Tuesday, September 3, 2013

5 latest thoughts - US debate over Syria

1) White House Waltz
On Monday, Senators Graham and McCain visited with President Obama at the White House. The reason for the meeting was pretty simple. The President knows that he needs Republican support to push his authorization of force 'strategy' through Congress. Yet, McCain's presence indicates something else - the President's desperation. President Obama knows that in making pledges (or even being perceived to make pledges) to McCain/Graham over a willingness to use major military force against Assad, he risks alienating other members of Congress (on both sides) who are deeply skeptical about a major strike. By inviting McCain/Graham, it's only possible to draw one conclusion - that the President has judged that he will not win authorization without the influence of more interventionist minded conservatives. 

I'm cognizant that this strategy might be a political necessity (McCain's influence is substantial). Nevertheless, it provides a profound example of the contradiction that infects this Administration's political management of the present crisis. They establish a 'red line' and then pretend it's pink. They claim that the President has authority to use force without Congress, but simultaneously, they insinuate that he doesn't. They suggest that the strikes will be ''limited and narrow'', but simultaneously, they tell others that the military action will be serious and comprehensive. 

           Whether you believe that America needs to make a more substantial intervention in Syria, or whether you believe that such a course would constitute a grievous mistake, it's evident to all that the Administration's position is devoid of clarity.

2) Obama Administration's Politicization of Leaks
The front page of the New York Times (at least online!) leads with an article on Syria. More specifically, it also offers this inadvertent gem of a quote - 

''Officials said that... Mr. Obama indicated that a covert effort by the United States to arm and train Syrian rebels was beginning to yield results: the first 50-man cell of fighters, who have been trained by the C.I.A., was beginning to sneak into Syria.'' 

I'm sorry, but if the second paragraph of the lead story of the world's most prestigious newspaper prints something... it ain't covert. To me, this latest leak represents a broader failing on the part of the Administration - when it comes to leaks, they apply two sets of rules - one for military/civil servant leakers, another for themselves. In light of the President's recent rhetoric on the need for a legislative balance to the Executive, this leaking also represents an act of exceptional hypocrisy. The Administration is treating solemn state secrets as political footballs. Except... they're playing the role of both player and referee.

3) Putin's intransigence
The Russian Government is continuing to spout their spiel about how the US is lying etc. etc. To be honest, I don't really listen to the Putin-posse anymore. President Putin seems to have taken the worst elements of Russian history - the arrogance of the Romanovs, the paranoid authoritarianism of Stalin and the cartoonish corruption of Yeltsin... mixed them together and incorporated himself in their essence. He clearly has zero interest in serious dialogue with the United States. Until he does, President Obama should just ignore him. I mean that. The 'reset' has been a complete and unmitigated disaster.

4) Hagel, Kerry and Dempsey - Hill Testimony
The President's greatest assets are off to the Hill. Their job? To persuade a highly hesitant Congress to support military action against Assad. At least on Syria, this is the Obama A-team. Kerry has been the face of American resolve since Assad's massacre and Hagel has lead the US capability-orientation for a possible strike. But most important, when it comes to Martin Dempsey (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs), as I've argued before, the President has a military leader of the highest order. Incidentally, Dempsey also has another talent...

5) Foreign Reactions
As I argued in my Week column on Sunday, when it comes to America's evolving policy towards Assad, international actors are paying very close attention to DC politics. In this vein, it's unsurprising that we're seeing the following two noticeable developments:
  • Growing concern and doubt on the part of US allies in the region.
  • The Lebanese Hizballah mobilizing their defensive/offensive capabilities.
Finally, if this report (that the Administration is planning to reach out to Iran) is true, it would speak to a seriously delusional endeavor. Since 2003, the Iranian negotiating strategy has proved one thing above all else - whether Ahmadinejad or Rouhani, America cannot negotiate with Iran from a position of weakness.

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