Loose Canons

Passive and Contemptible

Our president prepares for his big showdown.

By 9.9.13

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With public opinion against him, President Obama took his act to the G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia hoping that he could persuade European leaders to join in his idea of punishing but not destroying Syrian dictator Bashar Assad for his use of chemical weapons.

The Europeans were barely kept awake by Obama’s plea, issuing a statement that they’d like a “clear and strong response" to Assad’s use of chemical weapons, at least if someone else did it. The UK’s David Cameron, previously rebuked by Parliament on Syria, was nowhere to be seen.

Much more visible was another European leader, Vladimir Putin, who openly mocked Obama saying that Russia was helping Syria and would continue to do so. Putin also said that he’d had a “very meaningful, constructive and friendly conversation” with Obama in which he apparently told Obama to take a hike.

Now, as a last resort, the president will address the nation Tuesday night in the hope of moving Congress to support the proposed attack on Syria. Obama’s case is weak and he’s avoided addressing Americans because he doesn’t want to take responsibility for what results may come. He has been content to characterize himself as the conscience of the world and talk about how the leaders of little nations have come to him, admiringly and meekly, to say that they can’t do anything about that awful Assad but the United States can.

Left with no choice, he resorts tomorrow to a televised speech to the people who are least important to him in deciding whether to take America to war. He may move the meter a notch or two, but not enough to overcome the gap in the polls. (At last reading, Gallup found that Americans opposed an attack on Syria by 51-36%.)

Despite Speaker Boehner’s preemptive cave-in on the AUMF, before Congress votes on the new AUMF it needs to think hard about the situation Obama has created for himself, and us, and resolve itself on a few essential questions.

Let’s start with whether the president and Secretary of State Kerry are correct in asserting that an attack -- designed to avoid topping Assad or damaging his regime sufficiently to make his opponents in the civil war successful -- will have the effect of preventing Assad’s future use of chemical weapons.

We know from our experience with another Baathist dictator that Assad is unlikely to respond to anything short of a military buildup with the clear intent of overthrowing him. In Saddam Hussein’s case, he was more delusional than Assad may be. Saddam refused to compromise or surrender even in the face of that kind of imminent action. He lost his nation and, eventually, his life when America threatened him and went on to employ decisive force against him.

We are reminded by former State Department official Robert Danin’s piece in the Sunday Washington Post, that on at least three occasions -- in 2003, 1984, and 1983 -- Assad, and his father before him, ignored clear warnings from American diplomats and even major airstrikes in Syria and on Syrian positions in Lebanon.

Historically, the Assads have been willing to absorb the kind of damage that Obama may cause without changing his behavior as a result of it. Therefore, Obama and Kerry are simply wrong in their assertion that they will cause a cessation of Assad’s chemical weapons attacks by limited military action.

One question raised in the Friday presser -- quoting Maine Sen. Susan Collins -- is what happens if we launch our attack and Assad goes ahead with another chemical attack on his people? Do we just launch another “punishment” raid or do we then have to do something more?

If Assad doesn’t respond precisely as Obama wants, as Obama answered that question on Friday, Obama thinks “mobilizing the international community will be easier, not harder…we would gladly join with an international coalition to make sure it stops.”

Stop a moment and think about that last statement. Obama threatens Assad with a “shot across the bow,” meant to miss any important target. The United States, he said, was “glad” to join a coalition that somebody else might someday form in response to another chemical weapons attack to make sure Assad stops using those weapons. A more passive position cannot be devised.

Obama’s position is not just passive, it’s contemptible. And not just in our eyes but in the eyes of the “international community” he admires so much. Obama is saying he’s eager to take his shot at Assad and doesn’t really care what happens next. He means that neither we nor the rest of the world should. But nations such as Iran are watching closely and care deeply. If Obama smells something, it’s the whiff of smoke emanating from the paper tiger he’s leaning on.

The other problem Congress should decide is whether Obama and Kerry are right in saying that failing to attack Syria would send a message to nations such as Iran that they can develop and use weapons of mass destruction without consequence. Obama said this Friday in his St. Petersburg news conference, and White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough repeated it on Meet the Press on Sunday.

But that argument is as false for another reason derived from history. We’ve gone through eight years of Bill Clinton, eight years of George W. Bush. and four and three-quarters years of Barack Obama and Iran has continued to develop nuclear weapons under our noses without any interference, far less military consequences, imposed by the United States or any other nation. To say that an attack on Assad will “send a signal” countering two decades of inaction on Iran is risible.

Tomorrow night, we can count on Obama repeating these two themes. We’ll hear about the “international norm” that was imposed by the 1925 protocol to the Geneva Conventions outlawing chemical weapons. Obama will say, again, that we have a responsibility to protect Syrians, and punish their government, for making a chemical attack on its people. And he will say that there’s a big rush on (again?) because Congress needs to pass his new AUMF and get back to the business of caving in to him again on the debt ceiling.

Obama will do his best to stampede Congress into action. And it may work.

And we know the reaction he’ll get. John Boehner will say that the president made a strong case for military action. MSNBC, CBS, and ABC will beat the New York Times to the story, each saying much of what Boehner says only in more reverent tones. And when the Wednesday paper comes out, the NYT editorial page will try to separate its dedication to Obama from its peace-at-any-price ideology, and it will fail. The Times will say that Congress shouldn’t delay on passing what Obama wants, but it will say more strings should be attached knowing that Obama will ignore them.

It’s possible, but only remotely so, that the House will reject Obama’s new war resolution. With John Boehner and Eric Cantor having given in already, the only hope is that some dam will break among the anti-war Democrats and a sufficient number of them will join conservative opponents to defeat Obama. Is that possible? Yes. Is it likely? No. Not with Boehner, Cantor, and Pelosi whipping the votes for Obama.

Watch out, Bashar. Some stray missile may go off course and strike your palace or the Chinese embassy in Damascus. But you can count on an immediate apology from Obama in such an event.

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About the Author
Jed Babbin served as a Deputy Undersecretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush. He is the author of several bestselling books including Inside the Asylum and In the Words of Our Enemies. He is coauthor (with Herbert London) of the new book The BDS War Against Israel. You can follow him on Twitter@jedbabbin.