Twenty Fateful Words

When Secretary of State John Kerry was asked at a news conference in London early last week whether Syrian dictator Bashar Assad could do anything to avoid an American attack, he uttered 20 words that set off a rapid and chilling chain of events. By the time the dust settled — at least for now — Assad’s murderous regime was declaring victory, and Russian leader Vladimir Putin had emerged as the triumphant kingmaker.

“Sure,” Kerry said. “He can turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week.”

Within hours, the State Department had backtracked from Kerry’s remarks, calling them rhetorical. But Russia and Syria embraced the idea, and by the end of the day, though expressing deep skepticism, President Obama declared the Russian pitch “potentially a significant breakthrough” that could head off U.S. air strikes.

Some members of Congress were beside themselves trying to make sense of it all. First the Obama administration had appeared to be marching toward a strike. Then the president hit pause and asked Congress to approve his course. Then came the Russian idea, so yet another pause. Altogether, the arguments of the administration had grown awfully complicated and seemed to be changing by the hour.

“I’m going to start looking for medication,” Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, remarked Tuesday morning. “This place is a zoo.”

McKeon’s reaction is only understandable.

Less than a year ago, pundits were predicting that Assad’s control over Syria was crumbling and a rebel victory was all but inevitable. It appeared that Putin had made a fatal error in supporting a losing side, another indication of Russia’s diminishing influence on the world scene.

But long months of humiliating missteps, mixed messages and diplomatic fumbling on the part of the United States brought about a dramatic turnaround. Instead of the Obama administration living up to its basic obligations as leader of the free world, its policies included a hodgepodge of often contradictory goals and strategies unlikely to be resolved by the new international effort to get Assad’s government to relinquish its chemical weapons. These include Obama’s vacillations on providing military assistance to rebels as part of a peace strategy and his repeated demand that Assad relinquish power but still retain a veto over any replacement government.

Even after the death toll from the conflict reached 100,000, America continued to dither. Even after Assad used chemical weapons, crossing Obama’s “red line,” the U.S. failed to act. It was only when a chemical attack killed 1,400 people, including more than 400 children, that the administration finally decided it had to do something. Then, facing opposition in Congress and resistance from the American public, Obama decided to ask Congress to vote on the issue, a move seen by some as politically expedient and an abdication of his responsibilities as chief executive.

Mixed messages were sent out in regard to the military proposals as well. Obama said that the “United States military doesn’t do pinpricks” only a day after Secretary of State John Kerry promised an “unbelievably small” operation.

Now, facing a likely defeat in Congress, Obama grabbed a lifeline from Russia, a Syrian ally the U.S. repeatedly has accused of being complicit in the Assad government’s wartime atrocities.

For Syria this is a win-win situation. The deal rules out any imminent U. S. military action, and makes such future intervention unlikely.

There are already reports that the Assad government has begun to ship chemical weapons (hidden in trucks carrying vegetables) to the Hizbullah terror group in order to circumvent international inspection. The notion that the outside world can truly track and verify the fate of all the Syrian stockpiles of WMD’s seems implausible.

There is a very legitimate concern that the Russian-brokered agreement will embolden other enemies, such as Iran, and is sending a terrible message to the world about America’s leadership abilities.

All in all, these are very troubling days in American foreign policy.