RANCHO SANTA FE, Ca., September 3, 2013 – In the absence of a coherent foreign policy, we can only speculate as to what direction President Obama will take in response to an international crisis. The phrase “politically opportunistic” appears to define the Administration’s core strategy, while the three words “ineffective, inefficient, and inconsistent” seem to describe its performance. Syria is only the most recent symptom.
To establish some context: The Syrian civil war began on March 15, 2011, with protests that soon became violent. Libya was already deeply embroiled in its own rebellion. Several thousand people had already been killed in that country before it became obvious that Muammar al-Gaddafi’s regime was destined to fall.
Coming fresh on the heels of what passes for a political victory these days (i.e., forcing Hosni Mubarak to accelerate the resignation he had already tendered as President of Egypt), President Obama then called for Gaddafi to step down and set the stage for establishing a No-Fly zone in Libya by stating:
“To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and -– more profoundly -– our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are. Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as President, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.”
Clearly, the President put the world on notice that the United States will not stand by while thousands of people are killed in a civil uprising on foreign soil (even though his Administration had previously ignored similar rebellions in other countries with lower global profiles). Since he delivered that statement, Syria suffered over 100,000 deaths, which is 20 times more than occurred in the entire Libyan revolution.
While the Obama Administration has clandestinely provided small arms to Syrian rebels for some time, its only other action has come in the form of more speeches. So, let’s dissect some of the rhetoric.
On August 20, 2012, when rumors about a possible chemical weapons attack in Syria circulated, President Obama announced: “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, 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. That would change my equation. . . . We’re monitoring that situation very carefully. We have put together a range of contingency plans.”
Obviously, the President’s statement drew a proverbial “line in the sand” (no pun intended) over any use or even movement of chemical weapons in Syria. The message was balanced in that it did not assign blame to a particular party. It also declared that the Administration had already “put together a range of contingency plans.”
Given that last fact, one might assume that the United States would be in a position to respond immediately should a movement or use of chemical weapons be detected. Its response might include a series of steps: confirm that such movement or use has in fact taken place; determine beyond reasonable doubt who directed the movement or use of such weapons; present the facts to the United Nations and begin to build a global coalition; present the facts to the League of Arab States (since the regional conflict most directly impacts its members); identify the short and long-term goals of any response; explore the full range of options; examine the adverse consequences of each option as well as its probability of success; and select and execute the most appropriate option. It would appear this hasn’t happened.
On March 19, 2013, another chemical weapons incident was reported prompting President Obama to execute his most prevalent contingency plan: He gave another speech. In this one, he said: “We know the Syrian government has the capacity to carry out chemical weapon attacks. We know that there are those are in the Syrian government who have expressed a willingness to use chemical weapons if necessary to protect themselves. I am deeply skeptical of any claim that in fact it was the opposition that used chemical weapons. Everybody who knows the facts of the chemical weapons stockpiles inside of Syria as well as the Syrian government capabilities, I think, would question those claims. Once we establish the facts, I have made clear that the use of chemical weapons is a game changer.”
While the President seemed to be “picking sides” this time, it is interesting that he suggested that the Syrian government had “expressed a willingness to use chemical weapons if necessary to protect themselves.” For someone who appears to be so careful about selecting his words, why did he choose to make that distinction?
The President also stated the obvious when he suggested that “the chemical weapons stockpiles inside of Syria as well as the Syrian government capabilities” were widely known. This is clearly the case.
In 1992, the United Nations approved the Chemical Weapons Convention (the CWC). Of the 196 countries that are recognized by the U.N., only five failed to sign the CWC: Angola, Egypt, North Korea, South Sudan … and Syria.
The world has also known for some time that Syria has the capability to produce chemical weapons and has continued to store such agents. Before the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, it was even suggested that Iraq’s government had been transporting chemical weapons (WMDs) to Syria for storage to evade detection by U.N. weapons inspectors.
With such advanced knowledge of Syria’s capabilities and potential propensity to deploy chemical weapons, one would again expect “a range of contingency plans” to be in place. Yet, no action was taken in March. Why?
Russia has suggested that the March chemical weapons attack was perpetrated by rebel forces (based upon forensic evidence analyzed by an allegedly independent laboratory certified by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which oversees the CWC). If both sides are proven to be using chemical weapons, how might that alter the United States’ response?
Then, on August 21, 2013, someone in Syria celebrated the anniversary of President Obama’s “red line” speech by launching a larger-scale chemical weapons attack.
The United Nations immediately convened an emergency session of the Security Council to condemn the attack (sans newly appointed U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power, who was on a personal trip to Ireland), and it sent a team of weapons inspectors to Syria to test the site.
That same day, Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest called a press conference to speak on behalf of the Obama Administration. He assured the world that the United States strongly condemned “any and all use” of chemical weapons and that those who are responsible would be held accountable.
Then, it was disclosed that the President believed that the Syrian government had orchestrated the most recent attack and that he intended to take military action to “send a strong signal” to the Assad regime.
On August 24, 2013, President Obama held a meeting with senior officials in the White House and also spoke with British Prime Minister David Cameron. The apparent consensus was that he needed to respond in a manner reflective of his “red line” comment or he would look weak. He also needed to build a global coalition so he would have the moral authority to act and he would be insulated from the harsh criticism he had leveled against the Bush Administration in that same regard.
Then, on August 29, 2013, the British Parliament dealt President Obama a severe blow when, in an unprecedented action, it voted “no” with respect to a motion to support his military attack on Syria. In response, Secretary of State John Kerry referred to “Our oldest ally, the French” in his press conference on August 30, 2013.
Perhaps Sec. Kerry spoke too soon. French President Francois Hollande originally paralleled President Obama’s approach. President Hollande said that he was prepared to unilaterally order a limited French military response without involving his Parliament. Then, on September 2nd, he recanted his position and scheduled the issue for Parliamentary debate on September 4th partly because of the British Parliament’s bold action and partly after learning that President Obama had shifted his position as well.
President Obama and his spokespersons had consistently declared that he had unilateral authority to take limited military action against the Syrian regime since August 21st … until August 31st. Then, perhaps sensing political blowback, the President reversed course and said, “While I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization, I know that the country will be stronger if we take this course, and our actions will be even more effective.”
Other past statements have also come back to haunt the President’s position.
In 2007, then-Senator Obama wrote a response to questions from the Boston Globe that stated, “The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.” This is somewhat problematic because there is nothing to suggest that the crisis in Syria poses “an actual or imminent threat to the nation.”
Correspondingly, then-Senator Biden stated in an interview on MSNBC (that same year) that, “The President has no constitutional authority to take this country to war … unless we’re attacked, or unless there’s proof that we are about to be attacked. And if he does, I would move to impeach him.” Perhaps he will be able to find an exception for his current boss.
When Congress returns from recess on September 9th, it will be asked to support the President’s position. Will it? No one knows.
In the interim, U.S. warships will have been in place for weeks. Add 100 to 200 Tomahawk cruise missiles that are expected to be launched in a display of raw power stand-ready. At about $1.5 million per missile, this is good news for Raytheon and Boeing Defense, Space & Security. Additionally, Syria will have been given more than adequate time to move or protect any relevant targets.
To reprise Sec. Kerry’s “We know” speech, let’s summarize what we do know and what we don’t know.
We do know there was a chemical attack in Syria on August 21, 2013.
- We don’t definitively know which side committed the attack or who ordered it.
We do know that chemical weapons have been used “multiple times this year” (according to Sec. Kerry).
- We don’t know why the deaths that occurred during the most recent attack merit a “humanitarian response” while the deaths resulting from the prior attacks apparently didn’t.
We do know that the President is basing his opinion on “our intelligence community (which) has carefully reviewed and re-reviewed information regarding this attack” (according to Sec. Kerry).
- We don’t know whether this information is any more accurate than the “slam dunk” intelligence we used to justify our invasion of Iraq.
We do know that the U.N. Security Council is currently structured to block such actions.
- We don’t know if the United States will leverage this example to pressure the U.N. to change its dysfunctional rules.
We do know that, in the past, President Obama and Vice President Biden didn’t think the Commander in Chief had the authority to act unilaterally in similar situations without Congressional approval or without U.N. and other strong international support.
- We don’t know why their position seems to have changed since taking office.
We know that a massive missile attack of limited duration is meant to “send a strong signal” that further use of chemical weapons will not be tolerated.
- We don’t know what the next steps will be if our “strong signal” is ignored.
We know that, according to Sec. Kerry, our response “is directly related to our credibility and whether countries still believe the United States when it says something.”
- We don’t know whether these countries will deem that to be sufficient justification for attacking a sovereign nation and inevitably killing innocent people (particularly if our intelligence information turns out to be incorrect).
We do know (or at least have been told) that the mere existence of Guantanamo spurs the growth of terrorist organizations and the possibility of their attacks on United States citizens.
- We don’t know what consequences an attack on Syria might spur in this same regard.
We do know that our actions might put Israel and other allies at risk.
- We don’t know what our response would be if Syria chose to retaliate by attacking one of our allies.
We do know that other non-military options remain available (i.e., severe U.N. sanctions, placing diplomatic pressure on the League of Arab States to take direct regional action, etc.).
- We don’t know what other alternatives have been explored;
- We don’t know which ones have been dismissed and which ones might still be in play; and
- We don’t know why the President seems to have so quickly defaulted to the “let’s go blow something up” tactic (remember: we supposedly had a “range of contingency plans” in place over a year ago).
Having run out of what we do know:
- We don’t know what the short and long-term goals of any assault may be other than to “send a strong signal;”
- We don’t know if all of the adverse consequences of each alternative have been vetted (particularly with respect to those associated with “limited military action”);
- We don’t know what the President will do if he fails to gain Congressional authorization; and
- We don’t know what the impact on our lives will be if he does.
What’s your opinion and what solutions can you offer?
T.J. O’Hara is an internationally recognized author, speaker, and strategic consultant in the private and public sectors. In 2012, he emerged as the leading independent candidate for the Office of President of the United States and the first nominee of the Whig Party in over 150 years.
This article first appeared in T.J. O’Hara’s recurring column, A Civil Assessment, in the Communities section of The Washington Times.