American Elephants

A Moral Imperative to Save Face for Obama? by The Elephant's Child

What a mess the whole Syrian situation is. President Obama, in a desperate attempt to appear strong, yet avoid any military entanglements in Syria before the election, made the mistake of threatening Bashar al Assad with a “red line,” warning him of any use of chemical-weapons. That was a statement of sorts that anything short of chemical weapons would be receive no pushback. and Obama was portraying himself as weak and ineffective unless he did something.  Assad is now publicly chortling about how weak Obama is.

So now Mr. Obama is relying on his usual strategy of placing responsibility in the lap of Congress. If Republicans don’t go along, he can blame them for America’s failure, and avoid any responsibility himself. Those who do go along can face stronger primary challenges  using that vote against them. With Mr. Obama, it is always is about him, and he is above all — a political person.

There are no good answers, or even acceptable answers. Congress is asked to choose between a weak response that does nothing to end Syria’s civil war or depose Assad, or a “no” vote that harms American interests by making it clear that Obama has no support at home.

According to today’s news, apparently the weapons that were to be supplied to the Syrian dissidents have never reached them. There is much confusion about the rebels, and separating the various factions into the good guys and the bad guys. Some suggest that there are no good guys, but that is apparently not the case.

The Institute for the Study of War shows a map of the Divided Syria: (click to enlarge)

A Divided Syria
The dark grey areas are held by extremist groups like al Qaeda in Iraq, Jabhat al Nusra, an al Qaeda affiliate, and are less interested in defeating Assad than they are in holding their Islamic emirate in the north of the country. The light grey areas are a collection of groups known as the Free Syrian Army that are fighting the regime.

John Kerry elaborated what the administration has in mind, but it doesn’t tell us much.

It will not involve any boots on the ground. It will not be open ended. And it will not assume responsibility for a civil war that is already well underway. The president has been clear: Any action that he might decide to take will be [a] limited and tailored response to ensure that a despot’s brutal and flagrant use of chemical weapons is held accountable.

Apparently chemical weapons are easily made, and some of our European friends have been selling them such materials. There are other players too, of course: Iran, Israel, Russia, al Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, Saudi Arabia, and the rest of the Middle East. The idea that the above description of our action would hold Assad “accountable” and deter any future actions on his part seems a bit fatuous.

Obama is not claiming that military action will have an important effect of Syria, but rather that maintaining the international taboo against the use of chemical weapons is a moral imperative. So it is posturing, but without any real teeth. Foreign Policy says the U.S. had intelligence on the chemical strike before it was launched. But we took no action, so its not all that much of a moral imperative.

Joseph Curl, writing in the Washington Times, says it is simply a political calculation:

The first rule for President Obama: It’s all about 2014. The second rule for President Obama: See Rule No. 1.

Make no mistake: The president couldn’t care less about the plight of Syrians, the 1,500 gassed to death — including nearly 500 children. It’s all about 2014. Win the House, reign supreme.

Victor Davis Hanson summarizes the situation with his usual efficiency. “What are the president’s strategic objectives in the present mess? Does he know”

There are four general strategic options — predicated on the political fact that either the Congress will approve the operation or that the Obama administration will ignore it if it doesn’t, and that Obama is not worried about either the present absence of both public support and any militarily credible allies, and that he need not explain our primary objectives that will be made up as we go along.

Dr. Hanson also reminds us of the similar effort to restore credibility when Bill Clinton bombed an aspirin factory after the attacks on the East African embassies.

CORRECTION: Elizabeth O’Bagy who was the official at the Institute for the Study of War on whose work this piece was based has been discharged from the Institute for misrepresenting her academic qualifications. She was also, apparently, an adviser to John Kerry, but she represents the Free Syrian Army in Washington DC, and is not an unbiased source. So I don’t know if the map is correct or if the information is correct.

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