By William Beecher
It’s one thing to be a reluctant warrior. Given President Obama’s natural instincts and the American public’s war-weariness, that’s understandable under the circumstances.
But, after checking with Congressional leadership in both parties, and being told there may well not be sufficient support for military action against the Syrian government’s horrific use of nerve gas, and then going ahead and daring Congress to take the Commander-in-Chief’s war powers out of his hands, that’s not leadership. That’s sophistry.
President Barack Obama, in withholding military action at the eleventh hour and shocking his own closest aides in the process, is risking telling the American body politic and an amazed world of friend and foe, that he does not have the inner strength to be a leader in crisis.
He gives a new meaning to the expression “red line.” If you dare cross it, who knows what might befall you? If anything.
Putting aside the reaction at home for the moment, how do you think the ayatollahs in Iran will react to his repeated threats not to allow Tehran to possess nuclear weapons? How will Vladimir Putin react to the warnings that Obama will make Russia pay a price for harboring Edward Snowden and not cooperating in US efforts in Syria and Iran?
How will the leaders of France, who deployed warships alongside those of the U.S. navy offshore Syria, react to the appearance that Obama has lost his courage? In point of fact, it was shaping up as merely a military slap on Bashar Assad’s wrist – in the President’s words, “a shot across the bow” not aimed at weakening his hold on power.
How will Israeli planners, who wanted to believe that Obama was not bluffing when he warned Iran that “all options” are on the table if it proceeds to build nuclear weapons, react? Will the Israelis, who have existential worries, decide to go it alone—and soon?
Is this how the Leader of the Free World exercises his leadership? Or, is this the personification of the cowardly lion in the Wizard of Oz?
The civil war in Syria started two-plus years ago as a spontaneous challenge of a brutal regime. But without meaningful intercession by the United States or other Western powers, it has increasingly evolved into a sectarian war pitting Sunnis against Shiites, with Kurds and Christians caught in the crossfire.
And within the Sunni community, where outside jihadi extremists aligned with al-Qaeda have introduced fighters with better weapons, the long-term outcome becomes increasingly problematic. The struggle has already spread into Lebanon, and could readily expand into Jordan, Iraq and Turkey.
Before she retired as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, supported by the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Director of Central Intelligence, went to Obama and tried to convince him it was in both our strategic and humanitarian interests to provide arms to moderate Syrian secularists. He rejected their argument, contending the insertion of more arms into the conflict would only add to the bloodshed.
Now the bloodshed tops 100,000, with millions of Syrians displaced. Now Assad has unleashed all the weapons in his military arsenal, including poison gas, against his own people.
By revealing details of the planned military operation, Obama has allowed Syria to hide or relocate the principal delivery systems of terror – including missiles, helicopter gunships and jet bombers – so they will not be destroyed. When the President says he’s been assured it makes no difference when an attack may occur – whether in a few days or weeks – that’s poppycock. The jets and helicopters could be temporarily moved to Iran, for example. Missiles could be hidden under highway overpasses.
Any military planner worth his salt will tell you that surprise is crucial to potential success. By telegraphing the full panoply of his intentions, presumably he was trying to convince Iran, and its Hezbollah proxies, not to overreact.
It’s possible, of course, that a majority in Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, will decide after considerable debate that they cannot vote in effect to sanction the use of poison gas. But if not, would Obama order the cruise missiles to fire anyway? Not very likely.
William Beecher is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former Washington correspondent for the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. He also served as an Assistant Secretary of Defense.
[Photo courtesy of Steve Jurvetson.]