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.”
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.