Of Presidents and Bluffing
4:28 PM, May 5, 2013 • By ELLIOTT ABRAMS
Today's New York Times carries a story about the President's "red line" on the Syrian use of chemical weapons: how that line appeared and how it disappeared.
There are many aspects to this story, but most appear in these brief paragraphs:
First, the humanitarian issue: "If he drops sarin on his own people, what's that got to do with us?” said one adviser about the possibility of such an atrocity. How soon they forget. According to the Times that line was uttered last August, not quite four months after Mr. Obama established his "Atrocities Prevention Board." In a speech on April 23, 2012 he said this at the Holocaust Museum:
Four months to go from there to "If he drops sarin on his own people, what’s that got to do with us?”
Second, the issue of bluffing. It is noteworthy in the Times story that the administration officials were dealing with words, with lines, with messages—never it seems with tougher decisions about actions. This is of course a huge mistake, as just about everyone now acknowledges, though how it comes to be made in year five of an administration is more mysterious.
How should such business be conducted? Herewith a Washington story. In 1984 there were many signs that the Soviet Union was planning to introduce advanced combat jets into Nicaragua, and the State Department had so reported. Here is part of a Christian Science Monitor story published before a scheduled Shultz-Gromyko meeting:
I recall an NSC meeting around that time where this subject was discussed, and there was a unanimous view that we would not permit Russia to put advanced combat jets into Nicaragua and change the power balance that had existed in the region since the Cuban missile crisis. Everyone agreed. I was then assistant secretary of state for Latin America and remember reading formally to my Soviet counterpart in 1985 or 1986, from written talking points, that we would not tolerate Cuban combat troops, or Soviet combat jets, being sent into Nicaragua.
But what preceded such talking points was the NSC meeting. There, after everyone said yes, let's deliver that message, James Baker spoke up. As I recall it, Baker said something like this: Look, we are not agreeing here on sending a message. We are agreeing now that if they act, we will act. We're not going to come back here in a month or three months or six months and say, gee, now what do we do? If you are agreeing on taking this line and sending this message to the Soviets, you are agreeing now, today, that if they put those jets in, we will take them out. That's what we are agreeing. Today.
I never worked for Jim Baker and was never a fan, but credit is due to him for the kind of sober, hard-headed attitude shown here—and apparently entirely absent in the Obama administration's consideration of Syria. It seems there was no one at these Obama administration meetings wise or experienced enough to say "Hold on, what do we do when they call the bluff?" My boss back in the Reagan years, Secretary of State Shultz, was, like Baker, an ex-Marine and a serious guy. At these White House meetings on Syria this year and last, was there one serious guy? Seems not, and seems that that problem has not been solved.
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