Yesterday’s U.S. missile attack on Syria prompted by Assad’s use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians clarifies just how inept and feckless President Obama’s handling of foreign policy was.
In an article today in the reliably progressive and Democratic Party-boosting The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg writes,
“President Obama’s foreign policy doctrine, like many foreign policy doctrines, was contradictory at times, and it sometimes lacked coherence.”
1. At times?
2. Sometimes lacked coherence?
3. Notice the obligatory “like many foreign policy doctrines” to cushion the blow. Journalists are in permanent denial over just how epically awful the first black President’s administration was.
Goldberg eventually gets around to Obama’s “decision, in 2013, to go back on his promise to punish the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons on civilians. Early in the Syrian civil war, Obama publicly drew a red line concerning Assad’s behavior, but later decided to forgo military strikes, even after being presented with near-definitive proof that Assad had crossed the red line in grotesque fashion. “ This inadequate description intentionally leaves out the dispiriting details of that fiasco. Here is what Obama said in August of 2013 when the first “red line” appeared:
“We cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people. We have been very clear to the Assad regime — but also to other players on the ground — that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus; that would change my equation….We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region that that’s a red line for us and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons.”
Now, lawyers and grammarians may argue over what “a red line” means, what constitutes “use” and “a whole bunch,” and what the President considers “enormous consequences.” None of that matters. What matters is what the statement was understood to mean around the world, and it was widely understood to mean this: If chemical weapons are used against the Syrian people by Assad, the United States will act decisively. Last week, reliable evidence indicated that indeed chemical weapons had been used, and that the “red line” had been crossed.
Obama’s response? Double-talk, backtracking and word-parsing:
- The President to reporters Friday with Jordan’s King Abdullah in the Oval Office: “What we have right now is an intelligence assessment. And as I said, knowing that potentially chemical weapons have been used inside of Syria doesn’t tell us when they were used, how they were used. Obtaining confirmation and strong evidence, all of those things we have to make sure that we work on with the international community. And we ourselves are going to be putting a lot of resources into focusing on this. And I think that, in many ways, a line has been crossed when we see tens of thousands of innocent people being killed by a regime. But the use of chemical weapons and the dangers that poses to the international community, to neighbors of Syria, the potential for chemical weapons to get into the hands of terrorists — all of those things add increased urgency to what is already a significant security problem and humanitarian problem in the region. So we’re going to be working with countries like Jordan to try to obtain more direct evidence and confirmation of this potential use. In the meantime, I’ve been very clear publicly, but also privately, that for the Syrian government to utilize chemical weapons on its people crosses a line that will change my calculus and how the United States approaches these issues. So this is not an on or off switch.”
- A White House official to reporters Thursday: “I think what the Assad regime needs to know is that we are watching this incredibly closely. Were he to undertake any additional use [of chemical weapons], he would be doing so under very careful monitoring from us and the international community. There should be no mistaking our determination not just to get to the bottom of these reports, but to send a message … that Bashar al-Assad and his regime will be held accountable for these types of actions. We’re going to be methodical, rigorous and relentless … so we can establish exactly what happened…all options are on the table in terms of our response…If we reach a definitive determination that the red line has been crossed … what we will be doing is consulting closely with out friends and allies … to determine what the best course of action is.”
So those “enormous consequences ” of the “red line” being crossed is that the United States will start consulting with friends and allies?
Well, yes, in a word.
Later, Obama denied that he had drawn such a line, then, upon being embarrassed by critics, he had John Kerry announce that the administration would ask Congress for authorization to launch a “pin-prick,” “incredibly small” attack on Syria to show the “red line” wasn’t a bluff. The move—what exactly is the point of a missile strike that you say in advance won’t do much harm?— met with widespread ridicule, and deservedly so. The pin-prick strategy was abandoned when Russia’s Putin saw an opportunity to seize world influence and good will at US expense. In exchange for the U.S. dropping its threatened, sort of, military action on Syria, the Russians would convince Assad to give up his chemical weapons stockpiles. Chemical agents were shipped out of Syria for destruction, and Putin triumphantly announced that he had persuaded Assad to get rid of his nerve gas. Somehow, the news media allowed Obama to spin this—the US looks weak, Putin is a peacemaker— into a foreign policy triumph.*
Obama was widely criticized at home and abroad—particularly by the leaders of many U.S.-allied nations—for behavior interpreted as feckless and weak, but he later told me, in one of the interviews I conducted with him for a 2016 article on his worldview, that he was “very proud of this moment.”
“The perception was that my credibility was at stake, that America’s credibility was at stake,” Obama explained. “And so for me to press the pause button at that moment, I knew, would cost me politically. And the fact that I was able to pull back from the immediate pressures and think through in my own mind what was in America’s interest, not only with respect to Syria but also with respect to our democracy, was as tough a decision as I’ve made—and I believe ultimately it was the right decision to make.”
That’s right: Barack Obama put the credibility of the United States on the line, a red line, did not follow through on his words, allowed Russia to crow about its diplomatic skill, and was proud of it. After all, there were no more chemical weapons in Syria, right?
“We struck a deal where we got 100 percent of the chemical weapons out,” Secretary of State John Kerry said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in July 2014. Obama National Security Advisor Susan Rice told NPR the same thing in January of this year, and you know how trustworthy SHE is. PolitiFact “fact-checked” Kerry and decided that he spoketh the truth.
Funny that with all those chemical weapons were gone, Assad still managed to kill so many people with nerve gas anyway. Amazing, really. Today PolitiFact had to register an official “Oops!” and retracted it’s “Mostly True” rating of Kerry’s 100% declaration:
We don’t know key details about the reported chemical attack in Syria on April 4, 2017, but it raises two clear possibilities: Either Syria never fully complied with its 2013 promise to reveal all of its chemical weapons; or it did, but then converted otherwise non-lethal chemicals to military uses.
One way or another, subsequent events have proved Kerry wrong. In fact, international investigators concluded last year that the Syrian government had gamed the system.
Gee, what a surprise. But I bet Obama is still proud. Concludes The Atlantic:
“The events of the past week, culminating in the decision by President Obama’s successor to launch a punitive strike on a Syrian air base in retaliation for Assad’s continued use of chemical weapons against civilians, prove a number of points, some that reflect well on Obama, and some that do not. The first is that the 2013 Obama-Putin deal to disarm Assad of his chemical weapons was a failure. It was not a complete failure, in that stockpiles were indeed removed, but Assad kept enough of these weapons to allow him to continue murdering civilians with sarin gas. The argument that Obama achieved comprehensive WMD disarmament without going to war is no longer, as they say in Washington, operative.”
Wait, did I miss something? What part of this history reflects well on Obama? Journalists really do say the damnedest things to try to cover for Obama. “It was not a complete failure, in that stockpiles were indeed removed, but Assad kept enough of these weapons to allow him to continue murdering civilians with sarin gas.” What??? What difference does it make that some stockpiles were removed if the remaining stockpiles were used to gas children? Can we agree that the loved ones of the 86 civilians killed by sarin have good reason to think that Obama’s masterstroke was a miserable and predictable failure?
* Incredibly, just a few months later, Obama had the gall to draw another imaginary line regarding the Ukraine.