For a guy who has worked for the last few years at low-balling the complex challenge of Syria, President Barack Obama has uncannily found just the way to make it bigger than ever.
It's been queasily fascinating to watch Obama since the British Parliament shot down Prime Minister David Cameron's seemingly boilerplate motion to join the U.S. in an impending retaliatory strike against the Syrian regime. Burned by the Iraq War and presumably not unmindful of the Snowden revelations, the Brits blew off the latest iteration of conclusive yet classified intel, opting out of the next Middle Eastern adventure. Besides, in the days of a sophisticated Empire, T.E. Lawrence took Damascus at the head of an Arab army.
Since the House of Commons shocker, Obama shocked his team and the country by turning to Congress to authorize an attack. And has struggled ever since to articulate what he hopes to accomplish with that attack.
Secretary of State John Kerry, perhaps the leading advocate of this still ill-defined mission, testifying Tuesday at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on intervention in the Syrian civil war, declared that use of chemical weapons is not Obama's "red line," as Obama himself repeatedly said it was, but "humanity's red line." Right now, only France is proposing to join the U.S. in striking a blow for enforcing humanity's red line.
It wasn't Kerry's finest day. He first refused to rule out American "boots on the ground" -- a term of art meaning conventional ground force units (not small special ops teams) -- in his Senate Foreign Relations appearance. "I don't want to take off the table an option that might or might not be available to a president of the United States to secure our country," he said. (Obama had previously ruled out "boots on the ground.") Kerry later labeled skeptics of intervening in Syria "armchair isolationists."
Aside from the "boots on the ground" near debacle, Kerry and Hagel, joined by Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman General Martin Dempsey, tried to articulate the mission for the Obama administration's proposed attack on Syria.
Hagel: "Our military objectives in Syria would be to hold the Assad regime accountable, degrade its ability to carry out these kinds of attacks and deter it from further use of chemical weapons."
Kerry offered that the missile strikes would have the "downstream" effect of limiting Assad's overall military capacity, with Dempsey agreeing that the goal is to weaken the regime.
Obama himself previously said that the missile strikes would constitute "a shot across the bow" of the Assad regime. Actually, that is a naval term describing a warning shot that does not actually hit the opposing ship. Hard to believe that is what Obama is trying to say. So, unless he plans to have the Navy fire off a lot of cruise missiles that deliberately miss, what Obama said himself about his goal in Syria is simply irrelevant.
Which leaves us with the mission as defined by Messieurs Kerry, Hagel, and Dempsey.
But the plan still looks awfully vague to me, and could mean a two-month air and missile campaign against the Assad regime. (That would move quite a ways in the direction of the regime change John McCain has long prized.) Its aims, especially, are quite vague, yet still quite expansive.
Which is a diplomatic way of saying that Obama's mission in Syria is either decidedly half-baked or stated in very disingenuous terms.
Of course, it is distressingly possible that Obama's team doesn't really know what it is trying to accomplish now in Syria.
After all, a stuttering Obama administration -- deeply critical of Congress and deeply skeptical of Syrian involvement -- is suddenly, full-throatedly, all about getting Congress to agree to intervene in Syria. Obama, who suddenly backed away from a seemingly imminent retaliatory strike on Syria this past Saturday, is now in the midst of a full-court press on Congress to gain approval he doesn't need for intervention he shied away from.
With widespread doubt about its claims and no front-line allies on what was in theory a slam dunk case of very limited humanitarian intervention, the Obama team may be drifting into a debacle even as it engages in a furious blur of activity to spin up rationales for a US military offensive. An offensive, it must be noted, that polling shows the American people do not want.
One player who does seem to know what he wants is John McCain, Obama's frequently bitter 2008 presidential rival who has re-emerged lately as the old maverick of yore, crossing partisan aisles to get something, anything done in a ridiculously gridlocked Washington.
And what does McCain want in Syria?
Well, he wants us in the middle of the Syrian civil war. McCain, who has dramatically crossed into Syria to meet with rebel leaders, wants to get rid of Assad. Even though hard-core jihadists allied with and even a part of Al Qaeda make up some of the rebel force.
What did Obama agree to in order to gain McCain's seemingly momentary support -- McCain has been on and off the plan, such as it is, a couple of times -- over the weekend? McCain says he made it clear to the president that our intervention must "reverse the situation on the battlefield." In particular, McCain wants an air campaign "to degrade Syria's air defenses."
That's pretty vague, too, but what McCain is saying and what Hagel and Kerry laid out as the mission aren't really all that different.
After all, at what point would we know, as Hagel -- McCain's close friend before falling out over Iraq -- puts it that we have accomplished our mission to "hold the Assad regime accountable, degrade its ability to carry out these kinds of attacks and deter it from further use of chemical weapons?"
Why, we'll know it when we announce it, of course.
Maybe that's why McCain, who pulled himself off Obama's plan yesterday after endorsing, voted for it today as it won narrow approval in Senate Foreign Relations.
Kerry, who delivered very impassioned talks last week about attacking Syria even as Obama himself was getting ready to pass the ball off to Congress, insisted that in urging a wide mandate for military attacks, "President Obama is not asking America to go to war."
He followed that by brushing aside concerns about retaliation by the Assad regime and its potent allies.
"If Assad is arrogant enough, and I would say foolish enough, to retaliate to the consequences of his own criminal activity, the US and its allies have ample ways [of responding] ... without going to war."
What does that mean? Sanctions?
Let's be clear. If we blow up a lot of Syrians and Assad's forces and/or allies retaliate by blowing up a lot of Americans, we aren't going to respond by seizing the defense minister's Swiss bank account. That's not the way this works. We will match brutality with brutality, to public effect. We won't match it with finesse. If we were able to succeed with finesse, we wouldn't be in this situation.
We are in this situation because Assad is prevailing in his civil war, Russia is determined to stand behind its longtime ally, and Russia and China refuse to allow the US to use humanitarian intervention as a rationale to intervene in the internal affairs of other nations.
It seems to me that a president who was truly serious about the use of chemical weapons crossing an utterly unacceptable red line in barbarous behavior would have launched the retaliatory strikes days before the British Parliament ever voted on the matter. It's nice but not necessary to have the Brits alongside and Russia and China were always going to veto at the UN Security Council.
If your intel is good and you've previously declared that you will pull the trigger if the behavior occurs, pull the trigger.
So what triggered Obama's big behavioral shift? The White House is now saying he was thinking about it for days, but it's clear that last Thursday brought a stunning development in the form of the most dramatic parliamentary rebuke to a British prime minister seeking the ability to wage military operations since Lord North was defeated in 1782 following that trouble in the North American colonies. The House of Commons simply lost confidence in its prime minister over his conduct of the war against the American Revolution and pulled the plug.
In the latest and by far most dramatic setback to his authority on geopolitical matters, British Prime Minister David Cameron conceded defeat on his plan to have British forces join the U.S. in a set of strikes against the Assad regime.
Ironically, it is Cameron who has played arguably the leading role in the West in advocating military intervention on the side of the Syrian rebels. He got the European Union to drop its arms embargo this past spring, only to have his own parliament block his government from sending any arms to the rebels.
Cameron's 13-vote loss came with the case against Assad proving, at least to Britain's parliament, to be substantially less than ironclad.
Arguments that UN inspectors have been allowed in too late to find any definitive intelligence from the August 21 attack had also proved to be questionable, as the inspectors routinely assess sites weeks and months after the fact to considerable effect.
Cameron misread his parliament, he misread his party, and he misread his public. In the process, he ran up against the negative legacy of Tony Blair, the once incredibly popular Labour Party prime minister (and favorite of mine) Cameron modeled himself on to a certain extent, whose insistence on backing the play of the Bush/Cheney administration on Iraq infuriated much of Britain and ruined Blair's premiership. Cameron also ran up against Obama's emerging credibility gap on security issues.
Does this mean that Britain can't be an important geopolitical player? Not at all. It does mean that the blank check for the US in the "special relationship" has been torn up.
The US and UK bid to get the UN Security Council to approve any action against the Assad regime also failed, with Russia and China promising a veto and so little support elsewhere on the UN Security Council that Washington and London opted not to have any vote taken.
While Russian President Vladimir Putin had been rather quiet in terms of public statements, it emerged late last week that he has dispatched two of the Russian Navy's most important warships to the eastern Mediterranean as a potential counter to the contingent of American guided missile destroyers on station there now in advance of any order to launch cruise missiles. That US contingent of cruise missile-equipped destroyers had just been increased to five.
I doubt that the two new Russian ships could defeat this contingent of missilers, which in any event is backstopped by at least one aircraft carrier battle group. But there are a number of other Russian ships already in the vicinity. I'm still a little unclear on the correlation of forces, but my guess, as always, is that the US Navy would prevail in any fight. However, even having such a fight would be a colossal political failure.
With the Brits out of the picture, will America go it alone? France has signaled that it will join in the fray. And what about those Sunni Arab states so concerned about the Alawite Assad staying in power? Maybe they'll pay for this exercise. According to Kerry, that offer is on the table.
For something that is supposed to be a clear-cut and clearly limited humanitarian intervention, undertaken for the purpose of drawing a bright line against the use of chemical weapons, the coalition of the willing is remarkably small.
Why massacring fewer civilians who are on one side of a civil war -- which Assad is clearly winning, incidentally, which raises the question of why he would do it, if he did -- than the number of civilians killed by Egypt's military government in putting down protests on behalf of Egypt's only democratically elected government is somehow a greater offense against morality is something Obama does not address.
Perhaps he'd rather not argue that killing people with chemicals is worse than shooting them and blowing them up. After all, that's baby boomer-style moralism and Obama is not a boomer.
Perhaps he'd rather fire off some cruise missiles and move on. If so, he shouldn't have waited around for a vote he didn't need, that of the British parliament, and a vote he could never get, that of the UN Security Council. Because sometimes it really is possible to make something complicated even more complicated than it needs to be.
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