In December, the Obama administration acted on intelligence showing that Bashar al-Assad was preparing to use chemical weapons against his own people. Obama publicly warned the Syrian president and, according to the New York Times, “private messages sent to Assad and his military commanders through Russia and others… stopped the chemical mixing and the bomb preparation.” As one senior defense official told the Times, “I think the Russians understood this is the one thing that could get us to intervene in the war.”
It seems that the administration has become so accustomed to broadcasting its real or imagined triumphs through the paper of record that it is numb to how the rest of the world might perceive the White House’s carefully crafted self-image. The administration applauds itself for saving Syrians from death by chemical weapons, but only underscores the fact that, despite its many excuses and equivocations, it is indeed capable of stopping the slaughter. Instead Obama has opted to stand by idly while Assad, using conventional arms, has collected 60,000 corpses.
The Syrian dictator has no cause to be more concerned now that Obama has nominated the national security staff of his second-term cabinet. John Kerry as secretary of state, Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense and John Brennan as CIA director are unlikely to urge the president to get tougher on Assad—i.e., to set up a no-fly zone, to arm the rebels, to intervene for humanitarian purposes—because these are precisely the policymakers who over the last decade or more have been most eager to extend a friendly hand to Assad and his allies, including Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas.
“Peace comes through dealing with people,” Hagel said after his 1998 meeting with then Syrian president Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father. “Peace doesn’t come at the end of a bayonet or the end of a gun.” Hagel has presumably applied the same principle in counseling that the United States should engage Hamas and Iran, and in declining to vote to designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps a terrorist organization in 2007, when it was the height of its campaign against U.S. troops in Iraq. The problem with Hagel then is not that he prefers carrots to sticks, but that he has no other policy but talk, even when American enemies are pointing a gun or a bayonet at us, or our allies.
Hagel, Kerry, and Brennan have consistently misread the intentions and calculations of America’s Middle East adversaries. Their picture of the Middle East is not grounded in an accurate understanding of the region’s forces and furies, but is rather drawn from a dream world in which it is possible to turn enemies into allies, lions into lambs, simply through the magical power of words. As Hagel, Kerry, and Brennan are incapable of comprehending the nature of our adversaries through the pattern of their actions, these three, through their dealings with the region, have also left a discernible pattern, a worrisome pattern.
Syria was John Kerry’s pet project. With the Bush administration still in office, Kerry and Hagel co-authored a 2008 Wall Street Journal article arguing that it was time to end the White House’s policy of isolating Syria. That sentiment resonated with Obama and the Massachusetts senator became the new administration’s “key interlocutor with Syrian president Bashar al Assad,” visiting Damascus at least a half dozen times between 2009 and 2011, where, said Kerry, “Assad has been very generous with me in terms of the discussions we have had.”
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