Congress is back after a five week vacation, and they are returning to a very different and perhaps unexpected landscape. The debate over Syria rages on …
Today and tomorrow, Barack Obama is engaging in the Holy Grail of sales pitches. With 70% of the public against him, and a timid Congress, Obama is relying on his one strength and that is his ability to speak. Soaring rhetoric from Obama is nothing new, but most Americans realize that rhetoric won't save us from a possible war, an attack on our allies or the potential loss of American lives without our national interest at stake.
Today Obama will appear on six evening newscasts – ABC, CBS, CNN, FNC, NBC and PBS – culminating in an address to the nation tomorrow night. I do not believe that there is anything, short of proof that our national security interests are imminently at risk, that will convince the American people, Congress or the world of the need for the U.S. to take military action in Syria. A good sales pitch is not the problem here; Obama's incoherent foreign policy is the problem. Americans do not trust him, our allies cannot rely on him and our enemies no longer fear us. Obama cannot talk his way into recovering his credibility. This has been one of his biggest disconnects for him as president – The belief that his rhetoric will save him.
Will Congress come to the rescue and “save” Obama? That's not looking very likely at the moment. As lawmakers enjoyed their last weeks of vacation, their offices were flooded with calls about Syria. We've heard reports of some offices receiving calls 500 to 1 against military action in Syria. One has to wonder if that will make impact as lawmakers return. Amongst both parties, there appears to be a skepticism to act. At this time, it doesn't seem likely that Congress will approve military action in Syria. The question then becomes: Then what?
On the Sunday shows, White House Chief of Staff Dennis McDonough refused to play the game of hypotheticals. But to be frank, we find ourselves in a position filled entirely with hypotheticals: If Congress approves, if they disapprove, if Obama acts unilaterally, if Obama does nothing, if Assad responds, if Russia or Iran respond … questioning how this all plays out is very important when the president is asking for us to trust him with a military strike. We need to understand, very clearly what the game plan may be. The problem is that Obama has been so incoherent that people are beginning to doubt if the administration has thought through all of these scenarios. That's scary.
Then we have John Kerry who has passionately been pushing a case for a military strike. He told the London press that Assad had one week to turn over his chemical weapons in order to avoid a military attack. But the State Department quickly walked back that offer, threat, red line, or however you want to describe it. But Russia is now calling Kerry's bluff. According to a report from Fox News, “Just hours after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry made an off-hand comment about how Syria could avert a military strike by turning over its chemical weapons program, Russia's foreign minister is proposing that the Assad regime do just that.
Sergey Lavrov said Monday that Russia will push Syria to place its chemical weapons under international control.”
Then Kerry went on to describe the attack we are planning as “unbelievably small.” Here's the quote from the UK Guardian: "We will be able to hold Bashar al-Assad accountable without engaging in troops on the ground or any other prolonged kind of effort in a very limited, very targeted, short-term effort that degrades his capacity to deliver chemical weapons without assuming responsibility for Syria's civil war. That is exactly what we are talking about doing – unbelievably small, limited kind of effort." So again we have the administration continuing to telegraph the fact that any U.S. action will be nothing more than a pinprick. To hear John Kerry use the words “unbelievably small” is unbelievably absurd. If the goal is to make a point, is “unbelievably small” going to do the trick?
I also want you to notice how John Kerry defines victory: “[Degrading] his capacity to deliver chemical weapons.” So we aren't even talking about eliminating the weapons themselves, just the capacity to deliver these weapons. That is similar to what White House Chief of Staff Dennis McDonough told NBC's David Gregory: “Victory in this targeted effort means that he is degraded from doing it again, that deterred from doing it again.” Does “degraded” to the White House also mean degrading Assad's capacity to deliver or actually taking out the weapons altogether? If we simply strike the means of delivery, the chemical weapons still exist. What if Assad falls, then these chemical weapons can still fall into the hands of al Qaeda or other radical jihadists. I don't see this as a deterrent. After all, we've telegraphed the fact that securing these chemical weapons would require 75,000 troops on the ground, which is something that nobody in the United States wants. So unless the Obama administration is willing to go against the will of the people and much of Congress, all of the actors in Syria know that there really isn't a credible threat against them using these weapons again.
So apparently “victory” has been defined as an “unbelievably small” strike that degrades Assad's ability to delivery chemical weapons. One Obama official described it as such: “If Assad is eating Cheerios, we're going to take away his spoon and give him a fork. Will that degrade his ability to eat Cheerios? Yes. Will it deter him? Maybe. But he'll still be able to eat Cheerios.” This is getting embarrassing. We are willing to take away Assad's spoon and risk …. the following:
PBS' Charlie Rose spoke with Syria's Bashar al-Assad. Portions of the interview have been released. When asked about a U.S. strike on his country, Assad warned of “repercussions.” He says, "You should expect everything. Not necessarily from the government. It's not only the government ... in this region. You have different parties, you have different factions, you have different ideology." So there you go. How do you feel knowing that Syria has essentially threatened that “everything” is on the table in terms of retaliation if the U.S. strikes? How do you think Israel feels about that?
At the end of the day, the administration still cannot tell us if other countries have signed on for a military strike. John Kerry has boasted that at least 10 countries are on board, but he can't name them. So far we have France, and I'm not sure how committed they are depending on our level of response. While numerous countries have publicly condemned the use of chemical weapons, does that equate to support for a U.S. military strike? Nope. They simply support a “strong international response.”
Chris Wallace asked a good question of Obama's Chief of Staff: “If at the end of this process the president loses, doesn’t he become a lame duck the next day?” Looking ahead at the rest of Obama's presidency, one has to wonder the longterm impact of this showdown in Syria.