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A man, a can and the end of the road

May 5th, 2013 - 3:10 am

And now Israel prepares for the inevitable response. The Washington Post reports “Israel’s military has deployed a rocket defense system to the north of the country following reported Israeli airstrikes in neighboring Syria targeting weapons believed to be destined for Lebanon’s Hezbollah militants.” The retaliation for Israel’s attack on Assad will not be long in coming. The only question is how heavy it will be.

Amos Harel at Haaretz says Israel, quite without its public becoming distinctly aware of it, is now facing a volatile situation on the northern border. The danger had been building up for a while, a fact obvious to all who were watching.  But it never quite got the press attention it deserved.

It seems this kind of escalation between Israel and Syria has been simmering behind the scenes for quite some time. Over the past year, Bashar Assad’s regime has steadily been losing its hold in Syria. Assad’s loyalists are throwing everything they have into near-desperate attempts to save what is left of his regime — the capital, Damascus, the Alawite salient in northwestern Syria and the narrow corridor between them. Assad is highly dependent on Hezbollah’s aid in this fight. Perhaps because of that, he cannot really refuse when Hezbollah asks him to transfer arms into Lebanon — and the Lebanese allow this because they believe Assad cannot hold out much longer.

The bottom line is that Israel, after years of successfully standing aloof from the ‘Arab Spring’ has now finally been dragged into the fray. And it is extraordinarily perilous because there are lots of moving parts churning in this drama, few of whom are good, and some of whom are not even sane.

But even the Left wing Israeli newspaper admitted that the light bulb is only now going on in Barack Obama’s head.  Against all odds he seems surprised it has come to this. “The Obama administration must admit, too little and too late, the high likelihood that Assad’s loyalists used chemical weapons against their opponents twice in March, once near Damascus and once near Aleppo. Despite President Barack Obama’s reservations about increased American involvement in the war itself, the discoveries could encourage the transfer of significant military aid from the United States to the rebels.”

All of a sudden the Arab Spring crisis has loomed up large, consequential and dangerous. It’s no longer the fun event that the President was glad to lead from behind in the heady days of Tahrir Square. Since then Obama has been trying furiously to distance himself from the eruptions in the region and his own Red Lines. The problem is whether he can find a long enough stick to keep in touch without getting singed by the flames. Recently the President expressed his firm determination to put Assad in his place while disavowing the means to do so:

“As a general rule, I don’t rule things out as commander-in-chief because circumstances change,” Obama said during a joint news conference with President Laura Chinchilla of Costa Rica, where the president stopped during a three-day visit to the region.

“…Having said that, I do not foresee a scenario in which boots on the ground in Syria, American boots on the ground in Syria, would be good for America or be good for Syria.”

Obama said he has consulted with leaders in the region, who want to see stability return to Syria, and “they agree with that assessment.”

Even so, the president said that if the United States confirms the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government against its people, “that’s a game changer for us.”

It was classic Obama: a grandiose plan followed by an admission of bankruptcy, a juxaposition of statements that in other circumstances might meet the definition of a joke. Even the New York Times had to utter a mild chuckle. “Confronted with evidence that chemical weapons have been used in Syria, President Obama now finds himself in a geopolitical box, his credibility at stake with frustratingly few good options.” The manner in which the President inflicted the wound on himself was described by the Times. He forgot the script.

In a frenetic series of meetings, the White House devised a 48-hour plan to deter President Bashar al-Assad of Syria by using intermediaries like Russia and Iran to send a message that one official summarized as, “Are you crazy?” But when Mr. Obama emerged to issue the public version of the warning, he went further than many aides realized he would.

Moving or using large quantities of chemical weapons would cross a “red line” and “change my calculus,” the president declared in response to a question at a news conference, to the surprise of some of the advisers who had attended the weekend meetings and wondered where the “red line” came from. With such an evocative phrase, the president had defined his policy in a way some advisers wish they could take back.

“The idea was to put a chill into the Assad regime without actually trapping the president into any predetermined action,” said one senior official, who, like others, discussed the internal debate on the condition of anonymity. But “what the president said in August was unscripted,” another official said. Mr. Obama was thinking of a chemical attack that would cause mass fatalities, not relatively small-scale episodes like those now being investigated, except the “nuance got completely dropped.”

The moral of the story may be to never let the President interrupt his own teleprompter. By wandering off the script he was forced to substitute his own thoughts.

Since the beginning of his term the President has subsisted on set-pieces and rigged forums. But unfortunately the rapidly unfolding situation in the Middle East may mean that the media can no longer hand him his lines; that actual Chief Executive decisions will soon have to be made spontaneously. And without the scripts, cuts and retakes, to use a television metaphor the audience will soon discover whether it has an actual President or just someone lip-syncing the part.

Right now, as the NYT notes, Obama is being trapped by his own words.  To avoid humiliation he now repudiating his long standing policies to bring them in line with his gaffes. That way he can avoid seeming to contradict himself.

As a result, the president seems to be moving closer to providing lethal assistance to the Syrian rebels, even though he rejected such a policy just months ago. American officials have even discussed with European allies the prospect of airstrikes to take out Syrian air defenses, airplanes and missile delivery systems, if government use of chemical weapons is confirmed. … The evolution of the “red line” and the nine months that followed underscore the improvisational nature of Mr. Obama’s approach to one of the most vexing crises in the world, all the more striking for a president who relishes precision.

But maybe the reality of the President’s true skill level is beginning to leak out. And others besides the NYT may be starting to realize their actor is in over his head. Whatever the President’s ideological shortcomings, these may now be secondary to his lack of managerial skill. The President has so far managed to surround himself with an extraordinary number of mediocrities — hacks, political operatives, second-raters.  Now he needs help, real help. But where will it come from? And all the succor he’s  going to get will come from Jarret, Kerry and Hagel.  Now after 5 years of strength-sapping blunders this competence deficit may start becoming critical. America can survive fools when the crisis is less acute. Now with the design margin much reduced it is becoming important again to be competent.

The Middle East may be entering an extraordinarily risky period. The stakes are no longer ratings on TV shows or popularity with the Base. This is about avoiding a disaster. It is now about preventing a real catastrophe. Let’s hope that Washington in its collective wisdom still knows how to recognize when it’s in a hole and stop digging.


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Top Rated Comments   
I just logged in and spent a half hour trying to write a well reasoned comment, and PJ's fancy new system just killed it. I just don't have the time or patience now to recreate it. I noticed that we see less than half the traffic now on Richard's fine blog that there was previously. PJ has really, really ruined a fine BLOG community here with their new software. What were they thinking? Wretchard, you deserve a better forum host than this.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
“what the president said in August was unscripted,”
Wretchard you got this right. It is now official US policy that Presidential statements are not valid unless they are read off a teleprompter. In "Yes Prime Minister" the PM and the POTUS once just exchanged staff briefing notes rather than bore each other by having to listen to both read prepared texts, so they could spend the balance of the meeting more profitably "rubbishing the French." Jay & Lynn's idea not mine MC.

What is the real problem we need to address? What is in our interests? If the problem is that Syria needs a Muslim Brotherhood linked government then we should ship weapons to the MB affiliated rebels. If not then we should not. If the problem is that the failing fascist ally of Iran and Russia has WMD that is likely to fall into the hands of terrorists then we do not solve that problem by giving weapons to the very terrorists we are worried about.

We cannot support Assad in this conflict because he has chosen to make himself toxic. Churchill once said that if Hitler invaded hell he would at least make a favorable mention of the Devil in the House. Assad lacks Stalin's virtue of potency. He does not meet the standard of utility that Saddam had to earn US aid during the Iran-Iraq War.

Since the problems are the WMD and the likely hostile nature of any successor regime we need to focus on destroying the WMD and reducing the ability of a future Syrian regime to cause damage. The short term goal can be met by enforcing a No Fly Zone and destroying depots and factories. We also could consider buying the WMD from Assad, perhaps by offering him a villa on the "Côte d'Azur."

The long term goal may be met through a range of options that need to be debated. Perhaps Syria needs to go through a period of occupation and recolonization to change the culture. That is unlikely to happen given that the US was unwilling to stay in Iraq and assume a task that large.

Allowing a Muslim Brotherhood/Salafist/AQ regime to take power over the whole country, i.e. choose the rebels as the strong horse, is also unlikely to work. They will not become our friends or even prove competent rulers able to avoid violence and further fracturing of the society. It is less likely that they would succeed in Syria than in Egypt, and that is not exactly proving an advertisement for "leading from behind."

Nor can we simply step back and contain a hostile regime in Damascus by building up our presence offshore and with her neighbors. The disarmament of America makes it harder to contain threats and more likely that we will have to resort to invasions with our remaining forces, in the hope that we can get in and out quickly. The world may be littered with broken targets in the future. Powell's dictum "you break it, you own it" will not work with a shrunken US military.

Another way to defang Syria might be to break it up into cantons. That is likely to result in bleeding ulcers that export hate and violence and drugs and other criminality for decades or centuries to come. While each component, Alawite or Shia or Druze or Kurd or Sunni, will lack the resources to pose conventional threats on a large scale there remain problems with the "break it up" plan. First is that the Christians will fare poorly in a more Balkanized future. In fact there are few paths forward that I see that do not look bad for the remaining Christians in the region. Second is that the threat of future WMD development is not eliminated since even small and poor regimes can now develop weapons and pass them to terrorists. Third is that while some cantons could prosper the majorities will be trapped in Salafist or Shi'a hells. They will prove breeding grounds for future conflicts and the pathologies, criminal etc., described above.

There are no good or obvious choices that I see here. Given the shameful and unneeded weakening of America imposed on us by the treachery of the Democrats we can only hope to navigate through a hostile future by finding the least bad path. My guess is that some combination of cantonization and a soon to fail containment policy will evolve. That is likely to set us up for the next round of disasters.
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
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All Comments   (54)
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Perhaps Assad is trying get us to attack him to unite the country? Remember, they have no scruples at all. We are talking Ba'ath philosophy here.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
PS Can you quote a real newspaper?
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
Living in the area you mention, one minute from Lebanon as the missle flies, in a city where Hezbollah scored some pretty close hits (however we had evacuated what coudl blow up), it does not seem that we are in that dire a situation. (Maybe I'd better get the gas masks down just in case.)

Guess how much warning they get in Kiryat Shmonah and Nahariyih? Zero.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
And who writes Obama's speeches? Aside from the Poli Sci and Law School geeks (junior versions of himself) whose only exposure to the real world involved those hair-netted ladies at the campus dining hall, he relies on the Iranian-born Valerie Jarrett and ex-newspaper hack David Axelrod - a man who thinks it's 1974, he's Alan Alda and he has the grooming and wardrobe to match.

There is precious little intentional humor where Obama's ad libs are concerned, but there is some unintentional humor when he runs out of printed material. Whenever an audience applauds or cheers, you can see and hear his delight. Invariably, some superfluous rah-rah exclamation will follow: "It's the right thing to do!" "I mean that!" "We can't wait!" etc. As with most things associated with him and his perpetual campaign, the issue being discussed is immaterial when basking in adulation.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
UN human rights investigators have assigned the capability to make, package and deliver sarin gas to the Syrian Arab Spring. Bashar al-Assad would nver do that because Zero said:

“We will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people.”

So that is that. Nothing to see here.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
How about against us?
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
I just logged in and spent a half hour trying to write a well reasoned comment, and PJ's fancy new system just killed it. I just don't have the time or patience now to recreate it. I noticed that we see less than half the traffic now on Richard's fine blog that there was previously. PJ has really, really ruined a fine BLOG community here with their new software. What were they thinking? Wretchard, you deserve a better forum host than this.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
FWIW. If I have a longish thought to post I write in in Word, then copy and paste here, for exactly the reasons you state.
Further, if it is a good piece I steal from myself for other uses.
ta
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
Obama's a phony! He's always been a phony! He doesn't want people around him that he can't trust to push his fraudulent image! When you see him without a teleprompter or script, he is lost! He fumbles and mumbles and doesn't make sense, for instance his last news conference! He is the proverbial "empty suit"! He's a party man, a pot smoking man, a cheater, a wheeler and dealer who sets himself up to receive tainted money from questionable supporters! He could care less about the country, he only cares about OBAMA!!
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
For quite some time now Obama has reminded me of those famous/notorious cases of people who succeeded very well in life despite the fact they couldn't read. It was a shameful secret hanging over them, but they found ways to compensate and overcome, until such time as they had to give up the ghost, and things came crashing down. His whole pattern of "governance" reminds me of the techniques and tricks these celebrated "illiterates" used to hide their huge weakness.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
"But even the Left wing Israeli newspaper admitted that the light bulb is only now going on in Barack Obama’s head."

And a mighty dim bulb it is.
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
blert,
Granting everything you say about Command & Control as correct and acknowledging the structure established by the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986, in fairness JackWayne has a point. The current members of the JCS are mostly mediocrities selected for political compliance and moral flexibility, whose principle function is to implement PC staffing policies and gut future present or past combat systems. They are the American secular equivalents of most Church of England Bishops.

Subotai Bahadur,
Thanks Old Boy. Stopped clocks you know. I was bound to get something right.
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
I love the comparision.
49 weeks ago
49 weeks ago Link To Comment
Well, you had me at 'toadies'...

50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
You mentioned some of the mediocrities surrounding Obama. I think a major omission is the Joint Chiefs.
50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
Plainly you don't understand the flow of control / command structure.

The Joint Chiefs have absolutely ZERO operational or policy control over American armed forces.

Their real task is to fight the battle of appropriations -- looking out years into the future -- to purchase and structure the armed forces for use in the future.

Because of modern communication systems, and historical experiences, the US military is run out of the White House -- specifically the National Security Council -- (Named by Truman actually 'stood up' by FDR to get America into WWII) with command authority shooting through the Sec Def and major regional commands. ( CincPac, et. al.)

These days, the Joint Chiefs are not normally even consulted on battle options. That kind of stuff went out with Kennedy and Johnson.

50 weeks ago
50 weeks ago Link To Comment
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