Can you imagine pouring water on a bald man’s head, then asking him why he sweats? This is analogous to criticizing president Obama for letting the Russians take the lead on dismantling Assad’s chemical weapons.
The American people served their president with a weak hand, let his opponents in on the fact that he had no aces, no kings, and no negotiating power, then complained that he let the Russians win at the poker table.
When the bulk of the bi-partisan Congress and the majority of the American people expressed their loud opinion (and it was quite deafening) against the use of military force in Syria, Obama was stripped of the only support he hoped to have in his efforts to stop Assad’s mad dash toward further use of chemical weapons. The president understood that employing military force following a ‘No’ vote by Congress would be a significant political setback.
Obama was not the only one to come to this conclusion. Everyone with IQ above room temperature (as measured in Fahrenheit), including the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, could see that the gunman (the president in this case) was running out of bullets. Congress and the American people weakened America’s negotiating power, intimidating power, and enforcement power. The American nation did not want to use military force and Obama could not ignore it.
Although the threat of using military force had never been removed from the table, it lost a great deal of credibility in the eyes of the president’s adversaries. The probability of employing military force to punish Assad and deter his future use of chemical weapons spiraled down and crashed like Wall Street in the wake of the 2008 Lehman Brothers’ collapse.
This is why the American-Russian agreement looks, on the surface, like a positive outcome for the American administration. It was the best possible aftereffect given the empty hand Obama had been dealt with by the American people and their representatives. The only problem—in all probability, the actual implementation of the agreement’s details may not be adhered to by the Assad regime.
The Syrians may not cooperate, deceive the UN inspectors and everybody else; the Russians will continue to protect Assad and veto any UNSC proposition calling for the use of force; and the Americans will complain but will be stonewalled by the process they had signed on to, which called for the UNSC to resolve any violation committed by the Assad regime. What’s more, the American people, will again, voice their rejection of enforcing the disposal of Assad’s chemical weapons by resorting to the military threat.
The other bigger problem is Iran. The Ayatollah and his newly elected president have been watching the Syrian development. They have witnessed the American president’s lack of bold leadership as he shifted critical decisions to an uncooperative Congress; they have seen the war-fatigued American public’s rejection of a military strike on another Muslim country; they believe they are watching a light turning green on the road to their nuclear ambitions.
Israeli leaders have also concluded that the American president may rerun the unacceptable Syrian scenario when it comes to the Iranian nuclear situation. Recent comments by Israeli officials stating an old idiom: “If I am not for me, who will be?” have clearly signaled that when it comes to Israel’s security, the Jewish state will not trust anyone else but itself to watch over and safeguard its existence. In other words, Israeli officials have made it clear that Israel would take it upon itself to launch a preemptive strike against Iran without waiting for a US initiative or even a mere nod when the Ayatollah crosses the nuclear red line.
I believe that President Obama erred when he asked a reluctant Congress to back him up. He did not have to travel that route. He should have been bolder and demonstrate to the Iranians and to the Syrians that his word should be taken seriously. Consequently, thanks to the American Congress and their voters, he found himself negotiating with the Russians from a point of weakness. Still, he was able to come out of the negotiations with a meaningful result—on paper. But in the Middle East, and in Syria or in Iran in particular, the same paper would probably end up being flushed down the toilet as soon as it becomes clear that the same agreement and the same Congress practically nullify the use of force as punishment and deterrent when it comes to Muslim nations’ noncompliance concerning their development and use of WMD.
America’s holding off punishing Assad in the short term may very well give rise to a catastrophic war with Iran down the road.
I have found a great deal of truth in the (rephrased) words of Senator John McCain—“Should the US fail to act on Assad’s chemical attack, it will be a catastrophe”. He is right. In many cases—and this is surely one of those—the long term cost associated with holding back in the face of a ruthless, unrestrained international criminal dictator on the loose, is considerably higher than any short term relief, gain or disregard to mass killings and genocide, even when these atrocities take part outside the homeland.
In today’s world, where distances have become progressively shorter, economies are interdependent; news are communicated and twitted globally in real time and in full colors, troubles outside the borders of the US could quickly reach the American shores and discharge a tidal wave, high enough to cover the Rocky Mountains peaks. Here is one scenario of how it might transpire.
Should American response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons on his own people turn impotent, The Israeli government would lose faith in Obama’s vows to use any means, including the use of force, to break off an emboldened Iran, whose nuclear ambitions would be bolstered by Obama’s retreat on Syria. The Ayatollah, they’d suppose, would venture crossing the red line; he would gamble calling Obama on his seeming bluff. Consequently, the Israeli government may come closer to taking preventive military action against Iran without US backing. The outcome may not be as comprehensive or as damaging to Iran as if the US had initiated the encounter. Consequently, Iran may be able to retaliate; they would try to mine the Strait of Hormuz; they would attempt sinking container ships in the Persian Gulf; they would shoot rockets at Saudi Arabia, Israel, UAE, Bahrain, trying to stop and impair the flow of oil to the world.
The next Middle East war may force the US to intervene, but without the advantage of instigating the opening move. It will cost more; there will be further hardship and more casualties on both sides of the red line, and it will last longer in consequence.
On the other hand, should the US take the initiative now and punish Assad, the Iranian regime (as well as other evil dictatorships) will find Obama’s warning concerning their nuclear red line much more credible. The Ayatollah will slow down or even halt his dash toward nuclear weapons, and even if he does not, the scenario above would play quite differently, provided that the initiative and the opening move in the following Persian Gulf War will be entrusted by the American military.
There is also one imperative, compelling humanitarian (rather than strategic) argument, for weakening Assad’s militarily and degrading his ability to deploy chemical weapons in the future.
In sectarian Syria where religious fanaticism is peaking, a decisive win in the civil war by either side will bring about genocidal bloodbaths on the losing side. Assad is a ruthless killer, but so are his Islamist enemies, they would have used chemical weapons on Assad’s supporters had they been able to do so. It may sound like an oxymoron, but as long as the rebels are able to hold their ground, short of winning; as long as the two sides are weak; as long as no side is capable of hammering a decisive victory, chances of a titanic genocide are diminished, while the odds of a political settlement are intensifying. It’s not enough to even out the fire power between the opposing sides of the Syrian civil war. Balancing fire power is better effected by damaging the stronger side rather than strengthening the weaker one.
The US Congress should support their president in his attempt to do the right thing with regard to Syria. Failing to punish Assad at this time will only reproduce the shameful Munich Agreement of September 30th, 1938, where the former British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, announced "peace for our time" on the steps of 10 Downing Street, straight after returning from Munich, where he and government leaders from France, and Italy had signed an agreement with Hitler letting him divide and occupy part of Czechoslovakia in the “hope of averting war”. That specific agreement and its appeasing essence was the main reason Hitler felt that the Western powers were weak, naïve, shunning confrontation at all cost, and easily overpowered. That ”Munich Moment” served as hors d'oeuvre to the main course—Hitler’s disastrous blastoff of World War II.
And the rest is history.
If Congress declares: “Let Assad use chemical weapons with impunity. Let him do it in the “hope of averting war”, then that particular sad chapter in recent history will, without doubt, repeat itself.
Many in the world consider the American president’s latest delay maneuver, as weakness and lack of resolve. The “victorious” Assad’s criminal regime, his Hezbollah allies and even the Iranian Mullahs are among the most vocal appraisers of the American president; they bathe in their own jubilation—“America is a barking dog, scared of biting our mighty, brave army,” they postulate.
The Israeli public is frustrated. Increasingly, the Jewish nation has been losing faith in this US president. Should American response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons on his own people turn impotent, Israelis are worried that the US President would not resort to using force to break off an emboldened Iran, whose nuclear ambitions would be bolstered by Obama’s retreat on Syria. The Ayatollah, they suppose, would dare crossing the red line; he would gamble calling Obama on his seeming bluff. Consequently, the Israeli government may come closer to taking preventive military action against Iran without US backing. The outcome may not be as comprehensive or as damaging to Iran as if the US had initiated the encounter. Consequently, Iran may be able to retaliate, and the next Middle East war may force the US to intervene, but without the advantage of instigating the opening move.
The American public is war-fatigued; it is reluctant to venture into a new military conflict while the muddle in Afghanistan is still brewing. Some even view Obama’s burden-shifting to Congress as a way out, an excuse for not following up on his red-line stipulation. Obama may excuse himself by claiming: “Well, I meant what I had said, but Congress…”
But wait a minute. Aren’t all these postulations a bit premature? What if by the end of September, the US and the world will be looking at a humiliated Assad, with his head between his knees; what if Assad will be weakened enough so that his recent winning streak in his civil war will come to an abrupt halt; what if Syria or its sympathizers fail or find themselves unable to retaliate to a mid-September US assault that shrinks Assad’s military potency to a the one assumed by a wounded raccoon; what if President Obama’s strategy—provided that Congress support and back his plan for Syria—provides the American president with added boldness and determination, effecting a more resourceful military campaign?
Of course, if Congress denies Obama’s request for support, then the skeptics’ early glee, the faultfinders, the Assads, the Iranians, the Russians, will be wholly justified. But there is little chance of that given the enormous stakes at the gate. At the end of the day, Congress would find it downright irresponsible to have the US eminence and super power status sink down to its grave, emulating a “Munich Moment”.
Obama has taken a gamble. I believe he will prevail. I believe he will come away stronger and more determined. I believe he will follow up on his red line warning to Syria. I believe Assad and Iran will be taught a great lesson. His gambit will pay off at the end. Sacrificing a short term glory for a long term evident victory is what the great chess champions have been putting into practice all along.