Obama on Syria: "My Credibility Isn't On the Line"

Posted: Sep 04, 2013 4:45 PM
Obama on Syria: "My Credibility Isn't On the Line"

The president doth protest too much:

A defiant President Obama declared his credibility was not on the line when it came to Syria.  Instead, he said, it was the credibility of Congress, and the international community, that was on the line..."My credibility is not on the line.  The international community’s credibility is on the line.  And America’s and Congress’s credibility is on the line.”  On the question of whether or not he would strike Syria even if Congress rejected the resolution authorizing military action, the president did not offer a direct answer, but he made it clear he retained the authority strike, regardless of what Congress did.  “I would not have taken this before Congress just as a symbolic gesture,”  Obama said. “I think it’s very important that Congress say that we mean what we say. And I think we will be stronger as a country in our response if the president and Congress does it together.”  But, he added: “As commander in chief, I always preserve the right and the responsibility to act on behalf of America’s national security.  I do not believe that I was required to take this to Congress, but I did not take this to Congress just because it is an empty exercise.”

Let's see.  This president drew a red line for the Assad regime, and his White House cited it on numerous occasions.  That line has been crossed -- repeatedly, according to the administration.  He's right that America's credibility is on the line, which is a big reason why many conservatives (who are no fans of this president) may end up supporting a military strike against Syria.  But he, and he alone, is Commander-in-Chief.  What Obama says on the international stage matters.  His credibility is tied to the nation's.  Barack Obama may be accustomed to changing his tune at the drop of a hat and getting away with it, but our global adversaries aren't fan-girl American reporters; they adopt a steely-eyed view of any American president's words and actions, especially when rhetoric and behavior don't align.  Insisting that his credibility isn't on the line is myopic and defensive.  Of course it is.  Jon Stewart can chuckle about "measuring contests" all he wants -- and much of that segment is pretty damn funny -- but the reputation and prestige of the United States of America is no laughing matter.  Separately, the president's bizarre dance on Congressional approval is as incoherent as the rest of his Syria policy.  To recap, he changed his mind at the last minute and acceded to a vote in Congress, hit the links, then averred that he still has the authority to act without the legislative branch's consent -- which he still says would be more than "symbolic."  What happens if Congress votes the resolution down?  If Obama moves ahead with a strike anyway, the vote will be exposed as a total farce, and his action would touch off a constitutional crisis.  Rand Paul is pressuring Congress to plant a flag over the question to which Obama "did not offer a direct answer" earlier.  Incidentally, I want to revisit something I wrote about earlier this afternoon regarding arming the rebels and "boots on the ground."  John McCain made his position even more explicit today, having indicated that the president is on board with shipping more sophisticated munitions to the Free Syrian Army:

As we fully expected, Sen. John  McCain (R-Ariz.) rejected out of hand revised resolution that would narrow presidential discretion and put a 60 day limit on military action, subject to a 30-day extension.  He told reporters who asked if he’d support the language: “In its current form, I do not. . . There’s no reference to changing the momentum on the battlefield, there’s no reference to arming the Free Syrian Army.” 

One of the biggest concerns about an American intervention in Syria is that large elements of Assad's opposition seem to be at least as evil as the current regime.  By "degrading" Assad's military capabilities, that shifts at least some degree of advantage to the rebels.  A large number of said rebels are Islamist extremists -- you know, the sorts of people Americans wouldn't want possessing powerful, US-supplied weapons.  According to a piece in the Wall Street Journal last week, the Free Syrian Army is a relatively moderate and actively engaged fighting force:

Moderate opposition forces—a collection of groups known as the Free Syrian Army—continue to lead the fight against the Syrian regime. While traveling with some of these Free Syrian Army battalions, I've watched them defend Alawi and Christian villages from government forces and extremist groups. They've demonstrated a willingness to submit to civilian authority, working closely with local administrative councils. And they have struggled to ensure that their fight against Assad will pave the way for a flourishing civil society. One local council I visited in a part of Aleppo controlled by the Free Syrian Army was holding weekly forums in which citizens were able to speak freely, and have their concerns addressed directly by local authorities. Moderate opposition groups make up the majority of actual fighting forces, and they have recently been empowered by the influx of arms and money from Saudi Arabia and other allied countries, such as Jordan and France. This is especially true in the south, where weapons provided by the Saudis have made a significant difference on the battlefield, and have helped fuel a number of recent rebel advances in Damascus.

This may have been what Sec. Kerry was referring to yesterday when he stated that the Syrian opposition has taken a distinct turn towards secular moderation.  If we're going to arm rebels, might the FSA be our best bet?  They're moderate, civilian-controlled, fairly pluralistic...and, according to a new report from Foreign Policy, they're descending into disarray and splintering:

As the United States moves closer to taking military action against the Syrian government, the leadership of the mainstream armed opposition force has chosen a curious time to appear to be on the verge of unraveling. Known generically as the Free Syrian Army (FSA), this assortment of mostly secular defecting Sunni Arab officers and mostly Islamist volunteers has attempted several reorganizations. The most recent of these is now seriously threatened by a resignation threat from senior commanders...On August 22, four of the five front commanders threatened to resign from the SMC, promising to break “red lines” and work “with all forces fighting in Syria,” a clear reference to the war’s growing Salafist-Jihadist contingent. The statement was read by Colonel Fatih Hasun, who is the commander of the SMC’s Homs Front and the deputy chief-of-staff, that is to say, Idriss’s deputy and the most senior officer inside the country. Hasun added that rebels would no longer respect demands by outside powers that they not attempt to take over government-controlled chemical weapons sites.

There are zero stable institutions inside Syria right now.  The most promising Western partners today may be disbanded or openly working with Al Qaeda tomorrow.  Does it make any sense to funnel support and powerful weapons to this group, especially if we have no people on the ground to vet the recipients and ensure that bad actors don't make off with the arms once they arrive?  In his walked-back, "thinking out loud" answer yesterday, Sec. Kerry said he could only envision American troops in Syria if they country were to "implode."  If a horrific civil war with WMDs being deployed and Al Qaeda-types gaining control over vast swaths of territory isn't an implosion, what is?  The Washington consensus is that a "negotiated settlement" is the end goal in Syria.  Negotiated among whom?  The chemical weapons-using dictator, disintegrating moderate forces, and Al Qaeda?  I'll leave you with this:

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