Recent video claiming to show victims of a chemical weapons attack in Syria:
There are no good choices — good outcomes in Syria are impossible to imagine. But if it is proved to a certainty that Assad is trying to kill his people with chemical weapons, then Obama may have no choice but to act, not only because he has put the country’s credibility on the line (Iran and North Korea are undoubtedly watching closely), but also because the alternative — allowing human beings to be murdered by a monstrous regime using the world’s most devilish weapons, when he has the power to stop it — is not a moral option for a moral man.
The US has the power to stop a lot of things with military power. That doesn’t mean it is in our national interest to do so. And that phrase – “a monstrous regime using the world’s most devilish weapons” – rings a bell, doesn’t it? Does Jeffrey really want the US directly involved on one side in a Muslim sectarian war that is now metastasizing into “Iraq”? How many more Tamerlan Tsarnaevs does he want to produce?
Alas, along with Obama’s ill-advised public disavowal of containment of an Iranian nuclear capacity, the president has only himself to blame for boxing himself in on this. But that box may be larger than McCain, Butters and the usual neocon chorus will allow, as Max Fisher explains:
The two times that Obama personally articulated his administration’s red line, he used pretty vague language on what happens if Syria uses chemical weapons. The first time, in August, he said, “That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.” The second time, in March, he said “we will not tolerate” chemical weapons use and “the world is watching, we will hold you accountable.”
So, in the first comment, Obama only said that he would change how he thought about Syria and, in the second and more recent statement, seemed to shift from talking about how the U.S. would respond to how “the world” would respond. And if “the world” means the United Nations Security Council, which authorizes any multilateral military action such as the 2011 military intervention in Libya, then that’s not much of a threat. Both Russia and China have the ability – and a demonstrated willingness – to veto any UN action on Syria. There’s little indication that either state has changed its calculus on Syria just because of the U.S.’s red line.
By all means, go to the Security Council and see if military aid of this kind can be backed by the Russians and Chinese. I am extremely wary of providing the increasingly Islamist Syrian opposition with any weapons at all. Eli Lake says there are more like me in the administration:
But it appears that, for now at least, Obama’s cabinet is divided on whether to further arm the Syrian opposition. Last week, Secretary of State John Kerry told Congress that the United States was working with other actors in the Middle East to funnel guns to members of the opposition. The same day he said that however, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said he did not have confidence the United States could identify the right people in the Syrian opposition. One element of the opposition is believed to be closely tied to al Qaeda under the banner of a group called al Nusra. In December the State Department designated al Nusra as a foreign terrorist organization.
Michael Crowley likewise finds that Obama’s options are limited:
So long as American, and possibly Israeli, national security is not directly threatened, there’s no political will for American boots on the ground. Securing Syria’s chemical weapons sites could require 100,000 troops of them. Limited airstrikes against responsible forces and commanders is a more plausible option, but would require credible information about exactly who oversaw and carried out the chemical attacks. (A direct strike on Syria’s embattled dictator, Bashar al-Assad, is almost surely out of the question.) No wonder Obama never spelled out the consequences of crossing his ‘red line.’
Why, exactly, did Obama announce the “red line” in the first place if he wasn’t serious about it? Ninety percent of the arguments coming from the McCains and Grahams of the world right now is that he’s obliged to intervene simply to protect U.S. credibility and show the world that when the president issues an ultimatum, he means it. If O hadn’t declared the “red line” — which he didn’t have to do formally, given the taboo that already exists for WMD — he’d have more room to maneuver now.
I wish he hadn’t said that as well. But I also know why I supported Obama against McCain in 2008. Because McCain would already have American soldiers knee-deep in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria by now.