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Of Presidents and Bluffing

4:28 PM, May 5, 2013 • By ELLIOTT ABRAMS
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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:

Mr. Obama’s advisers also raised legal issues. “How can we attack another country unless it’s in self-defense and with no Security Council resolution?” another official said, referring to United Nations authorization. “If he drops sarin on his own people, what’s that got to do with us?”

But they concluded that drawing a firm line might deter Mr. Assad. In addition to secret messages relayed through Russia, Iran and other governments, they decided that the president would publicly address the matter.

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:

And finally, "never again" is a challenge to nations.  It’s a bitter truth -- too often, the world has failed to prevent the killing of innocents on a massive scale.  And we are haunted by the atrocities that we did not stop and the lives we did not save.

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:

''Preparations for using Soviet fighter aircraft in Nicaragua have been under way for more than three years,'' the State Department report says, with pilots being sent for training to Eastern Europe. It adds that the new military airfield at Punta Huete, when completed, will have the longest runway in Central America - 3,200 meters (slightly less than 10,500 feet) - and will be capable of receiving any aircraft in the Soviet inventory.

Miguel Bolanos, a Nicaraguan defector who had been part of the Nicaraguan security apparatus, said last year in interviews that MIGs assigned to Nicaragua were then stationed in Cuba and that the pilots were being trained in Bulgaria.

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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