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Damage to America's Prestige

5:45 PM, Jul 19, 2013 • By LEE SMITH
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The problem of course was that all of the reporting asserting that the administration had decided to arm the rebels was sourced to unnamed officials. Anonymity ensured that should their information prove inaccurate or false no one could hold them, or the administration, to account—aside from the many journalists who took them at their word. And why wouldn’t they believe the White House? Surely if Obama raised a big and colorful circus tent in the middle of town then it must contain lions and tigers and jugglers and acrobats, too. There’s got to be a show to go along with the appearance of a show. Obama’s not a confidence man—is he?

David Ignatius’s column earlier this week argues that the White House has left the rebels out in the cold. “It’s what 19th-century English novelists called ‘the jilt,’” writes Ignatius. Sure, the rebels were jilted, but it’s more useful to understand Ignatius’ column as one journalist’s admission that he was had by the White House. “To quote a New York Times story published last weekend,” Ignatius wrote, “it turns out “‘that the administration’s plans are far more limited than it has indicated in public and private.’”

One problem, according to the Times, is that Congress is skeptical of the administration’s plans. Of course, lawmakers are naturally going to be circumspect given the White House’s own obvious ambivalence, as Gen. Dempsey has publicly illustrated as well as any other administration official. By failing to make a coherent case on the Hill for arming the rebels, Obama is simply using Congress to veto a policy that he does not want to implement in the first place.

The White House has similarly used the Russian veto by proxy for more than two years now, with the understanding that every U.N. resolution, every proposal it floats will be shot down by Moscow. If it’s not Russia, or the Hill doing Obama’s dirty work, it’s White House lawyers. Why is the administration so ambivalent about arming the rebels? Because, according to the Wall Street Journal, “top legal advisers from across the administration argued that Mr. Obama risked violating international law and giving Syrian President Bashar al-Assad the legal grounds—and motivation—to retaliate against Americans.” For forty years, the Assad regime, first father Hafez and now his son Bashar, have dispatched their terrorist allies to wage operations against Americans in, among other places, Lebanon and Iraq. The prospect that U.S. policymakers really believe that Assad is now likely to convene a legal team before dispatching, say Hezbollah, to kill and maim Americans beggars belief.

Rhodes’s conference call and administration leaks to the press were all part of the White House’s dog-and-pony show. Obama simply wanted to get everyone off his back for drawing a redline that he never had any intention of enforcing: See, I’m doing something—happy now? The fact that Obama’s nominee for U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power has castigated the U.N. for its failure to act against Assad shows she knows the script. If the problem isn’t Moscow, or Congress, or White House lawyers, or the incoherence of the Syrian opposition, it’s the fault of a bunch of overpaid global bureaucrats in Turtle Bay. The reason that Assad has gotten away with slaughtering close to 100,000 people over the last two and a half years can’t possibly have anything to do with the president she serves; the issue can’t possibly be Obama’s failure to lead.

Administration critics are correct to note that Obama’s Syria policy has left regional allies scratching their heads and wondering whether Washington can be counted on to act like a superpower, or even a reliable partner. And it’s true that under Obama’s watch American prestige in the Middle East is hemorrhaging. But what about here at home, where the president has used the press and any other instrument at hand to obscure his failures as a leader? Obama has damaged American prestige in America. 

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