When President Obama abruptly called off the bombing strike on Syria and decided to seek the approval of Congress, he surprised no one more than French president François Hollande. France, the only country set to join the United States in the raid, was left in the lurch. Hollande was humiliated and isolated. Now, if an assault on Syria occurs, France is unlikely to participate.
Several days after aborting the raid, Obama traveled to Sweden, then to Russia for the G-20 summit. At both stops, he sought support for serious action against Syria. He failed. Meanwhile, in Congress, where support for punishing Syria for its use of poisonous gas really mattered, opposition to Obama’s plan swelled in his absence, notably among Democrats.
Last week in London, Secretary of State John Kerry carelessly answered a question by saying Syria could avert a bombing attack by turning over all its chemical weapons to “the international community.” But Syrian president Bashar al-Assad “isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done,” Kerry added. That same day, Russia and Syria said Assad would indeed do it, prompting negotiations that could last for weeks and make a raid far less likely to occur.
Notice the thread running through these episodes. In each one, Obama and his administration sought one thing and got another. They produced unintended consequences. In domestic policy, this would merely be unfortunate. In carrying out national security policy, unintended consequences are dangerous at best, catastrophic at worst.
Yet Obama and Kerry seemed oblivious. Their grasp of the Syria crisis was incomplete. The situation appeared to overwhelm them. They acted like greenhorns. “None of the White House staff has any experience in war or understands it,” retired Gen. Robert Scales, the former commandant of the U.S. Army War College, wrote in the Washington Post. The same is true of the president.
Inexperience and incomprehension of the perils of wartime aren’t Obama’s only problems. The biggest one: As commander in chief, he is faced with using military force in wars he basically opposes. “I got elected to end wars, not start them,” he told PBS’s Gwen Ifill last week. “Over the last four and a half years, I have done everything I could to limit our military footprint around the world.”
Would Obama have pursued the war in Afghanistan—he even added 30,000 troops in 2009—if he’d been free to withdraw ASAP? I think not. He was trapped. In 2008, Obama adopted the Democratic strategy of dubbing Iraq the bad war and Afghanistan the good war.
“When John McCain said we could just muddle through in Afghanistan, I argued for more resources and more troops to finish the fight against the terrorists who actually attacked us on 9/11,” Obama said in his acceptance speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention (in which he mentioned Afghanistan three times). In his Inaugural Address in January 2009, he said he’d “forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan.”
Unusually for a president with a war on his hands, Obama doesn’t like to talk about Afghanistan. He mentions it infrequently, never making the case for the war. At the Democratic convention last year, he devoted one sentence to it: “We’ve blunted the Taliban’s momentum in Afghanistan, and in 2014 our longest war will be over.” He ignored the war in his second inaugural speech in January.
Obama also trapped himself on Syria. “A red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized,” he said at the White House press conference in August 2012. “That would change my calculus [about dealing with Syria]. That would change my equation.”
The president may have used the term “red line” casually. But to the world—and especially the media—it signified something quite specific. It was aimed at deterrence. However, if Assad crossed the line and used chemical weapons, the United States would take aggressive action. There would be hell to pay.
Thus, after Assad killed 1,400 people with sarin gas in August, Obama was under enormous pressure to respond boldly. He preferred not to take military action. “My central goal throughout this process has not been to embroil ourselves in a civil war in Syria,” he said in a CBS interview last week. That explains, I believe, his twice blinking on raiding Syria, first looking to Congress, then grabbing the dubious Russian proposal to have Assad’s chemical weapons turned over to . . . well, somebody.
The “red line” reference also touches on the president’s inability to talk in the disciplined language of a commander in chief. At the Pentagon, military professionals “are outraged by the fact that what may happen is an act of war and a willingness to risk American lives to make up for a slip of the tongue about ‘red lines,’ ’’ according to Gen. Scales.
Surely Obama should know that calling American armed forces “my military,” as if they were his personal Swiss Guard, is bad form. Yet he said it at the White House on August 30 and again at the G-20 meeting a week later. Likewise, he should know that a “shot across the bow” is a warning shot that doesn’t hit anything.
Now Obama harbors the illusion that the gas attack may have turned Tehran against Assad. “Syria’s allies like Iran detest chemical weapons,” he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. “There’s a real aversion to chemical weapons inside of Iran,” he said in the PBS interview.
Expecting help from Iran is naïve. It’s possible only if the mullahs regard Obama as a peacemaker who, lacking the will to bomb Syria, wouldn’t dare attack Iran. Chances are, still another unintended consequence is on its way.
Fred Barnes is an executive editor at The Weekly Standard.