Belmont Club

A man, a can and the end of the road

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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.

The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99

Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99

No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99

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