President Barack Obama appears to be on the horns of a dilemma when it comes to Syria—a damned if you do and damned if you don’t proposition.
To hear his critics, he’s responsible for painting himself into a corner with his promise of action if the Syrian government crossed the red line of using chemical weapons against its own people. That line apparently was crossed on Aug. 21, when more than 1,400 people perished, including some 400 children, from sarin gas, according to the U.S. government.
On Wednesday, during a four-day trip to Sweden and Russia to attend a G-20 summit in St. Petersburg, Obama said that the red line regarding Syria’s use of chemical weapons was the consequence of international treaties and past congressional action, and that it is time for the international community to make good on its opposition to the banned armaments.
“I didn’t set a red line,” he told reporters. “The world set a red line.”
When Obama’s line was to some extent breached months ago, the president said there was not enough conclusive evidence that the chemical attacks were launched by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Doubt about who initiated the chemical attacks, whether the government or the rebels, was sufficient reason to withhold commitment. But now, according to Secretary of State John Kerry, there is enough proof that the Assad government is the culprit and it’s time the United States takes limited action.
“Are you going to be comfortable if Assad, as a result of the United States not doing anything, then gasses his people yet again?” Kerry asked members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last Tuesday. “It’s a guarantee, if the United States doesn’t act together with other countries, we know what Assad will do. That’s a guarantee. I can’t tell you what’s guaranteed that some country will do if we do act, but I know what will happen if we don’t.”
Much of Kerry’s response was directed at Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who was among the Republicans taking a noninterventionist position. On Wednesday, a vote is expected from the committee on whether it will endorse the president’s “shot across the bow” measure of a 90-day period of attacks with a possible extra 30 days if necessary. The resolution would prohibit the deployment of U.S. troops.
In a recent Washington Post-ABC poll, participants were asked if they supported or opposed the U.S. launching missile strikes against the Syrian government. Fifty-six percent were opposed, while 36 percent supported the action. A majority was opposed to intervention even if allies were involved, and an even larger percentage was in opposition of arming the Syrian rebels.
Rep. Charles Rangel said he would vote no on getting involved in Syria “because there are many questions even if the draft was not instated,” he said during an interview. “Is this a war? If it’s not a war and it’s a limited war, I’ve never heard of that in my entire life. If you’re going to bomb a community, that’s war. And you have to have a declaration of war that Congress should legally, constitutionally approve it, and I haven’t seen that evidence.”
The International Action Center is in accord with Rangel, adding, “President Obama is using the same tactics as President [George W.] Bush did before the Iraq War. When the U.N. Security Council would not support the U.S. war, Bush turned to the U.S. Congress for a war vote giving him all ‘the necessary means.’ Ten years later, Iraq lays in ruins. A million Iraqis died, millions became refugees. More than 1.5 million U.S. soldiers were deployed to Iraq. Today, thousands of U.S. and NATO soldiers are disabled, traumatized, and one-third suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome.”
Obama may be on the verge of getting support from various sectors of Congress, but there seems to be stiff resistance from the U.N. Security Council, particularly from China and Russia, though President Vladimir Putin appears to be concerned about the use of chemical weapons in Syria. And unlike the Libyan conflict, in which the U.S. chose to “lead from behind,” there is little indication at the moment that there’s any nation really out front.
Activists such as Dr. Ron Daniels of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century are firmly opposed to any involvement in Syria, citing both a moral and economic question and the stance taken by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the war in Vietnam. “Like Dr. King’s position on Vietnam, to get involved in Syria would rob the capital needed so desperately for our impoverished citizenry,” Daniels charges. “Moreover, any attack on Syria is a clear violation of international covenants without the authority of the U.N. Security Council.”
So what’s to be done? Looming before the president is a choice to act or not to act, which is like a Hobson’s choice or no choice at all. If he launches an attack on Syria, an action that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is prepared to support, and it fails to mollify the Assad regime, will this embolden it even more? How will all this play out for Iran and North Korea, and will they see an ineffective limited war as a sign of U.S. weakness?
Yes, it’s Barack and a hard place.