May 5, 2013

Syria and President Obama: Decision Time…Sort Of

by Hal Gershowitz

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Not since World War I, during which an estimated 1,300,000 people were slaughtered by poison gas, has the free world worried more about the use of chemical and biological weapons.  Syria, one of only six nations in the world that has refused to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention, is known to have them and, it appears, has probably used them against Syrian rebels in the Civil War currently raging there.   On Thursday, April 25, the White House confirmed in a letter to Senators John McCain and Carl Levin that the U.S. intelligence community now believes that “the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin.”  That comports with similar claims by the French, British and Israel.  President Obama, drawing a red line in the sand, warned that the use of chemical weapons by Syria would be a “game changer”. This strong warning was reminiscent of a similar admonishment the President leveled at Iran regarding its nuclear weapons program when he warned, “As President of the United States, I do not bluff.”

While we do not underestimate the dangers that abound in the deteriorating situation in the Middle East, we would suggest that there is a precariously thin line between vacillating and bluffing.  Surely those same Iranian leaders at whom the President directed his I’m not bluffing warning are now watching to see whether President Obama is, in fact, bluffing regarding Syria at whom he directed the game changer remark.

What does it appear that President Obama is going to do given the largely reliable reports that the chemical weapons have already been used?  Well, he is going to send the report to the United Nations where it can be endlessly debated among all those governments who are hostile to the United States and beaten to death with studies and prevarications before it is finally vetoed by Russia or, perhaps, China.

Mr. Obama “has strived mightily” (to quote The Wall street Journal), to avoid intervening in Syria, despite his repeated demands that Mr. Assad “must go.”  The Administration’s U. N. gambit looks like one more way to avoid doing something it warned it would do if chemical weapons were used.  World leaders, like poker players, who are exposed as bluffers tend to have their bluff called again and again, with ever more dangerous consequences.

Some U.S. officials remain unconvinced that chemical weapons were used by Syrian forces, and an internal Administration intelligence briefing to senior leaders Friday morning did not contain conclusive evidence to the contrary.  Officials said the specter of the intelligence errors that preceded the Iraq invasion are haunting the debate over Syria.  Fair enough.

However, a number of leading Democrats and Republicans, including Senator John McCain and Senator Dianne Feinstein have urged the White House to more aggressively respond to the reports of chemical weapons.  After all it was Mr. Obama who described those weapons and their use as a “red line” that Washington would not accept being breached.  Last week, however, he said the assessments were “not an on or off switch.”

Instead, Mr. Obama now promises that he is pressing for a comprehensive U.N. investigation that can credibly evaluate the evidence and establish what took place.  In a world in which there are few limits on war’s brutality, chemical weapons have since World War I been the exception.  Yet, now there is growing evidence that Mr. Assad is the first known leader to use chemical weapons since Saddam Hussein used them to murder his own people.

So what will happen at Turtle Bay, the UN headquarters?  The U.S. will need permission from Syria’s protectors in Moscow and Beijing merely to begin an investigation, and if such a probe does get launched, investigators are unlikely ever to reach the site of the attacks. Syria has already rejected the idea of inspectors, demanding evidence before they will cooperate in any inquiry, the purpose of which would, of course, be to determine whether such evidence exists.  Of course, several months, if not years, down the road proof of the attacks will be all‑but impossible to come by.

“This message about American bluffing won’t be lost on Iran,” says The Wall Street Journal.  Iran has refused to bend on its nuclear program despite claims by Secretary of State John Kerry that time is running out.  It also won’t be lost on Israeli leaders, who can’t afford to let Syria’s chemical stockpiles spread to its other enemies in the region.

We found it startling when, on Meet the Press last week, NBC’s chief White House correspondent, Chuck Todd, said the Administration regrets President Obama’s claim that this would be a “red line” adding “They didn’t want to go public last week that they had this early evidence” and only did so because “they knew Congress was going to get this briefing and it was all going to get out.”  In effect, Mr. Obama’s own claims have now caused him problems.  Mr. Obama has, to some extent, lost control of his own principle.  He said it was a “red line”, now it is more like a pink line.  He probably wishes he had never said it.

We commiserate with the President given the petard on which we have been hoisted, and we certainly are not arguing that the United States get itself involved in yet another foreign conflict. There is, however, a very important imperative here. We must prevent the spread of these awful weapons into more irresponsible and unstable hands than those of even Mr. Assad’s.  Our worst nightmare would be to see some al-Qaeda-linked group grab them.  We probably will, sooner or later, need to establish a no fly zone; we simply need to bring the Syrian massacre to an end.  It is affecting the entire Middle East.  There is enough difficulty in the Middle East without having Syria, Lebanon and other countries in the neighborhood involved in another war complicated by weapons of mass destruction in maniacal hands.

As Anne Marie Slaughter put it in her recent op-ed in The Wall Street Journal:  “The world does not see the complex calculations inside the White House ‑‑ the difficulty of achieving any positive outcomes in Syria even with intervention, the possible harm to Obama’s domestic agenda if he plunges into the morass of another conflict in the Middle East.  The world would see Syrian civilians rolling on the ground, foaming at the mouth, dying by the thousands while the United States stands by. Mr. President, how many uses of chemical weapons does it take to cross a red line against the use of chemical weapons?  That is a question you must be in a position to answer.”

Events in the area may soon preempt debate. As we finalize this essay, Israel (with apparent U.S. concurrence) has reportedly mounted an air attack in Syria on a convoy of ground-to-ground missiles being transported from Iran to its proxies in Lebanon, Hezbollah. Other unconfirmed reports claim Israel has attacked Damascus airport, and destroyed aircraft fuel tanks, Syrian army ammunition storerooms, the army’s runway and a civilian cargo plane that had arrived from Iran.

When the President drew the proverbial red line in the sand in this very dangerous game of geo-political poker, he evidenced an inside straight. Referring the matter to the United Nations for study, is laying down a pair of deuces.

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One response to “Syria and President Obama: Decision Time…Sort Of”

  1. mark j levick says:

    While we are drawing red lines that keep moving, Iran continues to support Assad, send “game changing” weapons to Hezbollah through Syria and pursue production of a nuclear weapons. This after five years of economic sanctions and warning that we are not bluffing when we say Iran will not be permitted to build nuclear weapons and two years of watching Syrian rebels go from regime haters to Al Quida. We have in fact elected a voyeur in chief who watches as the World turns and reacts only when politics so require. He had no policy on Egypt, Tunisia, Mali or Libya and has none on Syria. Now he finds himself stuck watching Israel protect itself from Iran and its Syrian and Hezbollah proxies. It’s a sad commentary on the state of US foreign policy when that is a good thing. Given his track record it’s likely to be only a matter of time before Obama manages to screw up doing nothing. Hopefully he won’t inadvertently arm Al Qaeda so those fine folks can overthrow Assad and take his chemical weapons before the Israeli’s can stop them. It’s clear that he won’t.

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