A couple of months ago, President Barack Obama drew a red line in Syria. He said if Syrian strongman Bashar al Assad, the Middle East’s answer to North Korea’s runt dictator, were to use chemical weapons against his political opponents, this would catch Mr. Obama’s interest and trigger a military response.
At least, that’s what everyone thought he said.
A little over a year ago, at one of Mr. Obama’s infrequent news conferences, the president said:
“I have at this point not ordered military engagement in the situation, but the point that you [a reporter] made about chemical and biological weapons is critical. That’s an issue that doesn’t concern just Syria. It concerns our close allies in the region, including Israel; it concerns us [the US]. We cannot leave a situation in which chemical and biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people. We have been VERY clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the grounds, that a red line for us is if we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons start moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus; that would change my equation. [Here a reporter begins to ask a question: “Somehow under… And Mr. Obama continues] In a situation this volatile, I wouldn't say that I am absolutely confident. What I’m saying is that we’re monitoring that situation very carefully. We have put together a range of contingency plans. We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region that that’s a red line for us, and there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front—or the use of chemical weapons. That would… that would change my calculations significantly.”
Mr. Assad, a host of American mouthpieces assured us, promptly crossed Mr. Obama’s red line and slew with chemical weapons some 1,429 people. Both the figure and the culprit are in dispute.
Following the mass poisoning, former Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, who replaced Hillary Clinton as Mr. Obama’s Secretary of State, was dispatched to huff and puff like Mars, the Greek God of war. Here is Mr. Kerry in August pinning the tail on the donkey:
"What we saw in Syria last week should shock the conscience of the world. It defies any code of morality. Let me be clear: The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity. By any standard, it is inexcusable. And despite the excuses and equivocations that some have manufactured, it is undeniable."
A military response was imminent. When Mr. Obama said -- “We have been VERY clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the grounds, that a red line for us is if we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons start moving around or being utilized” -- he wasn’t just whistling Dixie. The response, however, would be un-Bushian. It would entail no American boots on the ground. It would not lead to a Vietnam War boondoggle. Mr. Kerry, who both fought in Vietnam and later protested the war in the company of “The Winter Soldiers,” surely was trustworthy on this point.
Not to worry, the assault targeting Mr. Assad’s war material would be limited in time and scope, “an unbelievably small effort,” Mr. Kerry later explained.
Some people were worried, among them Russian President Vladimir Putin. Assad threatened reprisals as American war ships were dispatched to the area. Mr. Putin also threatened reprisals. Israel stoutly prepared to defend itself from anticipated attacks. Great Britain’s Parliament, for the first time since 1782, voted down a war resolution introduced by its Prime Minister. France flourished a war flag then ran it down the flagpole. After pressure on all sides had been brought to bear against him, Mr. Obama agreed to send the proposal for a limited engagement to Congress. Democratic senators bailed on Mr. Obama; Republican war hawks supported him. In Connecticut, U.S. Representative Chris Murphy said niet; Senator Dick Blumenthal promised to mull the matter over before casting a vote. The world, as sometimes happens when Mars begins bawling from the rooftop, turned upside-down.
In a “Yes, the earth is flat” moment, Mr. Obama denied that HE had laid down a red line:
"First of all, I didn't set a red line. The world set a red line. The world set a red line when governments representing 98 percent of the world's population said the use of chemical weapons are [inaudible] and passed a treaty forbidding their use, even when countries are engaged in war. Congress set a red line when it ratified that treaty. Congress set a red line when it indicated that in a piece of legislation entitled the Syria Accountability Act that some of the horrendous things happening on the ground there need to be answered for. So, when I said in a press conference that my calculus about what's happening in Syria would be altered by the use of chemical weapons, which the overwhelming consensus of humanity says is wrong, that wasn't something I just kind of made up. I didn't pluck it out of thin air. There's a reason for it."
And then, quick as the flick of a serpent’s tail, a miraculous thing happened: Eirene, the Greek Goddess of peace, Pax among the Romans, gave Ares, Mars among the Romans, a boot in the arse.
War hawk, peace hawk, war hawk Kerry, during a press availability in London, answered a question – Under what circumstances might this march towards war be averted? – by making what a press spokeswoman later would term a throw-away, purely rhetorical remark. “Sure, he [Bashar al-Assad] could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week - turn it over, all of it without delay and allow the full and total accounting, but he isn't about to do it and it can't be done.”
Mr. Putin intervened with Mr. Assad and then proceeded to exploit an entente. Syria and Iran, both enemies of the United States, are client states of Russia. The proposal casually tossed of by Mr. Kerry suddenly became a reality. Mr. Assad acceded to the Putin-Kerry proposal to turn over his chemical weapons to a United Nations agency, aborting a vote in Congress authorizing Mr. Obama’s belligerency.
The Congress, called upon by Mr. Obama to lay its fingerprints on a resolution giving the president authority to bomb Syria, let out its held breath, blowing off the roof of the Capitol building and flattening the Jefferson, Lincoln and Washington monuments.
The White House later announced that the same proposal had been spurned by Mr. Putin a year earlier. Now amenable to the proposal – given certain revisions -- Mr. Putin made arrangements with both Syria and Iran to supply both counties with new arms. Very likely, the turnover of chemical weapons from Syria to the United Nations, traditionally a playpen of autocratic regimes unfriendly to the United States, will not be able to be verified while Mr. Assad is at war with his opposition. As a condition of the entente, Mr. Putin has stressed the importance of U.S. disengagement. Translation: The U.S. must not ship arms to the enemies of Mr. Assad, while no such prohibition would encumber Mr. Putin. Such would appear to be the conditions of a Putin brokered entente between the United States and Syria. It was an offer Mr. Assad could not and did not refuse.
Among the winners in the serendipitous deal brokered by Mr. Putin, other than Mr. Putin himself, are Syria and Democrats in the U.S. Congress, who narrowly missed a bullet. In the absence of the Putin-Kerry-Obama-Assad entente, the Congress was poised to vote on U.S. intervention in Syria. Anti-war Democrats, weary of the repeated engagements of U.S. troops in such corners of the world as cosmopolitan Afghanistan, the graveyard of empires, some Democrats were in the process of jumping Mr. Obama’s war ship and did not relish an up or down vote on Mr. Obama’s and Mr. Kerry’s “unbelievably small effort.” That vote almost certainly would have affected upcoming Congressional elections.
Having from time to time rented the American military out to international interests as an enforcer of what Mr. Obama has called “international norms,” the American people have become suspicious of lofty supra-national presidential claims. In fact, there is no such thing as an international foreign policy – never had been, never will be. A nation’s foreign policy, throughout history rooted in sound distinctions between friendly and unfriendly states, becomes incomprehensible as soon as it is detached from national interests. For this reason, a president who fancies himself a world historical individual cannot be the architect of a rational national foreign policy. Unfortunately for the United States, Mr. Obama’s international ambitions are, to put it colloquially, too big for his nation’s britches. One does not expect clarity in foreign policy from a U.S. president who seems incapable of making proper distinctions between the friends and enemies of the United States.
The intentions of Mr. Putin, who rarely strays from what he thinks may be the national interests of Russia, are far more lucid. The United States having rented its military might to international interests, has now permitted its foreign policy to be kneaded and shaped by Mr. Putin. Mr. Obama and Mr. Kerry are mere onlookers leading, as always, from behind.