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Conceding the Inevitable, Obama’s Backs Down

obama syria

From the tone of his speech, you wouldn’t know he’d lost a major foreign policy battle, but he had. (Evan Vucci)

I have to admit, I thought tonight’s speech was going to go in a different direction: I figured that Obama would essentially concede a temporary defeat, but ask Congress to give him the authority to attack Syria after a certain period of time if it didn’t hand over it chemical weapons.  Instead, he back-pedaled even farther, taking the Congressional authorization vote off the table (at least temporarily).  I suppose he recognized that facing certain defeat, he couldn’t fudge it by asking for authorization for a date specific in the future.  It just would’ve looked like an end run around his losing proposal.

That being said, the senatorial Bobsey Twins, McCain and Graham, have co-opted two Democratic hawks, Carl Levin and Chuck Schumer to form a Gang of Four.  They’re proposing exactly what I wrote above–that Congress authorize Obama to strike Syria if he concludes Syria isn’t honoring its pledge to rid itself of chemical weapons.  While I don’t know the tone of the debate in Congress these days, I’d be surprised if the majority would go for this.  As I wrote, it’s an end-around Obama’s original plan.  If the American people don’t want us attacking Syria now, why would they approve attacking it in 60 days if Syria still  had chemical weapons?

All of Obama’s rhetoric about the horror of Assad’s use of chemical weapons, while true, continue to mask the fact that there is no real substance, no plan to respond to it in coherent fashion.  Outrage and high dudgeon are essentially poses unless you have a broader vision of what you’d like to accomplish.  Launching a bombing strike is not a plan, it’s a tactic.  A short-term act that has little or no substance in the long-run.  In fact, a military assault of a few days may make things worse in the long-term.

Another problem with Obama’s approach is that it focuses too narrowly on chemical weapons, when Assad is a butcher willing to use all manner of weapons to achieve his aims.  The U.S. president also overlooks that the rebels too are not much better than Assad.  While there may be “good” rebels along with the “bad,” the latter have taken the lead in the fight against Assad.  We have to assume that if Assad was overthrown the country would not be ruled by the Muslim equivalent of choir boys.  In fact, the rebels could very well end up being worse than Assad.  At least, to refer to the proverbial phrase about Mussolini, Syria’s leader ‘made the trains run on time.’  While Assad was a tyrant, his family dynasty was one his people managed to live with for four decades.   If Al Qaeda ran Syria, there would be even more rivers of blood running down the streets than now, and trains definitely wouldn’t run on time.

Turning now to Assad’s chemical weapons: the suggested plan sounds very shaky.  Personally, I don’t believe either Syria or Russia intend to carry it out in any meaningful way.  Unless there was a threat of an imminent attack.  Then Assad, like Sadaam before him, would make endless last-minute offers that conceded points he’d been adamant about only days before.  Tyrants tend to behave this way.  If Assad were smart, he would make a dramatic flourish and actually dismantle his chemical weapons stockpile.  It would be a decisive act that showed a willingness to compromise and earn him points in international public opinion.  But tyrants aren’t in the business of being magnanimous.  They’re in the brutality business.  So it’s doubtful Assad will be smart about this.

The only silver lining in Obama’s defeat (as far as he’s concerned) is that the drama that unfolded in Congress brought the U.S. to the brink of intervention.  It will that much easier to obtain the support of the American people for an attack the next atrocity Assad’s toadies commit.

My modest proposal is that the United Nations enforce a total weapons embargo on Syria, both sides.  Because this would still leave Assad with a substantial advantage in air power, I’d also urge a No-Fly zone be established.  It might take time to establish an equilibrium in the fighting.  But eventually, either the rebels would win through sheer staying power; or there would be a stalemate in which neither side could beat the other.  The benefit of my proposal is that each side would be killing each other a single bullet or dagger at a time, rather than with bombs, rockets, and gas.  War is a lot more laborious and exhausting when you’re using slingshots rather than helicopter gunships.

Finally, I would like to induct several new members in the Jewish communal Hall of Shame.  I’m not talking about the ADL, AJC or Aipac.  They’re already members and have been for years.  Everyone knew they’d be pro-war.  I’m talking about J Street (which I’ve reported here), Americans for Peace Now, and Israel Policy Forum.  The first two wimped out on the Congressional vote deciding that silence was the better part of valor.  Israel Policy Forum actually went all-in with the Lobby and supported a military attack.  Jewish Voice for Peace also doesn’t appear to have taken a position.  But I believe that is because the group has confined itself to dealing only with the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

{ 9 comments… add one }
  • Blabbaer September 11, 2013, 12:06 AM

    The trouble with the redoubtable denizens of the United States is that when the State cranks up the PR machine, they all put their right hand on their left breast and salute the flag.
    Here we have a purported use of chemical weapons by the Syrian Administration. There are credible accounts that it was not the Syrian Administration that released whatever it was that was released. The UN inspection team has not yet reported. None of that appears to matter to our Richard. “All of Obama’s rhetoric about the horror of Assad’s use of chemical weapons, while true, continue to mask the fact that there is no real substance, no plan to respond to it in coherent fashion.” While true, says Richard. Senator Kerry said it was true, President Obama said it was true… ‘O say can you see by the dawn’s early light…’ Why should proof matter? It doesn’t to Obama, it doesn’t to Kerry, why should Silverstein gainsay what they have said? International Law? When you are the US, you ARE international law.
    You may hate Assad for whatever reason but that does not give the US the right to bomb him in what would have to be one of the grossest acts of hypocrisy, if it took place.
    Let’s all wait to see what proof there is to confirm or otherwise Silverstein’s pre-conceived convictions.

  • Daniel F. September 11, 2013, 1:09 AM

    “Turning now to Assad’s chemical weapons: the suggested plan sounds very shaky. Personally, I don’t believe either Syria or Russia intend to carry it out in any meaningful way”

    True, but it does get President Obama off the hook, buys time for Assad and make Putin look reasonable.
    President Obama can now sell himself as the leader of an internationally endorsed effort to rid Syria of chemical weapons and do we not all hope that he succeeds. Kudos to Putin.

  • Free September 11, 2013, 4:11 AM

    I have to say I am amazed how bad and ineffectual the US foreign policy is on this issue looks. I know some people think that theses wars are planned years in advance (a la wesley clark’s speech about taking out 7 countries in 5 years), but if this is the best plan they could come up with then need to find some new people.

    I saw a interview with Hans Blix who said that you can verify that chemical weapons are being destroyed but you can’t verify what quantities exist. So for example, if you destroy 50 tons of sarin, you have no way to really verify that another 10 tons exists. In addition destroying chemical weapons doesn’t destroy the ability of a country to produce them. For theses reasons I don’t think the plan is really a credible plan to disarm Assad of chemical weapons. It’s a delaying tactic from the Russian’s and Syrian’s and a face saving measure for the US whose leadership have realised that their isn’t really any taste for another middle-east entanglement, however limited, and targeted they make it.

    Blix said it might be a good way to get the ball rolling on restarting negotiations. But again, I’m not hopeful that negotiations will ever be successful, the Syrian rebel’s political leadership are stupid and self centred, and Assad is a blinked dictator unwilling to relinquish power for the good of the country – so unfortunately I am not sure what common ground their is to make peace.

  • Adriana September 11, 2013, 7:29 AM

    I think in all of this Russia is winning largely the game. Even the timming for the CW drop announcement, just when the congress was about to vote.
    Lavrov/ Poutin is far more better tactically and diplomatically than Obama/Kerry.
    Concerning the CW, it is necessary not only knowlege but also buy specific materials which in this case , they call precursors like potassium fluoride and sodium fluoride to have this specific CW.
    Syrian gvt supposed to triy to buy it in England.
    This is was smart move from Russia to gain time and break Obama´s momentum.

    • Daniel F. September 11, 2013, 1:02 PM

      Interesting article at Stratfor that sheds some light on Putin’s motives


      • Adriana September 12, 2013, 6:05 AM

        Thanks Daniel,
        I´ve read the link, unfortunatelly I do not agree with this guy.
        He makes it all personnal, I do not think so, Syria is a important stake to Russia ( i will not comment because this will make this message longer) . Also,he bases his assumptions in the fact that the US political influence in the world remains de same. if we shift this paradigm, we observe that if Russia is leading the pass ,a “regional power’ as you say, is only beacuse the US political influence is fading.
        what we are seeing is nothing more than the passage from a monopolar world to a multipolar one.
        Nobody is buying anymore the stuff of ” human rights” as a reason to declare war in sovereign countries, interfere in internal affairs, and reverse power. Just count how many countries are for it.
        As Friedman says in his analysis : From the U.S. point of view, the Russo-Georgia war was naked aggression.
        or, from the world point of view, the US move to bomb Syria is a naked aggression, this not about human rights or else. Just to make short , I will not comment about the economic situation of US after spending 1 trillion dollars in wars that solved nothing. US should have learn by now that invasions do not solve the ” problem” .
        This link, about the US political influence, unravels some of these points:
        World learns to manage without the US

  • Davey September 11, 2013, 11:54 PM

    I think the absence of any word from the Jewish Voice for Peace on Syria is par for the course for liberal Jewish peace organizations. These organizations are primarily Zionist and not dedicated to justice for Palestine but rather, in my opinion, co-opt Jews who are conscience stricken. Accordingly, such Jews feel assuaged that they are doing something, taking a stand. But the “stand” is that Israel and Jewishness dominate it all. These organizations are also ready to get in bed with ADL excoriating perfectly decent people as “anti-semitic” which everybody knows is untrue and a non-issue today anyway. I just can’t forgive that, finding common ground with Abe Foxman. Sure, they are not Likud fanatics but that’s about it.

    • Richard Silverstein September 13, 2013, 3:13 AM

      You’re confusing Jewish Voice for Peace with J Street or some other group. JVP is not “liberal,” but progressive. It is not “Zionist,” not anti-Zionist. It doesn’t make any particular ideological claims on this subject. It’s solely focussed on the I-P conflict.

  • Robert Mullen September 12, 2013, 9:17 AM


    “War is a lot more laborious and exhausting when using slingshots…” Quite so, but quite doable, if labor intensive. Lest we forget the 800,000 killed in Rwanda, mostly with machetes.

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