap.

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Washington and the West remain infatuated with new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. The supposed moderate is set to make his debut on the international stage later this month at the opening of the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York where the comparison to his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will work to his advantage. All the hopes of those who wish to avoid a confrontation with the Islamist regime rest on the notion that Rouhani’s election in a faux democratic presidential vote represents a chance for real change in Iran. Though Iranians might hope genuine change might bring a less repressive theocracy—a proposition that it is difficult to imagine would hold much allure for a fundamentalist follower of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini such as Rouhani—for the West it means an Iran that will abandon its nuclear ambitions and cease sponsoring terrorism or intervening in the affairs of other nations in the region. And it is to those hopes that Rouhani is doing his best to pander.

On the nuclear front, there are reports claiming that Rouhani is prepared to allow Western inspectors into Iran’s key Fordow nuclear plant and even remove the centrifuges that are refining more uranium that adds to the ayatollah’s stockpile. Such concessions in exchange for a lifting of Western sanctions are said to reflect Rouhani’s desire for rapprochement in order to save his country’s economy. As for Syria, as the New York Times reports today, Rouhani told Revolutionary Guard commanders yesterday that Iran will support whomever Syria wants as their leader even if it is not Bashar Assad. But as even that article is forced to acknowledge, Rouhani’s statement is directly contradicted by the facts on the ground in Syria as Iranian forces have become a key element of the Assad regime’s murderous and successful war against rebels. As Michael Rubin noted earlier today, the surfacing of a video showing Iranians taking part in the fighting gives the lie to Rouhani’s statement.

The Times attempted to argue that the contradiction between Rouhani’s moderation and the policies of the regime he represents is a question of dueling interests or alternative tracks that show cracks in the regime’s solid front. But a more sensible reading of these contrasts shows that Rouhani’s feelers to the West are merely talk intended to fool the gullible, as it has successfully done repeatedly in the last decade.

After Ahmadinejad’s unrepentant anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, Rouhani’s apparent desire to make nice is a welcome change for those who view confrontation with Iran as a greater evil than the threat from their nuclear program and sponsorship of terrorism. But talk is cheap.

The Iranian intervention in Syria implicated them in the atrocities committed by the government they are propping up. Any investigation into war crimes committed in the Syrian civil war, as more than 100,000 were slaughtered in the last two years, will inevitably involve Tehran’s Revolutionary Guard and their Hezbollah auxiliaries. For Rouhani to speak of Iran accepting the verdict of the Syrian people after they have assisted the dictator’s murderous repression is more than hypocritical. It is merely a rhetorical gloss on a criminal policy.

The same kind of skeptical analysis should be applied to the reports of Rouhani’s promises to shut down the centrifuges that are currently spinning Iran toward a nuclear weapon.

The West has, after all, already gone down the garden path with Rouhani on this front when he served as Iran’s nuclear negotiator only to realize later that his moderate promises and willingness to make deals were merely a ruse intended to buy the regime more time. Any nuclear arrangement that leaves in place Iran’s ability to refine uranium—the current position of the administration’s Russian partner on the issue—as well as their efforts to create a plutonium track to a weapon does nothing to avert the threat. While shutting down Fordow would be a productive step, after nuclear inspectors have been kept out of Iran for so long the possibility for deception is great. So is the likelihood that the entire discussion is merely one more attempt to string out negotiations until it is too late to stop Iran.

In his less guarded moments, Rouhani continues to remind us that he is an ardent supporter of the Islamist regime that is really run by Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Any faith placed in his moderation speaks more to Western hopes than Iranian reality. While we should expect that Rouhani’s New York appearance will continue to boost his stock among those already inclined to appease Tehran, there is very little reason to believe his dual track is anything other than a deception.

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Video Shows Iranian Advisors in Syria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Israel Likes Its U.S. Presidents Strong

The Wall Street Journal ran a symposium over the weekend about world reactions to Obama’s Syria turnaround. I wrote the contribution on Israel. Many aspects of the “turnaround,” especially the enhanced role of Russia in the Middle East, impact Israel. But I focused instead on Obama’s earlier “turnaround”: his decision to seek authorization for military action from Congress. Excerpt:

What Israelis found alarming was the way Mr. Obama shifted the burden of decision. Every one of Mr. Obama’s Syrian maneuvers was viewed as a dry run for his conduct in a likely future crisis over Iran’s nuclear drive. That’s where the stakes are highest for Israel, and that’s where Israelis sometimes question Obama’s resolve.

Israelis always imagined they would go to Mr. Obama with a crucial piece of highly sensitive intelligence on Iranian progress, and he would make good on his promise to block Iran with a swift presidential decision. So Mr. Obama’s punt to Congress over what John Kerry called an “unbelievably small” strike left Israelis rubbing their eyes. If this is now standard operating procedure in Washington, can Israel afford to wait if action against Iran becomes urgent?

Israel’s standing in Congress and U.S. public opinion is high, but the Syrian episode has shown how dead-set both are against U.S. military action in the Middle East. Israel won’t have videos of dying children to sway opinion, and it won’t be able to share its intelligence outside the Oval Office. Bottom line: The chance that Israel may need to act first against Iran has gone up.

Why was Obama’s recourse to Congress so alarming? Israel has long favored strong presidential prerogatives. That’s because the crises that have faced Israel rarely ever leave it the time to work the many halls of Congress. Israel discovered the dangers of presidential weakness in May 1967, when Israel went to President Lyndon Johnson to keep a commitment—a “red line” set by a previous administration—and Johnson balked. He insisted he would have to secure congressional support first. That show of presidential paralysis left Israel’s top diplomat shaken, and set the stage for Israel’s decision to launch a preemptive war.

2013 isn’t 1967. But Israel long ago concluded that the only thing as worrisome as a diffident America is a diffident American president—and that a president’s decision to resort to Congress, far from being a constitutional imperative, is a sign of trouble at the top.

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The Wall Street Journal ran a symposium over the weekend about world reactions to Obama’s Syria turnaround. I wrote the contribution on Israel. Many aspects of the “turnaround,” especially the enhanced role of Russia in the Middle East, impact Israel. But I focused instead on Obama’s earlier “turnaround”: his decision to seek authorization for military action from Congress. Excerpt:

What Israelis found alarming was the way Mr. Obama shifted the burden of decision. Every one of Mr. Obama’s Syrian maneuvers was viewed as a dry run for his conduct in a likely future crisis over Iran’s nuclear drive. That’s where the stakes are highest for Israel, and that’s where Israelis sometimes question Obama’s resolve.

Israelis always imagined they would go to Mr. Obama with a crucial piece of highly sensitive intelligence on Iranian progress, and he would make good on his promise to block Iran with a swift presidential decision. So Mr. Obama’s punt to Congress over what John Kerry called an “unbelievably small” strike left Israelis rubbing their eyes. If this is now standard operating procedure in Washington, can Israel afford to wait if action against Iran becomes urgent?

Israel’s standing in Congress and U.S. public opinion is high, but the Syrian episode has shown how dead-set both are against U.S. military action in the Middle East. Israel won’t have videos of dying children to sway opinion, and it won’t be able to share its intelligence outside the Oval Office. Bottom line: The chance that Israel may need to act first against Iran has gone up.

Why was Obama’s recourse to Congress so alarming? Israel has long favored strong presidential prerogatives. That’s because the crises that have faced Israel rarely ever leave it the time to work the many halls of Congress. Israel discovered the dangers of presidential weakness in May 1967, when Israel went to President Lyndon Johnson to keep a commitment—a “red line” set by a previous administration—and Johnson balked. He insisted he would have to secure congressional support first. That show of presidential paralysis left Israel’s top diplomat shaken, and set the stage for Israel’s decision to launch a preemptive war.

2013 isn’t 1967. But Israel long ago concluded that the only thing as worrisome as a diffident America is a diffident American president—and that a president’s decision to resort to Congress, far from being a constitutional imperative, is a sign of trouble at the top.

“Not worth five cents”

What did Israel want from Lyndon Johnson in May 1967? On May 22, in the midst of rising tensions across the region, Egypt’s president Gamal Abdul Nasser announced the closure of the Straits of Tiran to Israel-bound ships headed for the port of Eilat, effectively blockading it. More than a decade before that, in 1956, Israel had broken a similar Egyptian blockade by invading and occupying the Sinai. Israel withdrew in 1957, partly in return for an American assurance that the United States would be “prepared to exercise the right of free and innocent passage [through the Straits] and to join with others to secure general recognition of this right.” In 1967, when Nasser reimposed Egypt’s blockade, Israel asked the United States to make good on that 1957 commitment, by leading an international flotilla through the Straits to Eilat. Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban flew to Washington and met with Johnson in the Yellow Oval Room on May 26 to make Israel’s case.

Johnson astonished Eban by pleading that he didn’t have sufficient authority to act. The U.S. memorandum of conversation summarized it this way:

President Johnson said he is of no value to Israel if he does not have the support of his Congress, the Cabinet and the people. Going ahead without this support would not be helpful to Israel…

We did not know what our Congress would do. We are fully aware of what three past Presidents have said but this is not worth five cents if the people and the Congress did not support the President…

If he were to take a precipitous decision tonight he could not be effective in helping Israel… The President knew his Congress after 30 years of experience. He said that he would try to get Congressional support; that is what he has been doing over the past days, having called a number of Congressmen. It is going reasonably well…

The President said again the Constitutional processes are basic to actions on matters involving war and peace. We are trying to bring Congress along. He said: “What I can do, I do.”

Abba Eban later gave a more devastating version of the “five-cent” quote: “What a president says and thinks is not worth five cents unless he has the people and Congress behind him. Without the Congress I’m just a six-feet-four Texan. With the Congress I’m president of the United States in the fullest sense.” According to the Israeli record of the meeting, Johnson also acknowledged that he hadn’t made his own progress on the Hill: “I can tell you at this moment I do not have one vote and one dollar for taking action before thrashing this matter out in the UN in a reasonable time.” And Johnson ultimately put the onus on Israel to get Congress on board: “Unless you people move your anatomies up on the Hill and start getting some votes, I will not be able to carry out” American commitments.

Johnson must have understood the impression he was leaving upon Eban. In the Israeli record, there are two remarkable quotes: “I’m not a feeble mouse or a coward and we’re going to try.” And: “How to take Congress with me, I’ve got my own views. I’m not an enemy or a coward. I’m going to plan and pursue vigorously every lead I can.” That Johnson twice had to insist that he wasn’t a coward suggested that he realized just how feckless he must have seemed.

In his two memoirs, Eban recalled his astonishment at this apparent abdication:

I remember being almost stunned by the frequency with which [Johnson] used the rhetoric of impotence. This ostensibly strong leader had become a paralyzed president. The Vietnam trauma had stripped him of his executive powers….

I’ve often ask myself if there was ever a president who spoke in such defeatist terms about his own competence to act…. When it came to a possibility of military action—with a risk as trivial, in relation to U.S. power, as the dispatch of an intimidatory naval force to an international waterway—he had to throw up his hands in defeat…. On a purely logistical level, this would have been one of the least hazardous operations in American history—the inhibitions derived entirely from the domestic political context. The senators consulted by Johnson were hesitant and timorous. They thought that the possibility of Soviet intervention, however unlikely, could not be totally ignored.

The revulsion of Americans from the use of their own armed forces had virtually destroyed his presidential function. I was astonished that he was not too proud to avoid these self-deprecatory statements in the presence of so many of his senior associates. I thought that I could see [Defense] Secretary McNamara and [chairman of the Joint Chiefs] General Wheeler wilt with embarrassment every time that he said how little power of action he had.

The tactical objective, the cancellation of the Eilat blockade, was limited in scope and entirely feasible. It was everything that the Vietnam war was not. Lyndon Johnson’s perceptions were sharp enough to grasp all these implications. What he lacked was “only” the authority to put them to work. Less than three years after the greatest electoral triumph in American presidential history he was like Samson shorn of his previous strength…. With every passing day the obstacles became greater and the will for action diminished. He inhabited the White House, but the presidency was effectively out of his hands.

After the meeting, Johnson wrote a letter to Israeli prime minister Levi Eshkol, reemphasizing the primacy of the Congress: “As you will understand and as I explained to Mr. Eban, it would be unwise as well as most unproductive for me to act without the full consultation and backing of Congress. We are now in the process of urgently consulting the leaders of our Congress and counseling with its membership.” This was actually an improvement on the draft that had been prepared for him, and which included this sentence: “As you will understand, I cannot act at all without full backing of Congress.” (Emphasis added.) That accurately reflected the essence of the message conveyed to Eban, but Johnson was not prepared to admit his total emasculation in writing. There is a debate among historians as to whether Johnson did or didn’t signal a green light to Israel to act on its own. It finally did on June 5.

“Too big for business as usual”

In light of this history, it’s not hard to see why Israel would view any handoff by a president to the Congress in the midst of a direct challenge to a presidential commitment as a sign of weakness and an indication that Israel had better start planning to act on its own. It’s not that Israel lacks friends on the Hill. But in crises where time is short and intelligence is ambivalent—and such are the crises Israel takes to the White House—Israel needs presidents who are decisive.

In seeking congressional authorization for military action in Syria, President Obama did not negate his own authority: “I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization.” But “in the absence of any direct or imminent threat to our security,” and “because the issues are too big for business as usual,” he went to the Congress, so that “the country” and “our democracy” would be stronger, and U.S. action would be “more effective.”

Views differ as to whether the precedent just set will bind Obama (or his successors) in the future. But Israel understandably has no desire to become the test case, if it should conclude that immediate action is needed to stop Iran from crossing Israel’s own “red lines.” Iran’s progress might not pose an imminent threat to U.S. security, and a U.S. use of force would definitely be “too big for business as usual.” So if those are now the criteria for taking decisions out of the Oval Office, Israel has reason to be concerned.

And they may well be the criteria. In 2007, then-Senator Obama was asked in an interview specifically about whether the president could bomb suspected nuclear sites in Iran without a congressional authorization. His answer:

Military action is most successful when it is authorized and supported by the Legislative branch. It is always preferable to have the informed consent of Congress prior to any military action.

As for the specific question about bombing suspected nuclear sites, I recently introduced S.J. Res. [Senate Joint Resolution] 23, which states in part that “any offensive military action taken by the United States against Iran must be explicitly authorized by Congress.”

That resolution went nowhere, but it establishes a strong presumption that Obama would insist on securing Congressional authorization for the future use of force against Iran. Depending on the timing, that could put Israel in an impossible situation similar to that it faced in May 1967. Perhaps that’s why one of Israel’s most ardent supporters, Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz, has proposed that Obama ask Congress now to authorize the use of force against Iran. Senator Lindsey Graham has proposed just that, without waiting for Obama: “I’m not asking the president to come to us; we’re putting it on the table, because if we don’t do this soon, this mess in Syria is going to lead to a conflict between Israel and Iran.”

Whether such an authorization-in-advance is feasible is an open question. In the meantime, there’s always the very real prospect that history could do something rare: repeat itself. In 1967, Israel faced a choice between an urgent need to act and waiting for a reluctant Congress to stiffen the spine of a weakened president. Israel acted, and the consequences reverberate to this day. Faced with a similar choice in the future, it is quite likely Israel would do the same.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Time for Kerry to Stop Pretending on Syria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Obama Mythology Has Been Shattered

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Obama Lost More than Style Points in Syria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Syria Deal Faces Long Odds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Losing the Middle East to Putin Isn’t Victory

Give Andrew Sullivan some credit. Unlike other supporters of President Obama, he isn’t trying to spin defeat as victory this week. At least he’s not doing it in the way the administration is trying to sell it to the American public. Most liberals are trying to pretend the president’s acceptance of Russia’s bogus offer to negotiate the surrender of Assad’s chemical-weapons stockpile is a sign of U.S. strength, or at least offers the possibility of a diplomatic escape from a conflict in Syria few Americans want any part of. But such transparent deceptions and spin are not for the proprietor of the Daily Dish. Instead, Sullivan believes Obama’s surrender of American influence in the Middle East is actually a good thing. Rather than pretending that Putin’s end zone dance in the New York Times yesterday was meaningless, he thinks the Russian authoritarian’s triumphant mood is good for American national interests and bad for those of Russia.

The problem with this formulation isn’t just that the United States has important national security interests in the Middle East (a point President Obama made clear in his speech this past Tuesday) and that abandoning Israel or disregarding the human-rights aspect of letting Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies win undermines them. What’s most absurd about Sullivan’s rant is his profound misunderstand of how much Russia has to gain and how little it has to lose in taking ownership of the Middle East.

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Give Andrew Sullivan some credit. Unlike other supporters of President Obama, he isn’t trying to spin defeat as victory this week. At least he’s not doing it in the way the administration is trying to sell it to the American public. Most liberals are trying to pretend the president’s acceptance of Russia’s bogus offer to negotiate the surrender of Assad’s chemical-weapons stockpile is a sign of U.S. strength, or at least offers the possibility of a diplomatic escape from a conflict in Syria few Americans want any part of. But such transparent deceptions and spin are not for the proprietor of the Daily Dish. Instead, Sullivan believes Obama’s surrender of American influence in the Middle East is actually a good thing. Rather than pretending that Putin’s end zone dance in the New York Times yesterday was meaningless, he thinks the Russian authoritarian’s triumphant mood is good for American national interests and bad for those of Russia.

The problem with this formulation isn’t just that the United States has important national security interests in the Middle East (a point President Obama made clear in his speech this past Tuesday) and that abandoning Israel or disregarding the human-rights aspect of letting Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies win undermines them. What’s most absurd about Sullivan’s rant is his profound misunderstand of how much Russia has to gain and how little it has to lose in taking ownership of the Middle East.

Sullivan says a situation that he concedes looks like “national humiliation” for the U.S. is “good” because it avoids American involvement in more wars or even having responsibility for anything that happens there. If this withdrawal from the region winds up hurting our allies in the vicinity (especially Israel, for which Sullivan has a well-known distaste), then so much the worse for them. Any concern about the human-rights situation in Syria is mere emotionalism, as Sullivan brusquely told a distraught Christiane Amanpour on CNN last night when she had the temerity to point out Obama’s retreat meant that the body count of the victims of Russia’s ally Assad would continue to grow. Any dissent from this line is, Sullivan tells us, mere neocon dreaming about U.S. hegemony.

The writer thinks the Middle East should be lost. Putin is, he says, welcome to it, something that would allow the U.S. to concentrate on Asia and “entrenching universal healthcare” at home. Given the disastrous impact of the ObamaCare rollout on the economy, it’s doubtful doing so would help the president sell an expansion of the unpopular program. Nor does Sullivan seem to have too many ideas about how the diversion to Asia would help contain the nuclear lunatics of North Korea or fend off an aggressive China. But if he really thinks Russia’s rout of the U.S. in the Middle East would not impact its ability to exercise influence elsewhere, he’s as crazy as he is callous.

The argument is that Russia’s ownership of the Syrian conflict will wind up hurting them because it is more trouble than they can handle and the chemical weapons will wind up in the hands of Islamists who will wind up using them on Putin’s people. But what Russia is after in this gambit isn’t administration of Syria; it’s ensuring that their sole ally in the region stays in power. He won’t be caught between the warring parties since the Russian diplomatic track will enable Assad (with the assistance of Iran and Hezbollah) to take care of such details. The guiding principle of Russian foreign policy is twofold: annoy, humiliate, and defeat the United States every chance they get and thereby help rebuild the lost Soviet empire whose fall Putin still mourns. Russian adventurism in Syria won’t stop there. It will extend into Asia and cause havoc and diminish American influence there and everywhere else.

This Brezhnev-style diplomacy should also inform our view of the Kremlin’s relationship with its partners in keeping Assad afloat. The assumption has always been that Russia has as much to fear from a nuclear Iran as the West. But just as the Soviets didn’t worry much about blowback from their support of Arab terrorism in the ’70s, Putin doesn’t waste much time with concern about how the U.S. retreat he has helped engineer will encourage Iran and its terrorist auxiliaries. He rightly thinks their prime target will always be the U.S. and Israel. Iran didn’t bat an eye or protest when Putin slaughtered Muslims in Chechnya in the 1990s and he doesn’t think they will cause him any trouble in the future.

Contrary to Sullivan’s invocation of Nicolo Machiavelli’s praise of deception in a ruler, Obama’s humiliation is not a façade for a strategic retreat. Influence and prestige are fungible commodities for a great power. Even if we bought Sullivan’s idiotic premise that the U.S. no longer has any interests in the Middle East, American decline along these lines cannot be contained. An America that abandons a key region to a vicious rival and stands by impotently while atrocities that could be prevented are allowed to continue will not be able to magically resurrect its influence elsewhere.

As false as the justifications offered by most other liberals for President Obama’s lack of leadership are, they are still more connected to reality than Sullivan’s formulation. Sullivan would have us believe that defeat is really victory. But the president knows that abandoning the Middle East to Putin would be a catastrophe and therefore he and his cheering section deny that this is what he is doing. As bad as Obama’s performance has been, at least he recognizes that America has interests that must be defended. He just lacks the will or the skill to defend them. Sullivan claims these defects are virtues. It’s hard to tell which position is more risible. 

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On “Decisiveness” and Obama’s Credibility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Vladimir Putin’s Trollpolitik

One of Ronald Reagan’s favorite Soviet jokes was the one in which an American man brags that he is free to stand near the White House all day and heap scorn on President Reagan. His Russian friend counters that he is free to do the same: he can stand outside the Kremlin all day and heap scorn on President Reagan as well. The 2013 version might have Barack Obama saying he can take to the pages of the New York Times to denounce American military adventurism, as he did in 2008. Vladimir Putin would respond that he can do the same: he, too, can take to the pages of the New York Times to denounce American military adventurism.

In today’s Times, Putin does that and more. The Russian president, an authoritarian thug with blood-stained hands, lectures President Obama on his militarist posture toward Syria. If left unchecked, Putin says, Obama risks destroying the international system and poisoning the spirit of multilateral cooperation. In a condescending rhetorical flourish, Putin notes that Obama’s plans to strike Syria are opposed by world leaders, “including the pope.” This is concern-trolling at its most contrived and grating, and it is something Putin has relished turning into an art form. It permeates Putin’s disingenuous political posturing to the extent that it’s become a strategy all its own. Call it trollpolitik. Here is some of what Putin has to say “directly to the American people”:

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One of Ronald Reagan’s favorite Soviet jokes was the one in which an American man brags that he is free to stand near the White House all day and heap scorn on President Reagan. His Russian friend counters that he is free to do the same: he can stand outside the Kremlin all day and heap scorn on President Reagan as well. The 2013 version might have Barack Obama saying he can take to the pages of the New York Times to denounce American military adventurism, as he did in 2008. Vladimir Putin would respond that he can do the same: he, too, can take to the pages of the New York Times to denounce American military adventurism.

In today’s Times, Putin does that and more. The Russian president, an authoritarian thug with blood-stained hands, lectures President Obama on his militarist posture toward Syria. If left unchecked, Putin says, Obama risks destroying the international system and poisoning the spirit of multilateral cooperation. In a condescending rhetorical flourish, Putin notes that Obama’s plans to strike Syria are opposed by world leaders, “including the pope.” This is concern-trolling at its most contrived and grating, and it is something Putin has relished turning into an art form. It permeates Putin’s disingenuous political posturing to the extent that it’s become a strategy all its own. Call it trollpolitik. Here is some of what Putin has to say “directly to the American people”:

From the outset, Russia has advocated peaceful dialogue enabling Syrians to develop a compromise plan for their own future. We are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law. We need to use the United Nations Security Council and believe that preserving law and order in today’s complex and turbulent world is one of the few ways to keep international relations from sliding into chaos. The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not. Under current international law, force is permitted only in self-defense or by the decision of the Security Council. Anything else is unacceptable under the United Nations Charter and would constitute an act of aggression.

No one doubts that poison gas was used in Syria. But there is every reason to believe it was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces, to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons, who would be siding with the fundamentalists. Reports that militants are preparing another attack — this time against Israel — cannot be ignored.

It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States. Is it in America’s long-term interest? I doubt it. Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan “you’re either with us or against us.”

But force has proved ineffective and pointless. Afghanistan is reeling, and no one can say what will happen after international forces withdraw. Libya is divided into tribes and clans. In Iraq the civil war continues, with dozens killed each day. In the United States, many draw an analogy between Iraq and Syria, and ask why their government would want to repeat recent mistakes.

This is Putin just taunting Obama, speaking to the president as Obama used to speak to his predecessor. It’s difficult to know which part Obama will find most insulting. “The law is still the law” is a good one coming from the unreformed KGB gangster. The same goes for Putin’s plea for Obama to listen to his people. Then there is his professed concern for America’s allies, in which Putin suggests Obama is gambling with Israel’s safety.

This is a strong contender as well: “We must stop using the language of force and return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political settlement.” Getting accused of uncivilized behavior by Vladimir Putin is risible.

But of course this is nothing new. The difference, now, is not that Americans think Obama is a warmongering imperialist but that they don’t know what he’s thinking–and neither, it seems, does he. Putin is taking advantage of a sense of confusion not just about what the administration’s policy is but who is making that policy.

It’s useful to point out the hypocrisy in Putin’s op-ed, if only to remind Americans who they’re reading. But for the Obama administration, the point is less that Putin lied in his op-ed but that he’s a liar–that’s who they’re dealing with. Putin’s trollpolitik is not a personality quirk or an annoying habit. Instead, it should be a reminder that the Obama administration cannot trust Putin or treat him as a good-faith actor. He is a con man, and he has decided that the president of the United States is his latest mark.

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Putin Spikes the Football

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Obama’s Stirring Case Against Obama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is not a world we should accept.

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

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

How vigorously Obama now apparently disagrees with that assessment.

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Obama’s Call for Action–and Inaction

It’s hardly surprising that, given the incoherence of President Obama’s Syria policy, his prime time address to the nation on the subject made so little sense.

The first part of the speech was the kind of rousing call for action that a commander in chief would deliver right after the first bombs are falling on Damascus. Said the president: “When dictators commit atrocities, they depend upon the world to look the other way until those horrifying pictures fade from memory, but these things happened. The facts cannot be denied. The question now is what the United States of America and the international community is prepared to do about it, because what happened to those people — to those children — is not only a violation of international law, it’s also a danger to our security.”

He then proceeded to swat away one objection after another to the use of force. But here was the kicker: the bombs are not falling, nor are they likely to.

Read More

It’s hardly surprising that, given the incoherence of President Obama’s Syria policy, his prime time address to the nation on the subject made so little sense.

The first part of the speech was the kind of rousing call for action that a commander in chief would deliver right after the first bombs are falling on Damascus. Said the president: “When dictators commit atrocities, they depend upon the world to look the other way until those horrifying pictures fade from memory, but these things happened. The facts cannot be denied. The question now is what the United States of America and the international community is prepared to do about it, because what happened to those people — to those children — is not only a violation of international law, it’s also a danger to our security.”

He then proceeded to swat away one objection after another to the use of force. But here was the kicker: the bombs are not falling, nor are they likely to.

Obama concluded, in a section obviously tacked onto remarks that were no doubt already written before the events of the last 24 hours, that there are “encouraging signs” that Syria will give up its chemical weapons as part of a deal brokered by Russia. His conclusion: “I have therefore asked the leaders of Congress to postpone a vote to authorize the use of force while we pursue this diplomatic path.”

In short, the speech was a rousing call to action followed by a call for inaction–a.k.a. the “diplomatic path” which apparently, as per Moscow, does not include making credible threats of force against Assad should he fail to disarm. Obama did not even demand that Congress pass a resolution authorizing military action if the current talks don’t pan out–he simply told Congress to cool it while Putin works his magic.

What, one wonders, was the point of the speech? Was it simply that the White House had already booked the TV time and wanted to carry on regardless of the facts? Or does Obama imagine that his stern words will cow Assad into compliance even as it is obvious that opposition in Congress will not allow air strikes?

This simply makes no sense. But then neither does anything that Obama has done on Syria recently.

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