Half a century ago, John F. Kennedy said, “Our responsibility is one of decision—for to govern is to choose.” OK, fine. But what happens when all the choices stink?
Americans who have finally learned the difference between Chechnya and Czechoslovakia might want to start boning up on Syria, because that war-torn neighbor of Iraq figures to be the bane of our existence for a while. It’s certainly bedeviling President Obama, who’s currently trying to figure out how to flex American muscle without sinking us in quicksand.
How perversely ironic it was, last Thursday, that Obama had to pay public homage to his predecessor—a guy whose invasion of Iraq was based on faulty intel about nonexistent weapons of mass destruction—at the same time he was weighing intel about possible chemical weaponry in Syria? If Hollywood had scripted that scene, bloggers and tweeters would’ve laughed at the contrivance.
But reality has trumped invention, and Obama is trapped by his own rhetoric. On at least five separate occasions, he has warned that if the autocratic Syrian government crossed a “red line” by going chemical against rebel forces, America would be compelled to act for moral reasons. Obama: “I have made clear that the use of chemical weapons is a game changer.” Obama: “As president of the United States, I don’t bluff.”
The problem is, this president has been trying since day one to extricate us from old wars, not plunge us into new wars. And now that US intelligence has discovered—“with some degree of varying confidence”—that the Syrian regime has apparently gone chemical, Obama is stuck with options that range from bad to worse.
Clearly Obama has to do something—drone strikes against regime forces? Air strikes against the regime’s air force? A no-fly zone? A Zero Dark Thirty-style raid against chemical stockpiles (assuming they exist)? Arming the rebels? Because if Obama does nothing, after repeatedly drawing that red line in the sand, his credibility will be shot.
But we all know the pitfalls of mission creep. If Obama makes a move on the Syrian chessboard, what happens next? The regime is allied with Russia; many in the regime are Shiites with ties to the Shiites who run Iran. And the rebels don’t exactly bring George Washington to mind; many of them are devotees of al Qaeda.
Imagine if Obama had to go on TV to explain the Syrian complexities to a domestic audience. Americans like to be able to distinguish good guys from bad guys, but good luck trying to get that kind of clarity in Syria.
And the interventionists seem just as confused. Lionel Beehner, a think-tank fellow at the Truman Security Project, argued the other day that “we owe it to intervene on the side of the oppressed”—after conceding, three paragraphs earlier, that “Syria appears to be the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Meanwhile, even John McCain insisted on TV Sunday that while he wants to arm the rebels, “the worst thing the United States could do right now is put boots on the ground on Syria. That would turn the people against us.”
(Typically by now, we would’ve expected to hear McCain declare that “we are all Syrians.”)
Obama’s best option right now is to buy more time: to line up his allies in the region, like Turkey and Jordan; to work through the United Nations (much the way George H. W. Bush built a coalition in 1990 to go after Saddam Hussein after he invaded Kuwait in 1990); and to perhaps persuade the Russians that Syrians have indeed breached the humanitarian divide.
But to sway Russia, Obama needs more WMD evidence. Mindful of the younger Bush’s Iraq WMD fiasco in 2003, he’s insisting on definitive intel. Blood samples taken from rebels last week apparently indicated the presence of sarin gas, but Obama wants to trace it back to the regime, to establish what his aides call “a chain of custody.” After all, said an Obama spokesman, “given our own history with intelligence assessments related to weapons of mass destruction, it’s very important that we are able to establish this with certainty… in a way that is airtight.”
Which is wise, except for two problems: 1) Even the best intelligence assessments are rarely airtight, and 2) a United Nations inspection team, tasked with establishing certitude, has been stuck in Cyprus because the Syrian regime is barring entry. Perhaps America has crack spies on-site, although Homeland’s Carrie Matheson is regrettably not real.
Bottom line: Obama doesn’t want to light a match that will suck us into a regional conflagration, but that admirable instinct threatens to collide with a president’s responsibility to back his rhetoric with action. To govern, Obama will be compelled to choose. No wonder the guy’s hair is turning white.
Dick Polman is Writer in Residence at the University of Pennsylvania, and he blogs daily on American politics at newsworks.org/polman
From the Syria Issue: