Reactions to the president’s news conference today and his comments on Syria have been swift and negative. The president did seem to move the “red line” he drew in response to the reported use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict, and he looked weak doing it. The United States needs first to verify how chemical weapons were used and by whom, the president argued. Moreover, the president said, his red line, of chemical weapon use, or “game changer” as he prefers, was not just a watershed for the United States but for the international community. True, but, again, very soft.
For some critics, the president’s path is clear: We need to check Bashar al-Assad, arm the moderates and keep Syria from becoming the next stop of the Islamic extremists’ world tour. But how possibly could the United States achieve this preferred option?
Former senator and Middle East trouble-shooter George Mitchell told NBC’s Chuck Todd Monday that those who would intervene militarily in Syria need to consider that we are in for many more years of turbulence in the Middle East. Of the world’s population today, one in five people are Muslim; in 40 years, Mitchell said, one in three will be. And this increase will come as a war within Islam is playing out between moderates and extremists. As Mitchell says, we will have plenty of chances to go to war if that is the limit of our foreign policy imagination. But how will that serve our larger strategic purpose to coexist with a turbulent and growing Islamic world?
Mitchell, who has spent as much time as anybody in the region, knows we have few good options, but that we have many bad ones. The president does, too. He knows events have long escaped our ability to control them in the Middle East. We can be a force for humanitarian support and international cooperation, and ultimately, a backstop if real lines are crossed, such as an existential threat against Israel. But in his news conference, all this context escaped the president, and he was left with the shredded parsings of his “ultimatum.”