Two years ago, Obama first stated that Assad had to go, "step aside". A year ago, Obama stated that he has "indicated repeatedly that Assad needs to step down" and added that it was "very clear … that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch o' chemical weapons movin' around or being utilized", and that would "change my calculus … change my equation." Some apologists have said that the "changed calculus" comment fell far short of the hard response that Obama's critics have cited him as saying, but they ignore his remarks of a few months later, in December 2012, after strong evidence that the chemicals had been "movin' around", when he warned that "the world was watching" and that if Assad used chemical weapons, "there will be consequences and you will be held accountable."
The contrast with Obama's actions in Libya is striking. In his "lead from behind" attempt at foreign strategy with the European allies more dependent on Libyan oil, he plainly stated that the Qaddafi regime would be toppled within a month. But the Libyan dictator continued on for six more months, finally brought to account by accident after a French Air Force fighter strafing run on a small convoy revealed that he was one of the passengers, and the wounded Qaddafi was killed within moments by a surging mob around his wreck. Obama was compelled to act, he said, by the prospect that the Libyan Army, closing in on Benghazi, could be responsible for a thousand deaths if we didn't respond to this humanitarian crisis. Obama and his people have roundly criticized Bush for not anticipating the insurgent uprising in Iraq at the end of the initial hostilities, but they and the press have given a pass to the fact that Libya has been abandoned, with no pretext of an attempt to stand up a viable government. Libya has become a Mediterranean version of Somalia, and as Somalia had its Blackhawk Down incident that exposed Clinton's disregard of his duties as Commander in Chief, so Libya had its Benghazi consulate attack, the difference being that we have an accounting for Somalia but only a continuing cover-up in Libya.
So with the prospect of a thousand deaths in Libya being a reason for involvement, the obvious question remains that 100,000 deaths in Syria somehow doesn't rise to the level of his rationale for intervention. Excuses include that the situation is more complex (true, but sufficient?) and Syria has a more sophisticated air defense system supplied by the Russians, including some Russians who are manning it. Somehow, that hasn't been a deterrent to Israel, who has bombed an almost-complete nuclear reactor and an arms convoy headed to Lebanon.
Chemical weapons use in Syria was claimed several times after Obama's stern warnings, most notably near Aleppo in March, but then Obama began waffling, saying that we didn't have a "chain of custody" as to who had used them, that we would have to await a UN study of the problem. Even those with only a passing knowledge of the history of the UN would agree that a move like that practically consigns the problem to a black hole.
The attacks mounted in number and severity – Aleppo again in April, Homs and Adra in May, and the administration begin to assert that we have assurances that Assad's forces are involved. We would now supply military aid to the "moderate" rebels, though to date no weapons or similar support has been sent.
Then came the attack on 21 August on a rebel-held area on the eastern edge of Damascus, which killed an estimated 1429 people. The administration stated that it was convinced that Assad's forces launched the attack. Along with other evidence not disclosed, one source cited a recording of a conversation between higher headquarters and the local Syrian Army commander which included an initial refusal of the commander on the scene to fire on civilians, followed by a threat of death if he did not. Another source indicates that the attack was far more intense than ordered, a mistake in magnitude. New indications are that Basher al-Assad has lost direct control of the weapons, that his hot-headed, high-ranking brother Maher had hijacked the system and authorized the attack.
Doubts were initially raised: perhaps the attack was staged, the victims only actors, the symptoms not matching the textbook explanations. That could be theoretically possible for some of the footage that I saw, but the scene of one adolescent boy, gasping for breath and flailing, was enough to convince me that his case, and likely the others, were genuine. I also agree, skipping a long explanation, that the attack was not a rebel provocation.
Obama was brought to account for his previous declarations: his red line was surely crossed. What serious response would we see? Obama has become a victim of his own words; his credibility is now called into question, which he conflates as the credibility of the United States in a l'etat cest moi sort of way. Something must be done. His attempt in Sweden to claim that the "red line" was not his but the world's was inartful at best.
John Kerry came out in full-throated battle cry that the attack was a "moral obscenity". Chemical weapons use was "undeniable", and President Obama, he said, "believes that there must be accountability for those who would use the world's most heinous weapons against the world's most vulnerable people." One would think that he was referring to attacks "in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan", or to his American compatriots in Viet Nam, or to Saddam Hussein. It must be difficult for Kerry to sort it all out, assuming that he pays much attention to that.
Obama consulted overseas allies for a joint response. Both he and David Cameron agreed that a "serious response" was necessary, but then Parliament, in a move not seen since 1798, removed a British option for a military response in Syria. François Hollande was quick into the verbal breach and agreed that France must respond, encouraging Obama, then demurred that he would consult the Parlement français (though not required) while soon saying that he would support an American response if it was forthcoming (though now even that is questionable). Other than Kerry saying in Congressional testimony that some Arab states would pony up some cash for us to defray our expenses (essentially phoning in their support, an Arab form of condescension), there is no overt support of an American strike. Debbie Wassermann Shultz, if she is to be believed (and why start now?), claimed that "There are dozens of countries who are going to stand with the United States, who will engage with us on military action and also that back us 100 percent." Yet when pressed, she claimed that all of them were classified and refused to name a single one.
Obama was losing his parade. In a Rose Garden announcement, he said that, though he had the power to order an attack on his own, he would seek the approval of Congress. General Dempsey, he said, assured him that an attack on Syria could be postponed for a month if need be. The urgency of the issue instantly deflated, coupled with the fact that Obama was content to wait for Congress to reconvene the following week rather than call it back into session. Cynics (such as I am) could see him angling for an excuse about his hip-shot red lines fading away because he expected that the Republicans would take the bait, fighting him on the issue. Speaker Boehner and Majority Whip Cantor quickly disabused him of that notion, stating that they supported his option of a military strike, providing a unified front in this case of American overseas priorities, while saying plainly that it was Obama who would have to make the case for Congress and the American people. The question then became truly bipartisan and was placed back into Obama's lap, and Obama's attempt to pass the buck to the Pentagon and the Republicans has plainly failed. Whatever support he had in Congress has steadily deteriorated, even among his staunchest supporters.
Obama and Kerry and other spokespersons kept defining downward the character of our response in hiccups of 'policy as you go': there would be no "boots on the ground" (an instant cliché); it would be "limited in duration and scope"; involving no "regime change"; the attack would be a "pinprick"; no, we "don't do pinpricks"; the attack would be a "very limited, very targeted, short-term effort that degrades [Assad's] capacity to deliver chemical weapons without assuming responsibility for Syria's civil war" and (Kerry's most bewildering comment) it would be "unbelievably small", though Kerry also said "Nothing focuses the mind like the prospect of a hanging." In joint statements before Congress, Kerry said that we are not going to war, but Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel referred to the war plans for Syria.
The desperation was beginning to show: an unidentified State Department spokesman described the result of the degrading of Syria's capability as eating Cheerios with a fork instead of a spoon. Marie Harf, one of the talking heads of the State Department briefings was asked that, if an authorization from Congress would mean that America was speaking with one voice (she agreed), then would a denial of authorization by Congress also mean that America was denying the authorization with one voice as well? Her reply was "Not at all, because the President obviously would still believe that we should do it." Incredibly, the voice of the American people counts only if it is in agreement with Obama.
The Americans and French immediately started to begin codifying the idea within the context of the UN, but Putin scrapped that idea, again showing that he is the one in charge now. Another chink emerged late yesterday when Putin insisted that an American pledge of no military action against Assad was a further requirement. What was it Obama said about this being his idea along with Putin? Yet another humiliation.
With this, we have the beginnings of the tried and true strategy that has proven quite successful before. There will have to be talks to determine how such an agreement is to be designed. Some organization will have to be created to oversee the project. The actors will have to be chosen. A system for how the weapons are to be secured, how they will be accounted for, where and how they will be removed and transported, how they will be neutralized – all must be decided by an international cast of characters that promises to take years, if not decades.
Saddam Hussein took on the world and won throughout the Clinton administration, defying every UN sanction, shooting at our aircraft, co-opting the easily corruptible UN to siphon billions from the Oil for Food program, laughing on state television as they portrayed the UN inspectors stymied at the front gates of Iraqi bases as truck loads of material escaped out the back. Qaddafi of Libya later gave up his WMD program after the fall of Iraq scared him into doing so, but there was still far from an accurate accounting of his weapons and capabilities when he finally succumbed eight years later. The Iranians are stringing along the West during interminable talks about their nuclear weapons program, even going so far as to publically proclaim that we are being hornswoggled, with absolute impunity other than the bother of a computer virus that merely slowed their progress.
Besides the endless talking with no progress, there will be the Castro option as well. The 1962 settlement between Kennedy and Khrushchev that ended the Cuban Missile Crisis contained the much ballyhooed withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba (and the less known withdrawal of American missiles from Turkey and Italy), but also the American pledge to no longer attempt regime change and topple Castro and the Communist government. Putin's insistence of ending the American military threat to the Assad regime is much the same, an assurance that the Russian-protected Syrian dictatorship will survive and thrive politically.
The accounting process will be a dodge as well. The Russians want to be sure that evidence of earlier massive Soviet assistance in the enormous Syrian stockpile of chemical weapons is covered up, and the nagging question of the Iraqi chemical weapons and the large convoys from Iraqi ammo dumps into Syria prior to the American invasion in 2003 will remain a mystery, or at least hard fought over by our own Left who must insist on their gospel that Iraq had no WMDs whatsoever despite clear evidence to the contrary.
A question that will soon arise will concern Israel: since the raison d'être of the Syrian chemical weapons program was as a deterrent to the Israeli nuclear program, Syria and Russia will insist on negotiating a solution to avoid leaving Syria strategically 'defenseless'.
Russia and Putin's position in the Middle East will gain immensely almost overnight. Iran and its proxies will solidify their control in the region as they will be expected to ably assist Assad in his eventual victory.
It is hard to imagine, though it is certainly possible, how Obama could project a more vacillating and feckless position, not so much against the chemical warfare attack in Syria but also to the concept of America as the power that can forge a coalition of the willing to right wrongs against humanity, or even rightfully respond to a war crime. He is a dilettante in foreign policy, committing American power, which he has tried to "fundamentally transform" into a more compatible neighbor to his fellow 'citizens of the world', in a hip-shot fashion that is contradictory from one crisis to another.
From his New Beginnings apology in Cairo, to his silence during the 2009 Iranian street demonstrations against the mullahcracy, to his abandonment of any influence in post-war Iraq, to his self-contradiction of an Afghan strategy (less troops than needed but then bring them home by a date certain, with no thought to the ramifications), his blatant ball-spiking over the bin Laden mission, his preference to avoid capture of terrorists and the always-fluid definition of what constitutes 'torture' in favor of killing them instead by lobbing in drone strikes, his insistence that al Qaeda was finished despite clear evidence to the contrary (still stonewalling and covering up the Benghazi attack), the welcoming of the 'Arab Spring' with no attempt to influence the events in our favor, the fumbling attitude to the government crisis in Egypt (with the millions of demonstrators against Obama and his ambassador almost as much as they are against Morsi and his attempt to overthrow their constitution), dragged into the 'lead from behind' operation in Libya (leaving Libya as an al Qaeda-rich environment), and now, after two years of empty threats and hand-wringing, he gave us his speech last night that appealed to our better angels (mentioning 'children' seven times) but failed to give any clue about what it is we are supposed to accomplish with a strike on Syria.
My background and experience drives me to seriously include military options in regards to stark geopolitical problems involving national security, but I expect to see a clear objective, a means to accomplish it, and a plan to follow through to that end with full support from the Congress, the people, and the military itself when lives are committed. The President has the power as Commander in Chief to commit our military in short-term operations that affect that national security, subject to approval of Congress – mere authorization without a formal declaration of war is sufficient.
Obama has failed to establish any of that. Instead, he is emblematic of the warning of St Paul: "For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?" (1 Corinthians 14:8)