During hearings yesterday to reconfirm Gen. Martin Dempsey as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Sen. John McCain pushed Dempsey to find out where he stands on Syria. McCain noted that Dempsey supported arming the Syrian rebels in February and then changed his mind in April. "How do we account for those pirouettes?" McCain asked.
If McCain seems to have been unduly harsh to a military official who does not set White House policy but only implements one aspect of it, it’s worth keeping the larger context in mind. It was just last month the administration embarrassed McCain on the Senate floor when, based on conversations with administration officials who told him the White House had decided to arm the rebels, the senator commended the president for his decision. Only minutes later, McCain was compelled to walk his comments back after another administration official informed him that no such decision had been made.
Given that Dempsey, in supporting arming the rebels and then warning against it, has been part of the administration's bizarre information campaign regarding Syria, he is a perfectly suitable channel through which lawmakers might either try to discover what precisely the administration's policy is, or vent their frustration with a White House that has been anything but transparent. For the fact is that it is not just McCain who is owed an explanation, but also every other American who seeks some clarity from a White House that seems to have intended to deceive the public about its Syria policy.
It was a little more than a month ago that the White House announced that it found Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had indeed used chemical weapons against the opposition. Because Assad had crossed the redline Obama drew last August, the White House announced that it was stepping up its support for the rebels. Did that mean it had decided to send lethal aid to the rebels? In a conference call June 13 with reporters ostensibly rolling out the new policy, White House aide Ben Rhodes proved evasive. “I can’t go through an inventory of the type of assistance that we’re going to provide,” said Rhodes.
“Inventory” was the circumlocution the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications employed to express his refusal to communicate facts. Reporters pressed him repeatedly to find out what exactly the administration was going to send the rebels: Was it just more non-lethal military aid, like night-vision goggles and vehicles, or was it arms and ammunition? “I’m not going to be able to inventory the types of support that we’re going to provide,” Rhodes responded to another request for details. In other words, the purpose of the press conference was merely to lend the appearance that the administration was pushing ahead to arm the rebels. See, Obama was making good on his redline. The president doesn’t bluff.
Later that week when Obama appeared on the Charlie Rose Show and the talk-show host pushed the commander in chief for details, Obama said, “I’ve said I’m ramping up support for both the political and military opposition. I’ve not specified exactly what we’re doing, and I won’t do so on this show.”
Details came through leaks to the press. As I catalogued last month, the New York Times reported that the White House will “begin supplying the rebels for the first time with small arms and ammunition, according to American officials.” USA Today concurred, quoting an unnamed official “knowledgeable about the plans” who “confirmed to USA TODAY that the new assistance would include arming the rebels.” The Wall Street Journal wrote that “Obama issued a “classified order directing the Central Intelligence Agency to coordinate arming the rebels in concert with its allies.”