President Barack Obama said that an introduction of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war would constitute a "red line" with "enormous consequences" that "would change [his] calculus." That was a year ago. This past March, Obama said, "We will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people, or the transfer of those weapons to terrorists. ... We will hold [Bashar al-Assad] accountable."
Credible sources -- including Britain, France and U.S. intelligence agencies -- accuse the Syrian government of using chemical weapons on two or more occasions, once last December and possibly twice during March. Obama took no action.
Last week, Secretary of State John Kerry again made an allegation of another use of chemical weapons, this time resulting in the deaths of up to 1,000 men, women and children. "It is undeniable," said Kerry, that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons. Obama officials now say, off-the-record, that a military strike of some sort -- probably cruise missiles -- is just a matter of when.
Let's back up, ask some questions and revisit a few assumptions.
Former Secretary of State and then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Colin Powell issued the "Powell Doctrine" and received praise from Democrats and Republicans, doves and hawks. Powell set forth several conditions for the commander-in-chief to meet before using the military. A military mission, according to Powell, must first and foremost be vital to our national security. The mission should be clearly defined, have an exit strategy, use overwhelming force to achieve its objective and enjoy popular domestic support.
A military mission in Syria satisfies (SET ITAL) none (END ITAL) of those conditions. Is the objective to topple the regime of Bashar al-Assad? Will firing some missiles accomplish this objective? If not, then what? If so, what comes next? Should the "rebels" succeed, will the new government be any less hostile to the U.S. and treat its people -- especially the opposition -- any better?
As for popular support for a military action against Syria, there isn't any. A Reuters/Ipsos poll finds that only 9 percent support military action in Syria. If it were proved that Syria used chemical weapons, support increases to 25 percent, with 46 percent opposed.
Finally, recall that Kerry confidently calls it "undeniable" that the Syria government used chemical weapons. He cites various intelligence sources. Yet, Kerry, when running for president in 2004, accused George W. Bush of a "rush to war" on "faulty intelligence."
Bush relied on the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate. All 16 of the U.S. agencies involved in intelligence gathering and analysis reported "with the highest probability" that Iraq ruler Saddam Hussein possessed stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction.
When weapon inspectors found no such stockpiles, "Bush lied, people died" became the slogan widely used by Bush critics. Never mind official investigations here and in England found that neither Bush nor British Prime Minister Tony Blair intentionally misled or "sexed up" the intel to make a case for war.
Nor, when the stockpiles failed to materialize, did Bush's critics thank him for ridding Iraq of the humanitarian disaster represented by Saddam Hussein. Now Bush did not sell the war as a humanitarian mission. Nor should he have. But reportedly in Syria, more than 100,000 people have died in the current conflict. In Saddam's Iraq, human rights groups estimate that Saddam Hussein murdered, on the low side, as many as 300,000 people. Some put the number at over one million.
When Bush administration officials argued, at the very least, the world "is better off without Saddam," critics accused the supposedly warmongering Bush of "changing the rationale" for war after the fact.
Obama used the military to help topple Libya's Moammar Gadhafi. Yet in that case, Gadhafi had already turned his weapons of mass destruction over the U.S., fearing the same fate as Saddam. Is military action in Syria another humanitarian mission or is it vital national security interests? Obama could not wait to get out of Afghanistan and Iraq, having called the latter a "dumb war." But Syria is vital?
True, Syria's weapons stockpile could end up in the hands of terrorists who will use them the to strike America or American interests. But how can the U.S. safeguard Syria's WMDs and keep them out of the hands of bad guys -- assuming we could sort them out -- especially without using ground troops and a sustained presence?
A recent letter to the editor in the Financial Times neatly summarizes the challenge, in that neighborhood, of separating the bad from the really bad:
"Sir, Iran is backing Assad. Gulf states are against Assad!
"Assad is against Muslim Brotherhood. Muslim Brotherhood and Obama are against General Sisi.
"But Gulf states are pro-Sisi! Which means they are against Muslim Brotherhood!
"Iran is pro-Hamas, but Hamas is backing Muslim Brotherhood!
"Obama is backing Muslim Brotherhood, yet Hamas is against the U.S.!
"Gulf states are pro-U.S. But Turkey is with Gulf states against Assad; yet Turkey is pro-Muslim Brotherhood against General Sisi. And General Sisi is being backed by the Gulf states!
"Welcome to the Middle East, and have a nice day."