As one would expect, President Obama isn’t about to disclose precise details of the support the administration has decided to render to the opposition forces in Syria trying to topple President Assad. Some have said that Obama’s response has been too slow, too long delayed. Others have suggested there’s a lack of clarity about exactly what the new policy shift entails. The new course of action was supposed to have been triggered by an awareness within the administration that Assad had used chemical weapons against the Syrian people. That being the so-called “red line” Obama had laid down as a game changer for American policy. One can only hope that the president has the wherewithal to keep American involvement in the Syrian conflict at the contained level it deserves to be.
Some, like John McCain — ubiquitous as always, especially in matters of this nature – started the familiar drumbeat a while back, charging that Assad’s use of chemical weapons had already been established. And, no surprise, McCain’s read of what the situation demanded went beyond what the president announced as broad outlines of the stepped-up U.S. role. It may have been a surprise to many that McCain stopped short of advocating that there be boots on the ground in Syria, if not already, maybe without much delay.
But the president, with the “red line” rhetoric he introduced early in the unrest, struck a tone that was reminiscent, one more time, of the take-no-prisoners style of his predecessor or the old cowboy who remains unshakably the darling of the right, Ronald Reagan. And the conundrum for an Obama in going the tough-talk route, more so where any military engagement is at stake, is that (a) such bravado emanating from him doesn’t come off as the real deal for those in his audience who dwell in that realm and (b) for folks on the more progressive side of the divide, tough talk on things military isn’t exactly what they want to hear.
After the president’s announcement that changes on the ground in Syria had prompted America’s involvement to move beyond humanitarian concerns and into supplying small arms to anti-Assad forces, speculation was rife that he had to be pushed to ramp things up even to what many considered a modest escalation of American engagement. The scuttlebutt was that even within the administration there was strong sentiment for arming the rebels. The State Department was said to be a leading proponent of a more muscular response. A key outside voice weighing in on the side of a larger U.S. role was said to be that of former President Clinton. Clinton likened today’s Syria goings-on to what he faced in Bosnia’s “ethnic cleansing” debacle, to which he eventually authorized a heavy-duty military response.
The administration took pains, though, to blunt any chatter about the president’s move having been driven by reactive impulses as opposed to a duly calculated policy decision. For his part, Obama, in a PBS interview with Charlie Rose a few days ago, insisted that as long as individuals weren’t “in the Situation Room” (in the White House) and privy to the detailed intelligence he is given about developments on the ground in Syria, they cannot make the informed judgments that he can.
Such arguments from the commander in chief notwithstanding, there’s no stopping the flow of second guessing. Former national security adviser in the Carter administration, Zbigniew Brzezinski, was numbered among those claiming the new policy raised more questions than it answered. Brzezinski said it was “baffling because there is no pattern of consistency.” And he raised what unavoidably gets into the mix whenever Western intervention in Middle East states becomes an issue. “We know,” he said, “there are a great many factions competing for power on the ground in Syria and most of them are not very friendly to us.” Brzezinski contended that the group known to be supportive of the United States was the weakest among the rebel factions. So of the arming of rebels, he asked cryptically, “Weapons for whom?”
Brzezinski doesn’t necessarily have to be correct in his analysis of where things stand in Syria. But he certainly has credentials as a foreign policy wonk that would make his comments exempt from summary dismissal. If, as he suggests, Syria is basically no different from other hotbeds in the region where the struggle for dominance is awfully convoluted and anybody’s guess as to who will be left standing when the shakeout is complete, a gingerly approach to the idea of even this initial low-key U.S. involvement becomes easier to understand. With or without the ‘red line” bluster as part of the narrative.
Some notable first-term foreign policy successes by the president, not least the elimination of Osama bin Laden, served his national security stock rather well. Even so, Obama cannot afford to ignore that becoming enmeshed in the Middle East is a move that, almost without fail, will end badly. The president probably needs to revert to his pre-presidential self, when he saw the then prevailing appetite for Middle East intervention for the wrong-headed inanity it was. The “red line” ultimatum is a better fit with that. Obama needs to remain true to his core. Nothing has changed. Sounding too much like George W. Bush should remain off-limits for this president.