by Brendan James
More images and testimonials of this week’s purported chemical attack flood in, with Human Rights Watch currently placing the death toll at several hundred. Jay Newton-Small sums up the administration’s tepid response, despite previous red-line rhetoric:
[T]he White House isn’t exactly springing into action. “We are calling for this U.N. investigation to be conducted,” said Obama spokesman Josh Earnest on Wednesday. “This is a situation that is ongoing, and our efforts to work with the international community and to work with the Syrian opposition to remove [President Bashar] Assad from power are ongoing.” Earnest upgraded his rhetoric slightly Thursday morning, telling reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Buffalo where the President was scheduled to give a speech about making college more affordable, that the images out of Syria “are nothing short of horrifying.”
Still, the translation amounts to: Don’t hold your breath waiting for air strikes.
Jon Western wonders if this latest attack will serve as “Syria’s Srebrenica”:
If you recall, Srebrenica did not fundamentally change the traditional, realist strategic logic on the ground during the Bosnian conflict — yet all of the internal notes on White House deliberations (as reported in Ivo Daalder’s Getting to Dayton or Derek Chollet’s history of Dayton) reveal how conceptions of interests and ideals became intertwined with the scale of the atrocity. Domestically, there was some Congressional pressure to do more in Bosnia, but very little pressure from public opinion. Srebrenica was a game changer.
I think this is what we are likely to see happen now in Syria — and I think it changes the equation regardless of whether or not there is definitive proof as to who perpetrated the attack. The mere fact of such a large scale loss of life in a chemical attack — along with changing dynamics throughout the region — will produce significant pressure on, and within, the administration to commit resources — airstrikes on key Syrian military installations and probably no-fly, no missile zone over Syria — something, anything, to move the conflict to some kind of end-game.
Still, Max Fisher lists off the reasons not to expect a new agenda from the White House:
Any White House cares first and foremost about domestic politics, and this administration was punished severely for its leadership on Libya; many of the same political voices that demanded the intervention spent months hammering the White House when, in the foreseeably dangerous post-conflict disorder of Benghazi, a militant group succeeded in attacking the local U.S. diplomatic outpost and killing the ambassador. You might think that Libya would have been considered a political success for the Obama administration, but it became a major political liability.
The White House’s efforts to reach out to Islamist groups in Egypt and Tunisia, meanwhile, received condemnation and criticism at home. Pragmatic, long-view Middle East watchers turn out to represent a fairly narrow slice of the American electorate. And political figures who ask the White House to take big foreign policy risks appear quite willing to punish the administration if anything goes wrong.