After a week or so of political whiplash, the country heard directly from President Obama as he tried to explain his policy. The speech was exceptionally revealing in the logical disconnect that plagues his policy: Chemical weapons use is beyond the pale and different than any weapon. We cannot let it go on. We have a national interest in acting. But I would ask Congress to hold off on voting for me to do anything. We’ll consider a deal to have Assad turn over his weapons. But remain in power.
Several other disturbing inconsistencies were noteworthy. First, he talked about aiding rebel forces. However, virtually no aid has arrived. Second, he claimed that everything changed on Aug. 21, when massive use of chemical weapons was reported. However, his secretary of state in testimony confessed they had been used many times before Aug. 21. Why was it not essential for us to act months ago? And third, Obama said the action would be limited and swore off “boots on the ground,” yet assured us this would be no “pinprick.” This makes our response even more muddled and provides Assad with all the assurance he needs that even if the U.S. were to use force (highly unlikely now) he would survive unscathed.
The president is paralyzed because the first part of his argument, one which conservatives wholeheartedly agree with, does not match his call for inaction or, in the best case scenario, a Russian brokered deal.
Gone is the demand that Assad “must go.” Gone is any penalty for using chemical weapons. Gone is the demonstration of resolve meant to signal seriousness about chemical weapons. Gone is the notion that we care about the plight of Syrians or that 100,000 dead stir something beyond empty rhetoric. Gone is any deterrent effect to Iran. By throwing the ball to Congress and then to Russia, Obama has effectively taken the use of force off the table, letting the Russians and Assad set the ground rules. From a moral and geopolitical standpoint, this is a debacle that will extend throughout the Middle East and beyond.
A decade of war is not ending; it’s our willingness to move events in our direction and protect American interests and values that has. It will be a minor miracle if Iran doesn’t get a nuclear weapon in the next 3 years. Conservative hawks and liberal interventionists aren’t the only ones who should be concerned about Russian dominance in the Middle East. I hate to break it to those trying to wriggle out of doing anything about Assad, but even Obama admits we have vital national interests in the region. The president just isn’t willing to act to protect them.