Commentary Magazine


Topic: Syrian civil war

Kerry’s Self-Defeat Ahead of Syria Conference

Sometimes it seems that Secretary of State John Kerry lives in an alternate universe, one in which the Palestinian Authority seeks peace, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is liberal, Iran’s Islamic Republic seeks only to generate electricity, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a leader who for the good of humanity might give up power to an opposition against whom he maintains a military edge.

Hence, Kerry is moving full-steam ahead with plans for the “Geneva II” conference to discuss Syria’s future. Thirty-two countries—including Iran—will participate, because in Kerry world, having as many countries as possible attend a conference makes it easier to reach a solution. Even Iran will attend because, again in Kerry’s alternate reality, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps answers to Iranian diplomats.

One group will not be attending the Geneva II talks, but not for lack of desire. That group—which embraces secularism, fights actively against the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, and controls thousands of square miles inside Syria—has found its participation in Geneva II actively blocked by Kerry.

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Sometimes it seems that Secretary of State John Kerry lives in an alternate universe, one in which the Palestinian Authority seeks peace, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is liberal, Iran’s Islamic Republic seeks only to generate electricity, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a leader who for the good of humanity might give up power to an opposition against whom he maintains a military edge.

Hence, Kerry is moving full-steam ahead with plans for the “Geneva II” conference to discuss Syria’s future. Thirty-two countries—including Iran—will participate, because in Kerry world, having as many countries as possible attend a conference makes it easier to reach a solution. Even Iran will attend because, again in Kerry’s alternate reality, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps answers to Iranian diplomats.

One group will not be attending the Geneva II talks, but not for lack of desire. That group—which embraces secularism, fights actively against the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, and controls thousands of square miles inside Syria—has found its participation in Geneva II actively blocked by Kerry.

The Democratic Union Party (PYD), led by Salih Muslim, is Kurdish and runs its own autonomous government in and around Qamishli, the largest town in northeastern Syria. In its effectively autonomous zone, children attend school, businesses remain open, and women can go shopping or walk in the street without fear of kidnapping, rape, or murder. The PYD’s sin, it seems, is its affiliation with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey, a group which once waged an insurgency against the Turkish army and which the United States continues to designate a terrorist group, less on its merits and more out of deference to Turkey. Herein is the irony: the Turkish political leadership has for years engaged with the PKK, and the two sides have negotiated a ceasefire. The PYD is to Syria what the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) are to Iraq. Of course, both the Clinton and Bush administrations engaged with the KDP and PUK; they recognized it was in the United States’s interest to do so.

How sad it is that terror sponsors receive the enthusiastic embrace of the Obama administration, but those groups which not only talk about peace and stability, but also achieve it are given the cold shoulder. The PYD’s sin seems to be its neutrality: It has long claimed that the Syrian opposition is too radical, a position for which the United States has sought to punish it, even as most in Congress come to recognize the truth of that position. The State Department also claims that the PYD is pro-Assad. This is a misreading: The PYD has sought to be neutral in the conflict; that neutrality has meant keeping lines open to Assad, which is exactly what Kerry is doing at Geneva II. That Kerry and crew seek to ban the PYD and undo its success demonstrates once again the administration’s skewed values and strategic incompetence. It’s time to give the PYD a seat at the table.

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Desperate Syrian Rebels Turn to Al-Qaeda

Two profiles of Syrian rebel commanders–one in the New York Times yesterday, the other in the Wall Street Journal today–capture the changing face of the conflict.

The Times article is on the death of a “pragmatic” rebel leader, killed in a recent government air strike: “The commander, Abdulkader al-Saleh, 33, was a recognized and accessible leader in a fragmented insurgency that has few. He managed to gather ragtag local militias into the Tawhid Brigades, for a time one of the most organized and effective rebel battle groups, and to bridge the gap between relatively secular army defectors and Islamist fighters.”

The Journal article focuses on one of the foreign jihadist fighters who have become increasingly prominent as the influence of homegrown “moderates” like Saleh have declined–Tarkhan Batirashvili, an ethnic Chechen who once served in the Georgian army and who has “recently emerged from obscurity to be the northern commander in Syria of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS), an al Qaeda-connected coalition whose thousands of Arab and foreign fighters have overrun key Syrian military bases, staged public executions and muscled aside American-backed moderate rebel groups trying to topple President Bashar al-Assad.”

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Two profiles of Syrian rebel commanders–one in the New York Times yesterday, the other in the Wall Street Journal today–capture the changing face of the conflict.

The Times article is on the death of a “pragmatic” rebel leader, killed in a recent government air strike: “The commander, Abdulkader al-Saleh, 33, was a recognized and accessible leader in a fragmented insurgency that has few. He managed to gather ragtag local militias into the Tawhid Brigades, for a time one of the most organized and effective rebel battle groups, and to bridge the gap between relatively secular army defectors and Islamist fighters.”

The Journal article focuses on one of the foreign jihadist fighters who have become increasingly prominent as the influence of homegrown “moderates” like Saleh have declined–Tarkhan Batirashvili, an ethnic Chechen who once served in the Georgian army and who has “recently emerged from obscurity to be the northern commander in Syria of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS), an al Qaeda-connected coalition whose thousands of Arab and foreign fighters have overrun key Syrian military bases, staged public executions and muscled aside American-backed moderate rebel groups trying to topple President Bashar al-Assad.”

The fact that jihadist extremists are coming to the fore is utterly predictable. In fact, Saleh predicted it himself: “a Syrian insurgency with nowhere else to turn, he said nearly a year ago, would tilt toward foreign fighters and Al Qaeda.”

And why does the Syrian insurgency have nowhere else to turn? In large part because the U.S., the only country with commensurate resources, has refused to step into the vacuum and provide a counter-balance to the copious aid being provided to Bashar Assad’s odious regime by Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah. Sure, President Obama has allowed the CIA to provide some arms and training, but not very much. He has refused to provide, in particular, the antitank weapons the rebels need. Nor has he been willing to use American airpower to ground Assad’s air force and to hit regime targets–as he did previously in Libya and as Bill Clinton did in Kosovo and Bosnia.

If the U.S. had not done more in those previous conflicts, undoubtedly jihadists would have gained more of a foothold in those Muslim lands. Now that the U.S. is doing so little in Syria, the jihadists are predictably ascendant on the rebel side while Hezbollah and the Iranian Quds Force are growing increasingly powerful on the government side.

This grim outcome was not inevitable–it is the direct result of American inaction.

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How Did Pakistani Polio Enter Syria?

News that Syria now faces its first polio outbreak since the virus was eradicated there back in 1999 highlights the public health side of the tragedy. Syrians face not only horrific violence perpetrated by both the Syrian government and the Syrian opposition but also a lack of clean water and a resurgence of preventable diseases.

Disease does not simply erupt spontaneously. There is always a patient zero or a catalyst. Disease is evidence that is often illuminating. Historians of China have used medical records relating to the spread of syphilis to document early modern European trade routes.

When I was in Yemen in 1995, locals warned me (superfluously) that I should not drink the mountain well water without first boiling it. The problem? Egyptian troops intervening in Yemen’s 1962-1970 civil war found it funny to relieve themselves in wells. The result? A giardia outbreak which continues to this day.

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News that Syria now faces its first polio outbreak since the virus was eradicated there back in 1999 highlights the public health side of the tragedy. Syrians face not only horrific violence perpetrated by both the Syrian government and the Syrian opposition but also a lack of clean water and a resurgence of preventable diseases.

Disease does not simply erupt spontaneously. There is always a patient zero or a catalyst. Disease is evidence that is often illuminating. Historians of China have used medical records relating to the spread of syphilis to document early modern European trade routes.

When I was in Yemen in 1995, locals warned me (superfluously) that I should not drink the mountain well water without first boiling it. The problem? Egyptian troops intervening in Yemen’s 1962-1970 civil war found it funny to relieve themselves in wells. The result? A giardia outbreak which continues to this day.

The Syrian polio outbreak now seems not simply to be the result of the collapse of state infrastructure, but also the inflow of jihadis from polio-prone areas. According to news reports:

Polio that has crippled at least 13 children in Syria has been confirmed as being caused by a strain of the virus that originated in Pakistan and is spreading across the Middle East, the World Health Organization said. Genetic sequencing shows the strain found in Syrian children in Deir al-Zor, where an outbreak was detected last month, is linked to the strain of Pakistani origin found in sewage in Egypt, Israel and Palestinian territories in the past year.

While the World Health Organization has moved to quash speculation that Pakistani jihadists unwittingly carried the Pakistani polio strain into Syria, there are no other likely alternate explanations. Certainly, there has been no influx of Pakistani 2-year-olds into a region of Syria so engulfed in civil war. The Syrian government has jumped at that theory that Pakistani jihadis introduced the virus. And while the Syrian regime may be noxious, that does not mean they are wrong. Because scientists have also detected the Pakistani strain in Egypt, Israel, and the Palestinian territories, transmission into the Syrian outbreak zones might have as easily been transmitted via Egyptians or Palestinians fighting in Syria.

While the World Health Organization has redoubled its vaccination efforts in Syria, the Syrian outbreak originated outside. It is not easy to enter Syria, even as a jihadist joining the Syrian resistance. Fortunately, these fighters are helped by officials in neighboring countries turning a blind eye at airports alongside Syria’s borders. Perhaps it’s time for Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq to end their willingness to look the other way as unvaccinated third-world jihadis transit their countries on their way to cause mayhem in Syria.

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Assad’s Ploy

So far the news from Syria on the chemical-disarmament front has been mostly positive, even as the news in general has been glum, with fighting as heavy as ever and civilians suffering as much as ever. The Nobel-winning UN inspectors recently touted their success in rendering “inoperable” all of Bashar Assad’s chemical production facilities and in visiting 21 out of 23 declared chemical-weapons sites. But there is good cause to wonder whether Assad has declared all of his sites.

CNN’s Barbara Starr reports: “The United States is looking at new classified intelligence indicating the Syrian government may not fully declare its chemical weapons stockpile, CNN has learned. That would mean it will still have a secret cache of chemical weapons even after the current agreed-upon destruction effort is carried out.”

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So far the news from Syria on the chemical-disarmament front has been mostly positive, even as the news in general has been glum, with fighting as heavy as ever and civilians suffering as much as ever. The Nobel-winning UN inspectors recently touted their success in rendering “inoperable” all of Bashar Assad’s chemical production facilities and in visiting 21 out of 23 declared chemical-weapons sites. But there is good cause to wonder whether Assad has declared all of his sites.

CNN’s Barbara Starr reports: “The United States is looking at new classified intelligence indicating the Syrian government may not fully declare its chemical weapons stockpile, CNN has learned. That would mean it will still have a secret cache of chemical weapons even after the current agreed-upon destruction effort is carried out.”

Whether Assad has fully complied or not with his disarmament obligations remains to be seen, but there is real cause for concern that the Obama administration has such a major stake in the success of this accord–and no clear alternative, because Congress made clear it will not authorize military action–that it is in effect locked in a partnership with Assad and dare not accuse him too loudly of noncompliance.

Assad certainly seems to have gotten that message, because he is trying to leverage the chemical-weapons accord for all it is worth to enhance his own authority. Foreign Policy’s Colum Lynch reports: “President Bashar al-Assad’s government has presented the United Nation’s chemical weapons watchdog with a detailed plan for the transfer of chemical materials abroad for destruction. And according to a confidential account of the plan reviewed by Foreign Policy, it includes 120 Syrian security forces, dozens of heavy, armored trucks, and an advanced communications network linking Damascus to the Mediterranean Sea.”

Assad’s ploy is transparent–to get the West to give him more military materiel to aid the supposed process of chemical disarmament so that he can then turn around and used this enhanced capacity against the rebels. Beyond the actual war-making capacity such equipment will give Assad, the moral effect is even more important, because, if granted, his request would represent another example of the West supporting this Iranian-backed tyrant who makes war on his own people.

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The PA’s Revealing Silence on Syria

Jonathan correctly pointed yesterday to Palestinian lionization of vicious killers as an indication of cultural attitudes that make peace impossible. But there’s another indicator that I find even more revealing–the Palestinian Authority’s deafening silence about the ongoing dispossession and slaughter of its countrymen in Syria.

As journalist Khaled Abu Toameh reported earlier this month, of the approximately 600,000 Palestinians in Syria, a whopping 250,000 have been displaced, according to no less a source than senior PA official Mohamed Shtayyeh. Additionally, over 1,600 have been killed and thousands more injured. Of the displaced, most remain in Syria, but some 93,000 have fled to neighboring countries, where they are uniquely unwelcome: Palestinians have been denied entry into both Jordan and Lebanon, and even when admitted, they face discriminatory treatment. In Jordan, for instance, they are strictly confined to camps, though other Syrian refugees are allowed to move about the country freely; in Lebanon, they are subject to numerous restrictions on employment, and often live in hiding for fear of being deported.

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Jonathan correctly pointed yesterday to Palestinian lionization of vicious killers as an indication of cultural attitudes that make peace impossible. But there’s another indicator that I find even more revealing–the Palestinian Authority’s deafening silence about the ongoing dispossession and slaughter of its countrymen in Syria.

As journalist Khaled Abu Toameh reported earlier this month, of the approximately 600,000 Palestinians in Syria, a whopping 250,000 have been displaced, according to no less a source than senior PA official Mohamed Shtayyeh. Additionally, over 1,600 have been killed and thousands more injured. Of the displaced, most remain in Syria, but some 93,000 have fled to neighboring countries, where they are uniquely unwelcome: Palestinians have been denied entry into both Jordan and Lebanon, and even when admitted, they face discriminatory treatment. In Jordan, for instance, they are strictly confined to camps, though other Syrian refugees are allowed to move about the country freely; in Lebanon, they are subject to numerous restrictions on employment, and often live in hiding for fear of being deported.

Ostensibly, this is an unbeatable argument for the urgency of creating a Palestinian state: Palestinians need a country to succor their refugees from Syria. Indeed, Jews used a similar argument to great effect in persuading the world of the need for a Jewish state after the Holocaust. Even today, Israelis routinely cite the world’s refusal to accept Jewish refugees, thereby abandoning them to the Nazi killing machine, as one of many arguments for why a Jewish state remains essential: There must be one country whose doors will always be open to persecuted Jews.

Yet rather than making this argument, the PA has gone to great lengths to ignore the Syrian crisis. As Abu Toameh noted, PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s UN address in September devoted a mere two sentences to the subject, without ever even mentioning Syria by name (“This year and in the last few years, Palestine refugees continue to pay – despite their neutrality – the price of conflict and instability in our region. Tens of thousands are forced to abandon their camps and to flee in another exodus searching for new places of exile”). The rest of the speech was devoted to attacking Israel. Hence Abbas deplored the 27 Palestinians killed “by the bullets of the occupation,” but never mentioned the hundreds killed in Syria during this period; he excoriated the construction of new Jewish homes in Jerusalem, but never mentioned the wholesale destruction of Palestinian homes in Syria.

Nor are these omissions accidental–because in fact, the PA leadership doesn’t want a state to succor its refugees. If it did, it wouldn’t still be demanding that any deal allow Palestinian refugees to relocate to Israel instead of Palestine, nor would senior PA officials be publicly declaring that the refugees will be denied citizenship in a future Palestinian state. It also wouldn’t still be insisting on land swaps of no more than 1.9 percent, rather than the 4 to 6 percent needed to accommodate the major settlement blocs; it would view this minor compromise, which wouldn’t even reduce the Palestinian state’s total area, as well worth making to get a state quickly and start absorbing its refugees–just as the Jews were willing to make much larger territorial concessions in the 1930s and 1940s due to the urgent need for a state to absorb their refugees.

The Syrian crisis remains absent from Palestinian talking points because Palestinians are still far more intent on destroying the Jewish state–inter alia by flooding it with millions of Palestinian refugees–than in making the compromises needed to get a state of their own and absorb those refugees themselves. And that’s also precisely why peace remains impossible.

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Overestimating Putin

Forbes is out with its annual list of the world’s most powerful people, and the introduction leaves no doubt who tops the list this year: “Who’s more powerful: the autocratic leader of a former superpower or the handcuffed commander in chief of the most dominant country in the world?” The unsurprising list that follows puts Vladimir Putin at No. 1, with Barack Obama in second place.

But that description of the two leaders is a bit misleading. Putin is not, actually, the leader of a “former superpower.” He is the leader of one–albeit by far the most powerful–of the fifteen states that came into being with the dissolution of the former superpower, the Soviet Union. The Russian republic itself was not a superpower. It’s why stories like this New York Times piece from earlier this week even exist:

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Forbes is out with its annual list of the world’s most powerful people, and the introduction leaves no doubt who tops the list this year: “Who’s more powerful: the autocratic leader of a former superpower or the handcuffed commander in chief of the most dominant country in the world?” The unsurprising list that follows puts Vladimir Putin at No. 1, with Barack Obama in second place.

But that description of the two leaders is a bit misleading. Putin is not, actually, the leader of a “former superpower.” He is the leader of one–albeit by far the most powerful–of the fifteen states that came into being with the dissolution of the former superpower, the Soviet Union. The Russian republic itself was not a superpower. It’s why stories like this New York Times piece from earlier this week even exist:

Mr. Rogozin, wrapping up a visit [to Moldova] last month, let fly a threat about the coming winter in this impoverished former Soviet republic, which is entirely dependent on Russian gas for heat. “We hope that you will not freeze,” he said.

The squeeze was just beginning. … Russian officials, citing vague health concerns, banned Moldovan wine, one of the country’s most important exports.

The bullying, which the Kremlin denies, is not directed at Moldova alone. Ahead of a conference next month where the European Union plans to advance political and trade accords with several ex-Soviet republics, Russia has been whispering threats and gripping throats, bluntly telling smaller neighbors that they would be better off joining Russia’s customs union with Kazakhstan and Belarus.

The frantic push to retain influence, with its echoes of cold war jousting, reflects the still-palpable fury among Russian officials over NATO’s expansion into the former Soviet sphere and a desire to halt a similar, eastward extension of European economic power. The heavy-handed tactics have wreaked economic chaos throughout the region in recent months.

Whatever influence Putin projects over the post-Soviet sphere, he has already lost some of the countries to NATO. And even among the nations on which he can still exert pressure, it’s doubtful Putin wants to reconstitute the Soviet Union, even in reduced form. What he wants is likely much smarter than that: as the CEO of “Russia, Inc.” Putin would love to have his cake and eat it too by lording over countries without having to govern them.

Because Putin’s quest is non-ideological–he has no interest in spreading some kind of Communist revolution abroad–it is also limited. Gone are the days when far-off governments install an ideological carbon copy of their Russian paymasters and take orders directly from Moscow. Yet it’s also difficult to argue with the proposition that the American president, too, has seen his influence deteriorate.

That’s the gist of Steve Forbes’s piece at the magazine’s website defending the list. Forbes has received plenty of criticism for ranking Putin over Obama. Steve Forbes has responded by accusing his critics of conflating these presidents with the countries they lead. Russia could not plausibly top a list of the most powerful nations in the world, and certainly wouldn’t be ranked above the United States, he noted. But that doesn’t mean Obama necessarily has to be ranked above Putin. After all, the American president doesn’t always top this list: in 2010, it was China’s Hu Jintao.

Though Forbes’s argument is not quite convincing enough on the matter of Putin v. Obama, he is on more solid ground when he writes:

Internationally, however, Obama is the weakest President of the post-World War II years. Even the in-over-his-head Jimmy Carter was more of a factor in foreign affairs than Barack Obama. Diplomats are still astonished, for instance, at how little prep work Obama engages in before international conferences. He doesn’t arrive with much of an agenda, nor does he interact with other leaders in advance to line up support. He more or less just shows up.

This is deliberate. …

And this gets to the real danger in President Obama’s deliberately weak overseas-power posture. He may wish he could take the U.S. off the world stage, but the world won’t let him; events will erupt that will force U.S. action. One such possibility is Iran reaching nuclear-bomb capability. Do you think Israel today, after Obama’s red line to Syria and his groveling before Iran, really believes that this White House has its back?

Even if Putin is not more powerful than Obama, the illusion that he is stems from Putin filling a vacuum in world affairs. Obama has made a choice about the proper role of the United States in the world. He has chosen the perception of weakness over the projection of power.

But I also think Forbes understates the degree to which we really can conflate presidents with their countries. When Putin protects and enables Iran’s nuclear program, it’s by using his country’s seat on the Security Council or exporting nuclear experts. Likewise, Putin isn’t personally fighting in the streets of Aleppo; he is aiding the Syrian regime’s war effort by mobilizing his country’s resources, not testing out his judo skills on the al-Nusra Front.

And that, in turn, should take Putin down a peg. In many ways the West has more to fear from a weak Russia than a strong one. The festering Islamist insurgency in the Caucasus; the vast swaths of abandoned or mostly ungoverned territory; the vulnerable borders; the astonishing corruption; the widespread health crises and epidemics; and of course the paranoid autocrat steering the ship. Putin doesn’t belong at the top of the list of the world’s most powerful people. But he does serve as a reminder of who steps forward when the American president steps back from the world stage.

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Kerry’s Syria Conference Is Falling Apart

The desire to be a great–or at least memorable–secretary of state is a classic “be careful what you wish for” bind. When William Seward finally agreed to accept Abraham Lincoln’s offer to serve as his secretary of state, Seward told his wife “It is inevitable. I will try to save freedom and my country.” Seward thought he should have been president instead, much as James Byrnes a century later thought himself entitled to succeed FDR.

Seward is, in the end, remembered as a great secretary of state and someone who indeed at least helped save freedom and his country. But it was the Civil War, tearing the country apart, that presented the opportunity: you can’t save something that doesn’t need saving. You also can’t be “present at the creation” of a new world, as was Dean Acheson, unless the old world had crumbled at your feet. And so it is somewhat unfair to compare secretaries of state to their predecessors; yet it is also, for this reason, a red flag when secretaries of state try to “look busy” in the absence of major developments.

That is exactly what Hillary Clinton did, in racking up the miles for the sake of being able to say she racked up the miles, which stood in place of impressive accomplishments, of which she had none. And now John Kerry is doing something similar, in pushing obsessively for peace conferences that no one believes will have any impact but which will allow Kerry to have his picture taken with lots and lots of people. Unfortunately for Kerry, he can’t even do that if he throws a peace conference and no one shows up. Yochi Dreazen reports:

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The desire to be a great–or at least memorable–secretary of state is a classic “be careful what you wish for” bind. When William Seward finally agreed to accept Abraham Lincoln’s offer to serve as his secretary of state, Seward told his wife “It is inevitable. I will try to save freedom and my country.” Seward thought he should have been president instead, much as James Byrnes a century later thought himself entitled to succeed FDR.

Seward is, in the end, remembered as a great secretary of state and someone who indeed at least helped save freedom and his country. But it was the Civil War, tearing the country apart, that presented the opportunity: you can’t save something that doesn’t need saving. You also can’t be “present at the creation” of a new world, as was Dean Acheson, unless the old world had crumbled at your feet. And so it is somewhat unfair to compare secretaries of state to their predecessors; yet it is also, for this reason, a red flag when secretaries of state try to “look busy” in the absence of major developments.

That is exactly what Hillary Clinton did, in racking up the miles for the sake of being able to say she racked up the miles, which stood in place of impressive accomplishments, of which she had none. And now John Kerry is doing something similar, in pushing obsessively for peace conferences that no one believes will have any impact but which will allow Kerry to have his picture taken with lots and lots of people. Unfortunately for Kerry, he can’t even do that if he throws a peace conference and no one shows up. Yochi Dreazen reports:

Secretary of State John Kerry is at odds with several senior State Department officials over whether to press ahead with plans for a high-profile peace conference next month that is designed to put negotiators from Syria’s main opposition groups and the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad into the same room for the first time.

Kerry is strongly committed to holding the talks and has spent the past several days prodding key Syrian opposition figures to take part in the negotiations. But according to several senior State Department officials, some of Kerry’s top advisors believe that the conference should be called off because the most important of those opposition leaders are unlikely to come.

“The only person who wants the Geneva conference to happen is the secretary,” a senior U.S. official told The Cable. “Who’s going to show up? Will they actually represent anyone? If not, why take the risk?”

Here is a helpful hint for Kerry: if the State Department thinks a conference is useless, it’s probably useless. As the article notes, this isn’t Kerry’s fault: the splintering of the Syrian rebel factions has made it nearly impossible to provide realistic representation for the rebels at such a conference.

Even if the interests of those rebels could be represented, they would likely choose not to participate. That’s because they want Bashar al-Assad to facilitate a transitional government and then step aside. Assad won’t do that, so the rebels are being realistic: if Assad won’t give up power, what could possibly be accomplished at a conference intended to get him to voluntarily agree to give up power?

Additionally, recent events have only encouraged Assad to hold on. The American threat of force was exposed as empty: President Obama’s one-eighty on striking Syria revealed a president desperate for a way out of his own bluff. It also put Assad in control and enabled him to buy time by making the bloodthirsty tyrant a partner in ridding Syria of chemical weapons.

The rebels, then, can be forgiven for thinking the U.S. is only exacerbating their disadvantage by making Assad suddenly indispensable–or close to it. Hence the rebels’ increasing support for making a commitment to Assad’s departure a precondition for talks. If the West isn’t committed to removing Assad, what hope could the rebels possibly have for Kerry’s negotiations? It was hoped by some in the administration that Obama’s threat of force would better enable a diplomatic resolution to the conflict. But his hasty retreat from that threat had the opposite effect:

The disarray among the Syrian opposition leaves Kerry in a bind. The Obama administration has decided not to intervene militarily in Syria or make much of an effort to train or equip the rebels. U.S. backing in the peace talks is about all Washington is willing to provide. The rebel groups have to decide whether that’s enough.

Kerry’s best hope is that when presented with only one option, the rebels will take it. Officials at the State Department are being surprisingly clear-eyed about the chances the rebels will grasp at that straw, even if Kerry isn’t.

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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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