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Disappearing Red Lines

Obama’s mess of a Syria policy.

May 13, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 33 • By LEE SMITH
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It is tempting to say that Assad has outmaneuvered Obama, but it may just be that the White House is incompetent. With the U.S. intelligence community last week joining their French, British, and Israeli counterparts in the conviction that Assad has employed chemical weapons, likely more than once, Obama has three choices. He can enforce his red line, swallow his words, or obfuscate the fact that he is swallowing his words. He has opted for the third.

What does it mean when Obama says that not only the United States but also the international community must be confident that the Assad regime used chemical weapons? Obama is, in effect, referring the issue to Russia, Syria’s ally on the U.N. Security Council. And Obama knows that Vladimir Putin is no more apt to dump Assad now than he was two years ago. He is taking his case to the international community on the sound assumption that Moscow will prevent action.

As for reports sourced to unnamed administration officials claiming that the White House plans to send arms to the rebels, these accounts have to be read within a larger narrative. Over the past year, similarly unnamed sources have repeatedly leaked to the press that the administration was either contemplating arms shipments to the rebels or already facilitating them. Yet Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey two weeks ago said the U.S. intelligence community still doesn’t really know who the rebels are. “If we could clearly identify the right people, I would support” arming them, said Dempsey. The unnamed sources are likely part of yet one more media blitz meant to throw critics of Obama’s Syria policy off balance.

For the other aspect of the White House’s approach to Syria has been to emphasize the difficulty of conducting any military action against Assad. Obama officials have once again renewed their warnings regarding Syria’s air defense system, which they say has been beefed up, making it a more formidable deterrent than ever against any no-fly zone that the administration might contemplate imposing. And yet despite Syria’s Russian-made, and maybe Russian-manned, air defenses, Israel struck targets across the Syrian border in February, and may have conducted another raid in late April.

Obama supporters reason that the president is taking his cues on Syria from the American people, who have no appetite for more military conflict in the Middle East. However, polls do not show a public that has become isolationist. Rather, they simply reflect the eternal good sense, common wisdom, and decency of the American people, who do not ever hunger for foreign entanglements. The administration’s vague talk of “military intervention” is meant to raise the stakes so high that any form of assistance to topple Assad is pre-emptively taken off the table.

No officials or lawmakers have ever called for U.S. forces on the ground in Syria​—​it is the White House that says in order to find and destroy Assad’s chemical weapons it would take more than 70,000 U.S. troops, a number intended to stop critics of the administration’s Syria policy dead in their tracks. What policymakers like Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham have called for is a no-fly zone and arming the rebels. Obama’s former CIA director David Petraeus drew up plans for getting weapons to the Free Syrian Army, which Leon Panetta and Hillary Clinton supported, as did Dempsey, before he changed his mind.

As Frederic Hof, the State Department’s former point man on Syria, wrote of Dempsey’s and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s testimony last month before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the central purpose “was to pour cold water on the idea of military intervention in Syria.”

Hof, who out of government has become one of the sharpest critics of the administration’s Syria policy, concludes that responsibility for confused policy rests with the White House. “A Pentagon reflecting confusion is a Pentagon in need of clear guidance from the commander in chief, U.S. President Barack Obama.”

“I’ve got to make sure I’ve got the facts,” Obama said last Wednesday. Over the last two years, the president’s Syria policy suggests that even when he has the facts, he doesn’t know what to do with them.

Lee Smith is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.

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