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Nagging Doubts

The president’s efforts to whip up some enthusiasm for war in Syria are not going well. Members of Congress from both parties are reluctant to authorize military action, international opinion is almost entirely against it, and the latest revelations in the news aren’t likely to bolster the president’s case.
A story appeared Thursday in The New York Times, formerly a reliable friend of the president, which portrayed the Syrian rebels who are likely to benefit from American intervention as a bloodthirsty bunch of Islamist fanatics who have summarily executed prisoners of war and committed various other atrocities. The unsavoriness of our Syrian allies is also being widely reported in the European press, and Britain’s The Telegraph tells of the rebel’s brutal treatment of Christians in a captured town. Even the State Department is citing the rebels’ suicide bombings and frequent attacks on civilians in its warning against travel in Syria, despite Secretary of State John Kerry’s assurances to Congress that only 15 to 20 percent of the rebels are “bad guys.”
Such unfavorable coverage of our potential allies makes it hard to win support for their cause, and it also adds to the nagging doubts about who was responsible for the chemical weapons attack that is the president’s sole justification for taking action against the Syrian government. The administration is adamant that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad ordered the attack, and has lately elevated its language from “a high level of confidence” to “beyond the shadow of a doubt,” but the few pages of evidence it has offered for the claim are being widely disputed. Russian leader Vladimir Putin has provided the United Nations with 100 pages of argument that the rebels launched the attack to lure America into the country’s civil war, Florida’s ultra-Democratic Rep. Al Grayson is telling anyone who will listen that evidence of Assad’s guilt has been “manipulated,” and after the failure to find stockpiles of chemical weapons in Iraq after they were offered as one reason for a war there many people in between are bound to be suspicious.
We have no fondness for Putin or Grayson, or those who insist that the intelligence reports preceding the Iraq war were deliberately deceptive, but there is a troubling plausibility to their suspicions. The Syrian rebels seem quite capable of murdering a thousand of their countrymen in a false flag operation designed to dupe an American president, the president does seem quite capable of falling for it, and it is hard to explain why Assad would cross a presidentially-declared “red line” and possibly provoke American intervention and international scorn by using chemical weapons at a time when he seemed to be winning without them. The evidence against Assad might justify a high level of confidence, but at this point it does not seem beyond the shadow of a doubt, and it would be highly embarrassing to America if proof emerges that it has punished an innocent party and brought about the victory of the guilty.
Making a case that will overcome these doubts would be hard for any president, but this one is especially ill-positioned to make it. As a candidate he had happily exploited the public’s doubt about the intelligence that led to Iraq war, insisted that presidents don’t have the constitutional authority to order military action without congressional approval, argued that favorable international opinion was also required to fight and promised that he would be the one who would win it, and has president he now has to repudiate all of it. We’re told that some sort of action is needed to restore the president’s credibility, but his credibility is already a casualty of a war that hasn’t yet begun.

— Bud Norman

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Bad Guys, Worse Guys, and the Middle East

Perhaps there is some coherent reasoning behind America’s recent foreign policy, which now finds the country backing a bunch of al Qaeda-affiliated Islamist nutcases in the bloody Syrian civil war. If so, it would be nice if someone from the Obama administration could provide the explanation.
To be fair to the Obama administration, not backing the al Qaeda-affiliated Islamist nutcases was also a bad option. The Assad regime that the rebels are trying to overthrow is also quite nasty and a threat to American interests, its continued survival would strengthen the position of a troublesome Iranian regime that is rapidly closing in on a nuclear weapons capability, Assad’s use of chemical weapons has exacerbated an already dire humanitarian situation, and after Obama’s declaration of a “red line” against the use of chemical weapons inaction would further erode America’s credibility in a region where it has already been ceding influence. At this point, with no good guys left in the fight, backing a bunch of al Qaeda-affiliated Islamist nutcases is arguably the least-worst option.
Lest one be too fair, though, it should also be noted that it was a series of blunders that led us to this point. The Obama administration spent years that could have been used bolstering a more democratic and pro-western resistance in a futile attempt to flatter Syria into compliance with international standards of behavior, with the past Secretary of State praising Assad as a “reformer,” which was part of an equally futile effort to persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions by the force of sheer niceness, and the “red line” declaration was a bit of too-little, too-late bluster that only boxed the administration into its current lousy options. An conspicuously equivocal relationship with Israel, precipitous withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, the betrayal of a friendly regime in favor of a Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, the “lead from behind” toppling of a dictator who had already bowed to American in Libya, the tragic debacle that followed in Benghazi, and a generally apologetic tone all further encouraged defiance from the likes of Assad, and all of the tinpot satraps of the Middle East are probably as a confounded by American foreign policy as we are.
It could get even worse, of course, if American aid to the rebels fails to topple Assad and he and his Iranian allies are able to trumpet their victory over the imperialist crusaders. It could also get worse if the rebels prevail, and they provide yet another model to provoke Islamist uprisings elsewhere and provide state support to terrorism against their former imperialist crusader allies. Things might get better, we suppose, but it’s hard to see how.
There will be the inevitable “wag the dog” theories that Obama is concocting a foreign military adventure to distract attention from the myriad scandals that have suddenly beset his administration, but as much as we are inclined to believe the worst of him it seems implausible. Something is always going on to justify such speculation, which arises with every foreign crisis, and Obama is at least shrewd enough to realize that another war won’t placate a left-wing base smoldering over revelations of an invasive National Security Administration and backing a bunch of al Qaeda-affiliated Islamist nutcases won’t please a right-wing opposition infuriated by the Internal Revenue Service’s harassment. After winning re-election on the argument that al Qaeda has been routed, and telling an audience at the National Defense University that the war on terror is winding down because “That’s what democracy demands,” we suspect that Obama would prefer a juicy celebrity scandal as a distraction rather than another war.
As appealing as the conspiracy theories might be, the more likely explanation is that a combination of bad luck, bad choices, and the inherently dangerous nature of the world have led us to this unpleasant situation. We’ll hope it all works out, somehow, but that’s not how we’ll bet.

— Bud Norman