Commentary Magazine


A Syria Policy Clear as Mud

The administration is now in the tenth month of its Benghazi investigation, with no signs of it ever ending. Nine and a half months ago, President Obama told the UN the Benghazi attack was an “assault on America” and that he would be “relentless” in bringing the killers to justice, but so far no action has been taken. The administration’s investigation into Assad’s game-changing, red line-crossing use of chemical weapons in Syria is entering its third month, while Hezbollah and Iran threaten to end the game before the investigation is complete.

At yesterday’s State Department press conference, a reporter noted that a week ago France had provided additional evidence of Assad’s use of chemical weapons and asked spokesperson Jen Psaki for a response. That produced a remarkable colloquy:

MS. PSAKI: Well, I don’t have any new updates for you. I can say that it is because we take chemical weapons and their potential use so seriously that we need to fully investigate, and why we’re taking every step to do just that. You’re familiar with the steps we’re taking, of course —

QUESTION: I’m not familiar. What’s exactly you are doing right now? It has been two months that you have been using this exact same line when you are asked about the chemical weapons.

MS. PSAKI: Well, it’s never been about a deadline self-imposed by you or by anyone else. This is about – been about finding the facts and getting to the bottom of the facts, [blah, blah, blah for 82 more words].  

QUESTION: So it’s been a week now since you got the French evidence and you’re saying that you’re still not done, you’re still not satisfied? …

MS. PSAKI: We’re not going to evaluate it in public, but if there was a change in our policy —

QUESTION: No, no, I’m not asking you to evaluate … I’m just saying you still haven’t made that determination?

MS. PSAKI: There has not been a change in our policy.

QUESTION: Okay. So then logically, we should infer that you guys looked at the French stuff and said, “Eh, not — ”

MS. PSAKI: I wouldn’t – I would caution you against inferring anything.

QUESTION: Well, then you want to tell us where you stand? … And you will recall that it wasn’t just the French that came out and said they had incontrovertible evidence.

MS. PSAKI: That’s true.

QUESTION: It was also the Brits.

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: So if you guys have taken a look at the evidence which you have – you’ve had now for a week, and … I think that the observer is left to conclude that you have decided that the evidence that you got from the French wasn’t – didn’t hit the mark.

MS. PSAKI: Well, Matt, you’re making a lot of conclusions. There’s no change in our policy. I’m not going to read out what we think of the information we received from the French or the British or any other country. This is being analyzed, of course, and looked at seriously by a team internally, but I have no change in policy or approach to announce.

QUESTION: Okay. But … correct me if I’m wrong – the approach still is that if chemical weapons use can be – is proved to a certainty or to a degree with which you’re confident that it is – that is accurate, that that is a game-changer —

MS. PSAKI: Correct.

QUESTION: — and that a game-changing means a policy shift, correct?

MS. PSAKI: That is – the President said it is a redline, it is a game-changer. What that means in terms of the options, as you know, I will leave that to them to discuss.

QUESTION: Well, does changing the game mean – I mean, to me, that means that – that would signal – it would be a harbinger of a policy shift. Am I incorrect?

MS. PSAKI: I don’t want to get ahead of where we are, which is we’re not at that point.

QUESTION: So a game-changer doesn’t necessarily change the game. Is that what you’re saying?

MS. PSAKI: Well, Matt, the President himself —

QUESTION: Because I don’t get it then.

MS. PSAKI: The President himself, and the Secretary has repeated, have said – let me just finish – that this is a redline, that if it’s crossed there are a number of options for them to consider. But we’re not at that point yet, so I don’t want to get ahead of what it means when we’re not at that point yet. We haven’t crossed —

QUESTION: Okay … you seem to be implying that one of the options is to do nothing, is to change nothing. Is that an option?

MS. PSAKI: Again, I’m not going to analyze the President’s options. They’re expansive. They’re – he’s asked his national security team to look into them.

QUESTION: All right. I understand. But it seems to me the Administration has been about as clear as mud on this, on what it means. And I just want it —

MS. PSAKI: Some mud is clear.

The colloquy may serve as a summary of some of the premises underlying the administration’s policy: some mud is clear; some red lines aren’t red; some game-changers don’t change the game; some sets of options include the option to do nothing; some investigations never end; sometimes keeping all options on the table means never having to choose one; and sometimes people who say they don’t bluff, bluff.  

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