For Obama, Syria requires more than words

Walter Pincus
Reporter September 9, 2013

Preparation. Preparation. Preparation.

If there is one common complaint about President Obama and the White House staff in their dealing with the Syrian crisis, it is the lack of preparation.

International coalitions can’t be pulled together at the last minute. Getting foreign leaders to speak out on a common cause is hard. Persuading them to verbally back a military action is even harder. And to supply supporting forces? Well, Obama knows just how tough it all is.

The same challenges exist for winning American support for any post-Iraq/Afghanistan foreign military involvement. Double that for Congress, where a partisan nucleus exists that will oppose Obama regardless.

The full-court press in all those arenas should have begun right after the president drew his red line on Aug. 20, 2012.

He said, “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.”

He went further: “We have communicated . . . with every player in the region that that’s a red line for us.”

As a former senior diplomat told me Monday, back then was when the full-court press should have begun. That’s when a coalition should have been formed to be ready if and when President Bashar al-Assad crossed the line.

In March, the first claims of small uses of chemical weapons arose, and the Assad government said opposition forces were responsible and called in the United Nations to investigate. The United States was caught flatfooted and on its own had to determine who had carried out the attacks.

A month later, pushed to respond, on April 25 the White House disclosed — in letters to two senators from Miguel E. Rodriguez, White House director of legislative affairs — that the administration had been “closely monitoring the potential use of chemical weapons within Syria” and that the intelligence community had assessed “with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria.”

It was not until June 13 that the administration confirmed with a high degree of confidence that it was Syria that had employed chemical weapons in several locations, including Damascus, with up to 150 deaths.

What was done? In his letter, Rodriguez wrote that the United States was going to dramatically increase “humanitarian assistance and our support for the opposition to bring about the political transition that the Syrian people deserve.”

What about the red line?

“The United States and the international community have a number of potential responses available, and no option is off the table.”

One option of course was to go to the United Nations, where there was a guarantee of a Russian veto.

Did the White House begin coalition-building after the June 13 announcement that Assad had crossed the line? And what was done about that reference to the possible use of military force — “no option is off the table” — outside consulting with the Pentagon? Were foreign leaders briefed and commitments obtained for any further steps?

“The Obama administration will remain in close consultation with you [the two senators] and the Congress on these matters,” Rodriguez wrote.

It was a surprise to Capitol Hill when on Aug. 31 the president said he would order a limited military response to Assad’s chemical-weapons use Aug. 21 and also would seek congressional support for the operation.

Up to now, Obama’s dealing with Syria reminds me of the “My Fair Lady” song:

“Words! Words! Words! I’m so sick of words!

I get words all day through;

First from him, now from you!

Is that all you blighters can do?”

Eliza Doolitle was talking about love; I’m talking about war. Both are serious business.

I’m not sure the White House has learned its lesson either.

Denis McDonough, White House chief of staff, on Sunday repeatedly said, “Everybody believes that Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own people.” He was talking about members of Congress who have seen or heard the intelligence.

Two Republicans on Sunday talk shows left some doubt about that. Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, appearing on CNN said, “I’ve seen what they’ve shown us, and they have evidence showing the regime has probably the responsibility for the attacks. They haven’t linked it directly to Assad, in my estimation.”

Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), a vocal opponent of a Syrian attack, told CBS’s “Face the Nation,” “I think nobody rebuts the evidence we’ve been presented at the briefings, but I would also say that the evidence is not as strong as the public statements that the president and his administration have been making.”

One result is reflected in a new CNN/ORC International survey released Monday. It shows 54 percent of Americans polled believe it only “likely but not certain” that the Syrian government used chemical weapons, while 28 percent are certain. Such doubt helps lead 55 percent of those polled to say they oppose a U.S. military attack on Syrian military targets, even if Congress supports it.

Obama still has a ways to go to convince war-weary Americans and potential allies that Assad executed the horrendous attack and that he will do it again if nothing is done.

Videos and satellite images in Tuesday’s speech would help. Obama then must produce a plan that links the military operation to a diplomatic settlement — or at least leads in that direction. With the Russian offer, that may already have begun. Otherwise it will be just words.

For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage

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