The Obama Administration Leads the U.S. from Behind into Syria
In the lead [and happily publicly accessible] editorial on today's Wall Street Journal opinion page, neoconservative elder Norman Podheretz argues that the seeming Hamlet-like indecisiveness and uncertainty and amateur fecklessness of the Obama Administration's approach to the Syrian chemical weapons crisis, and to foreign policy in general, is not the result of incompetence, but rather reflects the deliberate implementation by President Obama of a "fundamental transformation he wished to achieve here ... to reduce the country's power and influence."
Mr. Podheretz makes a compelling case, but I believe he is wrong. After shaving with Occam's Razor, I conclude that the simplest explanation is incompetence. As evidence, I offer Secretary of State Kerry's remark today, in an appearance with the British Foreign Secretary, that any U.S. military action against Syria would be an "unbelievably small, limited kind of effort." He as much as announced to Bashar Assad not to worry, this won't hurt very much or do your regime any real harm.
Contrast this with the approach to public statements taken by President George H.W. Bush in the weeks leading up to the first Gulf War. While building his international coalition agaisnt Saddam Hussein and for the liberation of Kuwait, President Bush senior refused to publicly speculate on, or limit in any way, the nature and scope of the military campaign. He let Saddam wonder, and then struck hard and effectively.
Already some two weeks before Secretary Kerry's statement, liberal and sometimes Obama supporter Leon Wieseltier wrote on August 27 in the New Republic:
The White House and its supporters are seeking intervention without interventionism. An operation must be designed that will be limited and fleeting, that will do the right thing as inconsequentially as possible: a cop-out in the shape of a cruise missile. Assad will be punished and left in place; which is to say, unpunished. If he chooses never again to use chemical weapons, then his slaughter may never again be disturbed. Above all, the memory of Iraq will not be defiled. If we must do something—there is that “red line,” after all—then we will do something; but once we do something, we can go back to doing nothing.
Secretary Kerry also today may have intentionally or inadvertently provided Syria and Russia with an escape hatch, through which the Obama Administation could escape as well. The choice between intention or inadvertence depends on whether one accepts the Podheretz theory or the alternative explanation of gross incompetence. In any event, Secretary Kerry, almost in a throwaway afterthought, said that Syria could avoid an attack by putting its chemical weapons under international control. Russian and Syrian diplomats leaped at the opportunity that Kerry perhaps accidentally opened, and suggested negotiations toward achieving that goal.
Yes, the Administration, while welcoming the overtures, expressed deep skepticism about their sincerity. Yes, one should always exhaust every reasonable diplomatic channel before resorting to war. However, one remains suspicious that this will devolve into another effort by the President to kick the Syrian can down the road. As one wag said in a call to the Hugh Hewitt radio show, maybe someday Mr. Kerry will say that he was for the Syrian attack before he was against it, or visa versa. Remember 2004?