President Barack Obama raised the bar for military intervention in the civil war in Syria, saying that not only the U.S. but the international community must first agree that chemical weapons were used by the Syrian regime.
Mr. Obama’s comments at a news conference Tuesday made clear that he wasn’t poised to act unilaterally and suggested he would look for an international consensus in deciding whether President Bashar al-Assad’s regime used chemical weapons before committing military forces. In doing so, Mr. Obama made the prospects of a military response more remote.
This latest bit of stalling is absurd. France, Britain and Israel already believe chemical weapons were used. Is President Obama waiting for Russia to agree? China? This is not multilateralism; it’s hiding behind the United Nations’ skirt, and it will engender contempt by our foes.
Now word comes that Obama, after months and months of pleading from outside foreign policy experts and the Syrian rebels, will make a decision on sending lethal aid to the Syrian rebels. But in a few weeks. It’s a pathetic afterthought that hardly is commensurate with the “game changer,” that is, the use of chemical weapons.
Recall how many times Obama said it was “unacceptable” for Iran to get nuclear weapons. Now you have to wonder if he really meant that it is only unacceptable if the U.N. security council believes that the red line has been crossed and sanctions are hopeless. He is making himself a bit player on the world stage, eroding America’s credibility and empowering countries (e.g. China and Russia) whose interests and values do not align with ours.
So now, according to his press conference, to decide on action against Bashar al-Assad we need criminal law-style “chain of custody” (when exactly did the crate of sarin leave the palace grounds?) plus the particulars (How much sarin was used? To which the only response is that any is too much). And on top of all that, the countries that have blocked stronger measures against Assad must agree with his crime scene inspection.
Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute voiced the sense of disgust felt by foreign policy hawks. She wrote:
What have they seen? A red line that isn’t a red line. A president that will avoid action even if it makes him look the fool. A world indifferent to the plight of the Syrian people. Who are the decisive powers in the Middle East now? Qatar, of all places, which supports the Salafis wherever found; and Iran, which is stoking sectarian violence wherever possible.
Short answer to the question of what will follow Obama’s CSI-like examination of the forensics? Nothing. We’re going to have to wait for the EU arms embargo on Syria to end this summer, when France and the UK will step in and do their best to help the better guys beat both Assad and al Qaeda in Syria. It will be too little, very late.
Obama looks foolish frequently on domestic policy (e.g. sequester hysteria, losing on anti-gun legislation), but when he makes America look foolish on the international stage that is cause for alarm.
My colleague Dana Milbank observed that at the Tuesday news conference the president was ” frustratingly passive, as if what happens in Congress is out of his hands. It’s the president’s job to lead, and to bang heads if necessary, regardless of any ‘permission structure.’ Obama seemed oddly like a spectator, as if he had resigned himself to a reactive presidency.” What’s more, to the outside world, to borrow the president’s phrase, it looks like the president already decided to “just pack up and go home.”