President Obama delivered an astonishing speech on Syria in the Rose Garden this afternoon. The Syrian government apparently crossed the “red line,” using chemical weapons against civilians on August 21. Ten days later, Obama stepped forward to articulate his plan…to delay any American response until at least September 9. That’s when Congress returns to Washington, at which time, the president said today, in his hectoring tone, he will take military strikes on Syria up for debate and a vote.
Consulting Congress and getting its approval is the right thing to do, unless a threat is so imminent that the president does not have time. That is not the case in Syria. The alleged chemical attack is already 10 days old. Obama should have sought authority to strike before launching the air war in Libya. He did not, and went on to conduct military operations beyond his statutory war powers. In the case of Syria’s use of chemical weapons, the groundwork for congressional approval should have begun August 22nd, not August 31st. Actually, it should have begun in 2012.
Now we’re left with a strange timetable. Secretary of State John Kerry made a strong case Friday that Syria’s actions represent a significant enough threat to America’s national security that we must act. Most Americans do not agree, but Kerry was delivering the Obama administration’s urgent position on Syria. But later Friday and especially today, President Obama poured cold water on the idea that there could be very much urgency to the threat. It certainly is not imminent. If it was, the missiles would be flying. Obama has just given Assad another fortnight to move his SCUDs and other potential targets, and line up his responses should the U.S. attack.
Additionally, Kerry’s statements this week did not appear to move the needle with Congress or the public. Odds are that another week plus of no action will not raise the appetite for military action.
President Obama has handled Syria with an utter lack of seriousness throughout. He labeled the use of chemical weapons a “red line” a year ago in an offhand comment, then spent the following year doing nothing to prepare the Congress or the public or the United Nations for the possibility that that red line would be crossed and then America would have to act. Now the red line has been crossed, but probably by both sides in the Syrian civil war at different times. Only Assad’s crossing it merits Obama’s attention, for some reason.
Stepping away from the red line, it remains clear that America has no viable allies on the ground in Syria. There may be Jeffersonian federalists extant somewhere in Damascus or the rebel-held territories, but they do not hold sway. One side is a brutal Baathist dictatorship aligned with Iran that supports Shiite terrorists; the other side is dominated by al Qaeda’s predominantly Sunni terrorists. Syria is a sectarian and tribal civil war.
If the president believes that Syria’s use of chemical weapons constitutes a significant enough threat to move warships into the region and put them on alert to strike at any time, as he said today, and if he really believes that Congress should back his actions, then he should have called Congress back into session to debate and vote. That he did not says that he believes he would lose that vote, but did not want to appear weak, and did not want to face the prospect of having to back his words with military strikes after Congress had rebuffed him.
Obama appears weak, indecisive and unable to back up his own words. Assad is not the only enemy who is watching.