Moving Back From The Red Line, And Back In Time, Too

This morning Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the U.S. and Russia have reached agreement on resolution of the Syrian chemical weapons problem.  Under the agreement, Syria must turn over an accounting of its chemical weapons within a week, inspectors will arrive in Syria in November and begin to seize and destroy the weapons, and the destruction is to be completed by mid-2014.  The agreement will be “backed by a U.N. Security Council resolution that could allow for sanctions or other consequences if Syria fails to comply.”

With the agreement, the United States has backed away from President Obama’s “red line” that use of chemical weapons would produce immediate military consequences.  It’s been an awkward retreat, as I’ve pointed out in prior postings, but it recognizes reality — there simply is no international appetite for joint military action, and there is enormous opposition, both domestically and internationally, to the United States taking unilateral action.  I was opposed to the United States taking unilateral action, so I am glad that the Obama Administration ultimately came to its senses.  The use of chemical weapons in Syria is an international problem, not an American one, and the international community, collectively, should deal with it.

There are a lot of questions about this agreement, of course.  Our past experience with international weapons inspectors — in North Korea, Iran, and elsewhere — isn’t exactly cause for supreme confidence in their ability to handle the destructive ambitions of rogue states.  How in the world do international inspectors find and safely destroy chemical weapons stores in the midst of a raging civil war?  How does anyone trust the Assad regime, which denied having chemical weapons until a week ago, to honestly identify and produce all of its chemical weapons caches?   And we can’t lose sight of the fact that this agreement does nothing to end the suffering of the Syrian people who are trapped in the middle of a bloody fight among a regime that wants to hold onto power at all costs and a gaggle of “rebels” that undoubtedly include al Qaeda terrorists.

There’s another very interesting aspect to the agreement announced today.  It was negotiated by only two parties — the United States and Russia.  Syria was not part of the talks, nor were China, or France, or Great Britain, or other members of the UN Security Council, or the Arab League.  Apparently Russia is expected to deliver the agreement and cooperation of the Syrians, as if Syria is a kind of vassal state, and the U.S. is expected to bring the rest of the Security Council into line.  It reminded me of the bipartite, Cold War world I grew up in, where the U.S. and the Soviet Union led the two competing factions in the world and met occasionally at summit meetings to resolve international problems.  It’s odd to see this apparent return to those days.  I wonder how China and the other states in our increasingly diverse world feel about that?

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Offhand Ultimatums

The issue of the United States’ response to the apparent use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government has been on the front burner for weeks now.  After fruitless efforts to build an international coalition, followed by vows to go it alone, then by a decision to seek congressional approval, it seems late in the game for a new proposal.  But that’s what happened yesterday.

Secretary of State John Kerry, in response to a question at a news conference, said Syria could avert a U.S. attack by placing its chemical weapons under international control — whatever that means.  The Obama Administration said Kerry’s response was a “rhetorical argument” that wasn’t meant to make a diplomatic overture, but that was how it was treated.  Russia, Syria, and others in the international community immediately expressed support for the idea, as did congressional Democrats who don’t want to vote on whether to authorize the President to use military force.  By the end of the day, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced that the Senate vote on the issue would, in fact, be delayed.  And when President Obama last night sat for interviews in a TV blitz designed to build support for a limited strike, he was responding to the news, rather than making it.  In view of the reaction to Kerry’s comment,  the President said he would put plans for a military strike on hold if Syria put its weapons stockpile under international control — although he expressed skepticism it would happen.  Of course, the obvious question is:  if the President is skeptical, why would the Secretary of State make the proposal in the first place?

Tonight the President is supposed to make a speech to the American people about the Syrian issue.  Perhaps he will take the opportunity to explain his Administration’s confusing approach to the issue, with the American position seemingly swaying in the wind created every time John Kerry speaks.

The President and his supporters profess to be mystified by why Americans aren’t supporting their policy on Syria, whatever it is.  It’s not that Americans aren’t sickened by the use of chemical weapons.  Instead, it’s that this Administration has little credibility when it says that America needs to act, alone if necessary, to address the situation.  We don’t understand why this should be our job, and we simply don’t credit the Administration’s increasingly outlandish promises — like Secretary Kerry’s statement yesterday that the military effort needed to “degrade” the Assad regime’s chemical weapons capabilities would be “unbelievably small.”   We also see what has happened in Libya and Egypt and don’t believe that some kind of thread-the-needle air strike can “degrade” chemical weapons capabilities without creating more chaos in an already chaotic region.  The credibility gap isn’t helped by the Administration’s shifting positions and heedless issuance of offhand ultimatums that apparently weren’t intended to be ultimatums in the first place.

Amateur Hour

I can’t help but reach the conclusion that the Syrian situation has been badly handled by the White House and the State Department.

From the President’s early comments that purported to draw a “red line” if the Syrian government used chemical weapons, to the announcements that the U.S. would be involved in an imminent strike after claiming to have incontrovertible evidence of Syria’s use of gas against its own people, to Great Britain’s embarrassing refusal to become involved in any action, and finally to President Obama’s abrupt decision to seek Congressional approval for some kind of action against Syria, the Obama Administration seems to be making it up as it goes along. The President now needs to resort to what the New York Times describes as “the most extraordinary lobbying campaign of Mr. Obama’s presidency” to try to convince lawmakers to support the Administration’s plans and avoid a humiliating loss in Congress that would further undermine the President’s credibility abroad.  In the meantime, even the President’s supporters think his performance has been “embarrassing” and the Syrians feel like the President’s decision to reverse course is a victory of sorts.

This blundering means that the problem goes beyond Syria and its use of chemical weapons to raise much broader issues.  President Obama often seems to think that his rhetorical powers are so extraordinary that if he just gives a speech, everything will change — but that’s not how things work in the world.  He should never have drawn the “red line” without knowing that he would be supported, in Congress and in the world at large, in taking action if Syria crossed it.  Obviously, he didn’t do so.  Now, his credibility, and the credibility of the United States as a whole, is at stake.

Thanks to those mistakes, we’ll never have the ability as a country to have a free discussion about whether to intervene in Syria or, as Secretary of State John Kerry puts it, engage in “armchair isolationism,” because the congressional debate will be colored by comments, like those of Senator John McCain, that the failure to back the President’s hasty words with action could be “catastrophic.”  Such comments recognize that the Syrian chemical weapons issue, tragic as it is for the Syrian people, is a small blip on America’s geopolitical screen.  The much bigger and more important issues are what might happen if China or Russia — or Iran or North Korea — feel that the President’s words mean nothing.  Once he loses credibility with our adversaries it will never be fully regained.

I happen to think we shouldn’t intervene in Syria, and I don’t care whether a blowhard like John Kerry calls me an “armchair isolationist” or not.  As a country, America needs to address this issue and decide what our role in the world will be and make some hard choices about our vital interests in view of our finite economic resources.  Now we may be cornered and forced into taking ill-advised, poorly defined action in a country where our national interests really aren’t implicated because the President didn’t think before he talked.  Indeed, Kerry’s remarks yesterday suggest that the Obama Administration wants to leave open the option of sending our ground troops into Syria — which seems like an extraordinarily bad idea in just about every way.

These are an amateur’s unfortunate mistakes, but mistakes that could have real, painful consequences for our country nevertheless.