Inside the Beltway: Dithering strategy on Syria

Too much talk, not enough action: The adage comes into play among those who criticize President Obama for either overthinking the Syria matter, huddling with advisers or simply handwringing on the sidelines as the situation grows worse. Of course, the slowing of discourse plus a series of mini-events and public statements could be strategic devices to buy time or prime diplomatic channels. Or not.

Certainly a meeting Monday afternoon with Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina — described by the press as “Republican hawks” — adds to the public impression that meaningful action, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, is underway.

There are political moments to consider. During their terms in the White House, Ronald Reagan ordered two airstrikes while Bill Clinton ordered six, including cruise missile launches and air attacks in late 1998 against Iraq for not complying with U.N. weapon inspections, according to Associated Press historical records. In 1998, the White House was dealing with Mr. Clinton’s dalliance with intern Monica Lewinsky, and it was a complicated moment, indeed. Republicans were convinced the strike was a diversion from possible impeachments hearings, though there were other interpretations.

“For Monica Lewinsky, they hit Afghanistan and Sudan. And now, for Monica’s eyes, they hit Baghdad,” an Al-Jazeera analyst noted.

These days, Secretary of State John F. Kerry vacillates between aggressive language and neutral promises that the Obama administration’s case for a surgical strike against Syria “is building.”

“This isn’t ‘CSI’ and we already know who the bad guy is,” proclaims a Boston Herald editorial. “Obama has said repeatedly he believes he has the power to act in the wake of this violation of international law — and he does.”

The newspaper frets much over Syrian President Bashar Assad.

“So why the decision at this late date to delay any action for at least another two weeks all the while giving Assad time to shelter weapons and the planes that deliver them? And what if during those two weeks — emboldened by this administration’s incompetence and dithering — Assad uses sarin again? What if there are more babies wrapped in white linen for the world the see? Then it’s all on us.”

PARSING THAT RESOLVE

The White House released the exact text of President Obama’s letter to Congress requesting authority to use military force in Syria. It consists of eight terse segments that begin with “Whereas” and essentially explain the attack that killed 1,429 Syrian civilians, and cite assorted legal points about chemical weapons, the United Nations and national security.

And the specifics? Mr. Obama says the objective of military force in Syria is to “deter, disrupt, prevent and degrade” the potential use of chemical weapons. He also points out that “the conflict in Syria will only be solved through a negotiated political settlement,” ultimately declaring in the final point: “Whereas, unified action by the legislative and executive branches will send a clear signal of American resolve.”

The aforementioned Sen. John McCain used the phrase “degrade” several times during his news conference on the White House driveway Monday. Other lawmakers will get their teeth into it all next Monday. Reactions surfacing, slowly but surely. Among them:

“Congress’ role in U.S. military force has too often been abdicated to presidential authority, so I look forward to a vigorous debate,” observes Sen. Bob Corker, Tennessee Republican, and a ranking member of the Foreign Relations committee.

“The United States should only engage militarily when it is pursuing a clear and attainable national security goal. Military action taken simply to send a message or save face does not meet that standard,” notes Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican.

FOR THE LEXICON

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