- - Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Barack Obama’s failure to act led to the Syrian debacle

President Obama has spent so much time dithering on Syria that it’s no surprise most Americans find it hard to believe our interests are threatened by the situation.

Meanwhile, many informed observers remain hopeful that rather than waste time working with a Cold War relic such as Vladimir Putin, whose KGB handlers programmed him to hate America, Mr. Obama will instead make a more convincing case for why the United States cannot afford further inaction in Syria. Still, they shouldn’t hold their breath. Any compelling appeal crafted to inform the public of what is really at stake for the nation and our allies would, among many things, highlight a terribly inconvenient truth: While the administration admirably called for Syrian strongman Bashar Assad to step down, its subsequent policies have fueled one of our worst nightmares.

Ask America’s top defense and intelligence officials to identify a few worst-case scenarios for U.S. national security interests, and al Qaeda armed with weapons of mass destruction is sure to rank high on their lists.

Ask them how they think this might happen, and they may just tell you the truth: There is evidence it already has.

For instance, as noted in recent congressional testimony provided to the House Homeland Security Committee, on May 30, Turkish media reported two kilograms of sarin gas were seized during an operation conducted to disrupt an al-Nusra Front cell operating in Turkey. The following day, Iraqi authorities captured members of another al Qaeda cell who were reportedly planning to launch sarin gas attacks in Iraq.

While al Qaeda has worked for decades to develop chemical, biological, radiological and even nuclear weaponry “in house,” it should be obvious how members of al-Nusra Front, the Islamic State of Iraq and Ahrar al-Sham acquired the materials discovered in Turkey and Iraq.

Put simply, America’s inaction on the Syria front has done more than just make it possible for al Qaeda to develop a new affiliate in the Middle East. Our inaction has helped make it possible for the terrorist organization to seize chemical weapons banned for use by the international community. Moreover, our refusal to take action to contain growing threats posed by al Qaeda’s expansion in Syria has only helped make it possible for jihadis to move these weapons across international borders.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, American taxpayers have funded expensive, ongoing efforts to prevent al Qaeda and affiliated movements from developing weapons of mass destruction. Well before then, the United States began investing in systems designed to detect and warn authorities of efforts to ship even small amounts of radioactive material across our borders.

Yet it remains quite difficult to detect small shipments of the kinds of chemical weapons Mr. Assad has stockpiled in Syria. Hence, the long-standing speculation among various high-ranking officials that Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein transferred such materials to Syria just before the second U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Certainly, the difficulty of detecting a shipment of chemical weapons that could be used to kill thousands of Americans, Europeans or Israelis has made the attainment of these weapons a priority for al Qaeda. So, too, has the absence of a targeted effort to prevent jihadis from acquiring these weapons in Syria.

Any such effort should be led by the United States — not by a proliferator of weapons-of-mass-destruction technologies like Russia, which is working hard to incite a nuclear-arms race in the region. This effort should be undertaken in conjunction with an effort to force Mr. Assad from power. That is how a truly great power like the America we know would deal with this situation.

Indeed, it is most ironic to consider that while he has portrayed his predecessor as a man beholden to overreaction in the face of dubious intelligence, Mr. Obama’s legacy could become that of the president who ignored evidence that American military action in the Middle East is, in fact, necessary.

Of course, a legacy in ruins would not compare to the price of allowing al Qaeda to develop the means to unleash chemical weapons on Americans and our allies. This would not be a price Mr. Obama pays alone; the entire country would suffer tragedy for accommodating his policy of “leading from behind.” Until now, doing nothing in the face of the kind of manifold dangers we see in Syria has not been a feature of our country’s legacy — and that’s what has made America exceptional.

Retired U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Gen. James E. Livingston is a recipient of the Medal of Honor, America’s highest military honor. Michael S. Smith II is a counterterrorism adviser to a member of Congress. They are founders of the firm Kronos Advisory.