Opinion: Obama sensibly cautious on Syria

May 2, 2013


— People who talk incessantly often talk imprecisely, and Barack Obama, who is as loquacious as he is impressed with his verbal dexterity, has talked himself into a corner concerning Syria and chemical weapons. This is condign punishment for his rhetorical carelessness, but the nation’s credibility, not just his, will suffer. His policy is better than his description of it, and his description is convoluted because he lacks the courage of his sensible conviction that entanglement in Syria would be unwise.

Nine months ago, Obama said: “We have been very clear to the Assad regime ... that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus.” This is less a policy than a large loophole masquerading as a policy.

“Moving around or being utilized” (emphasis added) suggested that moving the weapons would cross the red line. Now, however, the argument is entirely about whether they have been used. How much is “a whole bunch”? Can less than this be utilized without changing his “calculus”? What, if anything, might a changed calculus mean in terms of U.S. actions?

By last week, the “red line” had been demoted to just “another line:” “To use potential weapons of mass destruction on civilian populations crosses another line with respect to international norms and international law. ... That is going to be a game changer.” Well.

What about the use against other than civilian populations? Do Bashar al-Assad’s armed enemies count as civilians? How might the game change? Or is the use of such weapons itself the change? Does the line matter only with regard to international law and norms, not to U.S. policy?

Obama, who supposedly speaks so well, is behaving better than he is speaking. In an essay in the May/June issue of The American Interest (“Leading from Behind: Third Time a Charm?”), Owen Harries and Tom Switzer argue that Obama understands the “most important sentence ever written about American foreign policy,” Walter Lippmann’s formulation: “Without the controlling principle that the nation must maintain its objectives and its power in equilibrium, its purposes within its means and its means equal to its purposes, its commitments related to its resources and its resources adequate to its commitments, it is impossible to think at all about foreign affairs.”

An unidentified Obama aide did Obama no favor when he characterized (to The New Yorker) Obama’s policy as an oxymoron — “leading from behind.” Those who have the courage of Obama’s convictions should praise his policy as an escape from the delusional ambition that the United States can and should lead everywhere.     

The argument about what, if anything, the United States should do about developments — at once appalling and opaque — in Syria is just the latest flaring of a controversy that can be said to have been kindled in 1990 when Jeane Kirkpatrick urged the United States to resume its life as a “normal nation.” Although Kirkpatrick was a Democrat until 1985, she was in accord with Ronald Reagan, for whom she served as U.S. ambassador to the U.N., regarding foreign policy. In an article written after the Berlin Wall fell and before Iraq invaded Kuwait and the United States prepared to reverse this aggression, Kirkpatrick wrote: “With a return to ‘normal’ times, we can again become a normal nation. ... It is time to give up the dubious benefits of superpower status.”

One of those benefits is that those who make U.S. foreign policy can scrub from their vocabularies the word “unacceptable,” which usually denotes something America actually must accept. Or even already is accepting, as when (March 11) Tom Donilon, Obama’s national security adviser, strangely said “the United States will not accept North Korea as a nuclear state.”

In December, Obama said: “The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable.” Not partially but totally, so ...

Remember Colin Powell’s U.N. speech detailing Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, a speech the accusations in which Powell meticulously vetted during days he spent at CIA headquarters? Obama is muddled about his own red lines but he is rightly cautious about what it is possible to know about the Assad regime’s behavior.

Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said “it is in our DNA” to believe “there are no limits on what is possible or what can be achieved.” Obama seems to know better. Certainly his confused — or perhaps calculatedly confusing — words about red lines serve his policy of sensible caution.

— George Will is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.


Abdu Omar 5 years ago

Obama's policy is like the dinner party at our house a few years ago. We invited a scholar from a foreign country, his wife and children. One child was 6 years old and very unruly. He kept going to the serving table and pulling on the table cloth. On the table was a punch bowl, several unused china dishes, food and tableware.

Every time he would go to the table, his father would stop him saying "no, honey, we can't pull on the table cloth". I sat in complete dismay that he wasn't more forceful, but he would catch the boy every time. Well, the scholar got into a deep discussion with another guest and the boy sneeked over to the table, pulled the table cloth until all the food, dishes, silver and the filled punch bowl came crashing to the floor covered with an expensive handwoven rug. The "scholar" went to the boy and said, "oh, honey, I told you not to do that', and again pulled him away from the table without one gesture of regret to the hostess or attept to help clean it up.

This in a nutshell is Obama's policy in Syria.

oldbaldguy 5 years ago

I do not have any good ideas. However intervention in another Muslim country is not the answer. Obama never should have made a public statement about chemical weapon use. Don't make threats when you are not going to back them up. What do we do bomb the weapon sites? We did that during Desert Storm and that worked out well. Our chemical alarms worked and we did not know why.

sciencegeek 5 years ago

There appear to be some real questions about what actually happened with the chemical weapon use. While many agree that something was used, the details of when, where and who did it have been contradictory. Some of the sources who seem sure that Assad's bunch did it are the same ones who were absolutely sure about the WMD's that were used to justify the Iraq war, but could never be found.

I'd rather spend the time to find out the truth this time before causing the deaths of thousands of Americans. And it would be nice to find a better way to respond than to start another war.

oldbaldguy 5 years ago

It is always the same bunch, McCain and Linsey. No need to rush in to this. It is a shame about the civilian casualties.

tomatogrower 5 years ago

I am sick of McCain and all of our congressional leaders. I think they need to figure out how to pay for an intervention first. I just love the way they put the Syrians ahead of our own citizens. Who are they working for anyway? They had their Iraq war and their Afghanistan war and didn't pay for it, now they want another war? It would be interesting to find out how much money their rich buddies and they earned off the last 2 wars. Fiscal conservatives? Is the definition - we spend lots of money on other countries, so we make a lot of money for our military corporations?

I feel for the people of Syria, but I'm tired of conservatives whining about the deficit they created with their wars, then want to have another war. If we are going to war, then the American taxpayers, including me, need to pay for it, and the ones who making a big profit from it need to pay even more. Get rid of the Bush tax cuts and reinstate the draft if you want more war.

Richard Heckler 5 years ago

The more the USA government expands the policy of war the more irate the world becomes toward the USA government. Fortunately across the world others know the majority of the USA citizens do not support this policy. However that does not stop the growing disdain for our government.

This policy deserves to be called in, put in the trash never to be seen again.

"Rebuilding America's Defences," openly advocates for total global military domination” (Very dangerous position which threatens OUR freedoms and the nations security) http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Project_for_the_New_American_Century

The WRONG Policy.





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