The Obama administration’s meandering Syria policy

06/06/2014 4:03 PM

06/06/2014 4:03 PM

A presidential election was held in Syria last Tuesday. By this, I mean a translucent veneer of legitimacy was smeared onto Bashar Assad by — you guessed it — Bashar Assad.

As the British Foreign Office stated, the election was “a grotesque parody of democracy.” Only areas under the twitchy trigger fingers of regime forces were allowed to participate, and an entire city — Raqqa — was cordoned off by extremists, barring its people from voting. Millions of people in rebel-held territory, as well as refugees throughout the region, were incapable of casting their votes.

It was yet another cruel, humiliating episode for the people of Syria. And infuriating as it must be for everyday Syrians, they should get used to it — because it’s quickly becoming the status quo. The Obama administration’s Syria policy is an erratic mess, and even Secretary of State John Kerry can’t seem to get the line straight.

In a recent CNN interview with Chris Cuomo, Kerry touted another parody worthy of attack — the exaggerated importance of stripping Assad of his chemical weapons. In doing so, he illuminated one of many overt contradictions within the administration.

When Cuomo rightly took issue with the neurotic nature of Obama’s Syria policy — advocating military strikes and resisting those strikes in the same breath — Kerry said, in reference to short-term military action, “Yes, it would have had an impact for a day or two, but every single one of the chemical weapons that were terrorizing the people of Syria would have still been in Assad’s hands.”

The inconsistency between this argument and the soaring, bombastic rhetoric in Obama’s September Syria address is remarkable.

After Obama’s infamous “red line” had been brazenly trampled into the sarin-soaked Syrian soil, he responded to critics of his “pinprick” plan to drop a few retaliatory bombs on Assad, “Let me make something clear. The United States military doesn’t do pinpricks. Even a limited strike will send a message to Assad that no other nation can deliver.”

Let’s examine that statement.

First, even Kerry admits that the effect of limited strikes would have been negligible — “…an impact for a day or two.” Second, plenty of countries have the capacity to overwhelm Assad’s military with force. Therefore, by invoking the concept of American exceptionalism in this context, Obama must have been referring to the United States’ singular willingness to oust repressive regimes, engage in protracted struggles against leftover loyalists and jihadists, and reconstruct societies in the aftermath of war.

Sound familiar? See: Iraq and Afghanistan.

But Obama obviously wasn’t advocating a full-scale war. He said, “I don’t think we should remove another dictator with force. We learned from Iraq that doing so makes us responsible for all that comes next.” And yes, Obama asked Congress to postpone the vote on the use of force. But this means the pinprick approach was still a policy the administration took seriously, and would have pursued if negotiations failed. It also means Obama’s “message to Assad that no other nation can deliver” was a transparently hollow threat.

So what are the critical points here? For starters, the unsettling realization that Obama was willing to send American pilots into a warzone for purely demonstrative reasons. The words “red” and “line” aren’t particularly compatible with “diplomacy,” so a futile, face-saving military option had to be on the table.

And Obama might want to send Kerry a memo titled, “The administration’s talking points” to avoid being so blatantly undermined in the future.

Finally, it’s as if the administration thinks the chemical weapons fired themselves. Securing them was a victory, but the man who used them would probably agree. He still gets to sign lofty international conventions, write off 150,000 corpses as “terrorists,” and continue butchering people with conventional weapons. Just look at his victory lap — ahem, I mean, election.

Reach Matt Johnson, editorial page intern, at mjohnson@kcstar.com.

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