How to Not Inspire Confidence
This is what happens when the President of the United States is dragged into making foreign and defense policy decisions, instead of determining American interests and then making policy to suit. And it is what happens when the president fails to make a clear case for those policies not only to the American public, but also to his own cabinet.
It had been understood that senior members of the Obama administration wanted to provide arms to Syrian rebel forces in opposition to the Assad regime. Before leaving office in February, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, accompanied by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey, told Congress that the DOD supported arming the rebels. The New York Times reported that then-Secretary of State Clinton and then-CIA Director David Petraeus favored arming them as well.
President Obama, however, was opposed.
Recent advances by the Syrian government against various rebel forces -- many of which are openly allied with al Qaeda and/or the Muslim Brotherhood --appear to have changed his mind. The battle of Qusayr was a strategic one for Bashar Assad and his Hezb'allah allies, and they won. Assad appears also to have restored government control to the Syrian side of the Golan Heights. Since an Assad victory is one for the Russians and the Iranians, President Obama agreed to arm the rebels; he would treat the enemy of his worse enemies as his friends.
But instead of Panetta, Petraeus, and Clinton, the constellation of senior advisors had changed to Chuck Hagel, John Brennan, and John Kerry.
As the President was getting set to fly off to Ireland, Germany, and points beyond, he didn't trouble himself to address the public, or make a even a formal statement about how and why he had made a decision opposed by a large percentage of the American people. (A new Pew poll finds 70-20% opposition; Gallup is 68-24% opposed.)Instead he sent his Deputy National Security Advisor out to announce to the press that the U.S. would provide the "rebels" with small arms, bullets, non-lethal aid, and possibly anti-tank weapons. Stressing that the president was doing it only reluctantly, Ben Rhodes said he would "continue to move cautiously."
This is hardly a ringing endorsement. It is enough to permit some forces to remain in the field, but not enough to allow the rebels to oust the Assad government. The result is likely to be continued carnage on all sides. Cynics could, and cynics do, make the analogy to Henry Kissinger's laconic comment about the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, "It's a pity both can't lose."
Rhodes nixed a no-fly zone. "People need to understand that not only are there huge costs associated with a no-fly zone, not only would it be difficult to implement, but the notion that you can solve the very deeply-rooted challenges on the ground in Syria from the air are not immediately apparent."
No one seems to have had a discussion about the utility of air power in solving "deeply rooted challenges" with Secretary of State Kerry. To be fair, unlike Senator John McCain, Mr. Kerry isn't looking for a no-fly zone to protect the rebels -- exactly. He wants the United States Air Force to bomb Syria, a country not at war with us or with any country with which we have a treaty obligation. Mr. Kerry, in a meeting in the White House situation room last week, argued "vociferously" for "immediate U.S. air strikes against airfields under the control of Bashar al-Assad's Syrian regime -- specifically, those fields it has used to launch chemical weapons raids against rebel forces."
This is well beyond any position previously taken by the president's advisors.
General Dempsey opposed Kerry. The chairman, master of possibly the best and most capable military force ever fielded -- including the most powerful Air Force in the world -- according to one source, "informed Kerry that the Air Force could not simply drop a few bombs, or fire a few missiles, at targets inside Syria: to be safe, the U.S. would have to neutralize Syria's integrated air-defense system, an operation that would require 700 or more sorties." He was reported to have told Kerry "a demand by the State Department for precipitous military action in a murky civil war wasn't welcome."
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel seems not to have reported a position at all.
This argument among members of the president's inner circle cannot inspire confidence in the American public or in the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the president's chosen Syrian partner. Gen. Salim Idriss, chief of staff of the FSA, and the man to whom the weapons will be given, may well be a secular, moderate Syrian patriot. But a great many honorable men have received American arms and training only to find themselves at the mercy of forces neither they nor we control, even when the United States makes a full commitment, which in this case, the United States decidedly has not.
Watching the machinations of the president and his senior advisors, the Syrian rebels as well as the American public are watching policy being made standing on a precipice overlooking the slippery slope to a quagmire (yes, all the metaphors are necessary). It does not inspire confidence in anyone except our adversaries.
Shoshana Bryen is Senior Director of The Jewish Policy Center