A Tale of Serial Incompetence

By: Jonathan Godoy

“Trust, but verify.” This famous Ronald Reagan quip has been touted recently by President Obama to explain his administration’s approach to the proposal from Russia to have Syria transfer authority of its chemical weapons to the “international community.” The phrase is an attempt to draw parallels between Reagan’s handling of the end of the Cold War and this president’s new efforts to reach an effective and lasting diplomatic solution to the Syrian issue. The use of the phrase, however, stands as little more than a savvy attempt at political pandering and not a sincere expression of the Obama administration’s diplomatic strategy. The two scenarios carry major situational differences and provided the respective commanders-in-chief with altogether dissimilar predicaments.  President Reagan, on the one hand, was dealing with a crumbling state whose leader, by his own volition and with few other remedies, had begun the process of reforming the Soviet Union’s domestics politics and economics and shown interest in negotiating with the United States over the issue of arms stockpile reduction. It is only after careful analysis and repeated solid pronouncements of U.S. principles and demands that such negotiations were commenced and that the doctrine of “trust, but verify” was used. On the other hand, President Obama has no such reassurances from the main perpetrator, Syria, or the alleged good-faith mediator Russia. In fact, both countries have shown themselves to be deceitful and duplicitous, at best, in their dealings. Syria, in addition to denying the existence of its chemical weapons stockpile for many years, has shown itself willing to aid known terrorist groups, such as Hezbollah, and enemy states like Iran. Meanwhile, Russia, under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin, has been nothing if not untrustworthy, granting political asylum to Edward Snowden despite our pleas to do otherwise, aiding Assad with military resources to continue his campaign of terror and atrocities and being essentially complicit with Iran in its pursuit of a nuclear weapon.

However, the problems with this administration’s handling of the crisis do not end there. The most recent developments in this Syrian saga are byproducts of an administration that is wholly inept at mastering the art of diplomacy, a view that is reinforced when considering that its actions in the past three weeks have largely been marked by incoherence in messaging and weak, if at all existent, leadership. Consider how this most recent proposal from Russia came about. In a press conference this past week in France, a reporter asked Secretary of State John Kerry if there was any action the Syrian regime could take that would avert pending U.S. military strikes and bring about a more diplomatic end to this question over its possession of chemical weapons. Secretary Kerry, in a statement that the State Department would later characterize as a “hypothetical” scenario and not an official proposition, said, almost sarcastically, that the only such remedy would be for Syria to almost immediately transfer control of its chemical weapons stockpile over to the international community within the arbitrary timeline given of about a week. To this comment Secretary Kerry was quick to note that such an outcome was improbable, if only for political or logistical reasons, adding, “…but he [Assad] isn’t about to do that and it can’t be done.”

However, in such a comment, which received a fair deal of media coverage and criticism, Syria and its persistently stubborn ally Russia found a convenient way out. Syria would promise to transfer control of its weapons stockpile to the international community and open its facilities to inspection. In return, as Putin has demanded, the United States would promise to not use military force on Syria, a costly and unwise move. Ironically, in this misstatement President Obama has found a political escape. Facing the likely prospect of losing the vote for authorization of an attack in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, the administration found itself in something of a constitutional and political bind. Losing such a vote would likely have called into question the president’s constitutional authority to launch such an attack, something he claims to have had all along, should he have decided to do so against congressional will. Likewise, given the amount of political capital the White House has spent on this vote, a loss would have proved a major blow to an already weak and diminishing presidency

Hence, in the hours following the Russian proposal, the administration began to rapidly shift its tone with regards to the attack. No longer were Secretary Kerry’s comments unplanned, hypothetical and unserious; they were now intended, calculated words that were reflective of the president’s will all throughout this ordeal to seek a diplomatic resolution. No longer was a military attack the best option for a response after “careful consideration” from the president; it now became secondary to the proposed diplomatic solution. During his six interviews Monday afternoon, President Obama, instead of focusing on the arguments in favor of a military strike as he has done for the past few weeks, emphasized this Russian proposal, at one point calling it a “potentially positive development.” Moreover, he claimed that the proposal, the foundations of which were allegedly formed in his various discussions with Putin over the year, was always in serious consideration by the administration. This series of developments begets a simple question for the administration: how does that narrative make sense? How is it that the president can come out and defend a military strike as the “best option,” but then reverse course and indicate that the diplomatic solution has always been the preferable one? The level of serial incompetence and willful deceit that this most recent affair reveals comes from this administration should astound even the most stubbornly blind supporter of this president. Irrespective of whether or not one supports this administration’s expressed intention to strike Syria, it is difficult to defend the manner in which they have handled the messaging. This episode stands as only one example in a series of missteps and contradictions that this administration has committed. Their messaging efforts have been uncoordinated, at best, and incoherent, at worst. Everything from the size and scope of the strike (from “unbelievable small” to “more than a pinprick”) to the ultimate aims of this mission, as highlighted above, has been muddled and given the American citizens and politicians little cause for confidence or support.

It is because of this ineptitude that the United States finds itself caving to the requests and trusting the promises of a regime that has killed over 100,000 of its own civilians and its conniving ally whose past behavior has been, at best, dubious. It is amazing to consider that we are willing to place our faith, for the time being, on these two regimes all to save the administration from a political disaster. What incentives does the Syrian regime have to actually give up all of its weapons? If it has been willing to deny the existence of such a stockpile in the past, why should we suddenly consider its word trustworthy enough to cease our strikes? The problem of asymmetric information is obvious: only Assad knows where all of his chemical weapons stockpiles are located and how many actually exist. Should inspectors be allowed to enter into his country to remove them, he need not take them to all of the locations as accountability would be non-existent given that there is no way of independently verifying how many weapons there are in his arsenal. This is a blatant misapplication of the policy of “trust, but verify.” Such an approach was not meant to justify placing our blind trust in the promises of a regime that were made on a whim thanks to an adversary’s misstatement and had no previous history of deferring to similar demands. This is not prudent and sound diplomacy; it’s just basic ignorance.

An important side note in this saga is the fact that the relocation and destruction of chemical weapons is not a simple process that can be easily accomplished within a few months by amateurs. On the contrary, given the nature of the weapons, destroying them requires a complex, lengthy procedure so as to ensure that the gases and biological agents do not escape. Consider the United States, which signed the Chemical Weapons Convention and began the process of destroying its chemical weapons stockpiles over three decades ago. Though an estimated 90% of the arsenal has been eliminated, the military projects that the process will not be completed until the year 2023. The level of expertise and size of manpower necessary to carry out this process is significant and something that Syria severely lacks. Some estimates indicate that thousands of experts would be needed just to retrieve and relocate the weapons alone, an effort that would admittedly be quite difficult and dangerous in the middle of a civil war. The current proposal, which would have inspectors almost immediately enter Syria to retrieve the weapons and have the entire arsenal destroyed by mid-2014, is likely unrealistic.

Despite the secretary of state’s continued reassurances that the United States is not in the business of “playing games” with this deal, it is painfully evident that we have already been played.  The only man with a plan in this ordeal is likely Putin. This agreement accomplishes all of his and Assad’s main goals. First, it stops or, at the very least, delays a military strike on Syria. Secondly, it allows for Assad to retain power and maintain an upper hand in the current conflict.  Thirdly, it likely secures Assad’s ability to continue the wholesale slaughtering of his people. The truth is that even if the Assad regime voluntarily gives up all of its chemical weapons, an act that it really carries no incentive to do, it can continue to carry out its repressive campaign against the rebels using conventional weapons, which have proved fairly effective already, and likely receive no major pushback from the United States or its Western allies. Herein lies the greatest flaw in the approach of the United States. Despite earlier calls from President Obama for Assad’s ousting, his administration has publicly stated that the goal of such a strike is not regime change. Citing the fears of embroiling the country in another Iraq-like scenario, administration officials have emphasized that this campaign will be limited to trying to disrupt Assad’s capabilities to use chemical weapons. While such concerns post-Iraq are valid given the current popular sentiment with respect to “nation building” and our decade’s long experience with such a practice, this fear is a bit exaggerated, seeing as there will be no ground troops deployed, and evades a more pressing issue: the lack of attention and concern the Obama administration has had for the Syria crisis. The argument that many skeptics have made, including officials in the administration, in justifying not supporting the rebels is that many of the factions that compose such a rebellion have been infiltrated and are influenced by Islamic terrorist groups, namely al Qaeda. While those concerns are valid, that argument does not acknowledge the fact that, at the inception of this civil war, these rebellion factions were largely void of such influence. Yet, the administration remained noticeably and regretfully silent and separated from the civil war and refused to support the factions with arms and vital logistical resources, despite the obvious interests the United States had in ousting Assad. This power vacuum allowed for al Qaeda to take advantage of the fractious nature of the rebellion and corral a group of rebels to join their cause in exchange for their support and guidance. So while the concerns that the administration has regarding the chaos that a post-Assad Syria may bring is legitimate, such fears conveniently ignore that this predicament is likely a direct byproduct of their initial inaction.

Moreover, the current deal strengthens Russia’s influence in the Middle East by weakening the United States’ reputation and deterrence power, which was likely already diminished thanks to this bumbling administration. By legitimizing Russia as an impartial power broker, the United States has implicitly given Russia greater stature and lessened the amount of faith that our allies have in us. The emboldened Putin brandished his newfound clout with a mocking and insulting op-ed that appeared in the New York Times this past Thursday, wherein he chastised the United States for its tendency to engage in harmful and arbitrary military interventions and undermining the rule of international law. The idea that a man who is guilty of grave human rights abuses, invaded a sovereign state, against the will of most nations and without a coalition, in 2008 and has worked tirelessly to limit the influence of the Security Council and the United Nations in intervening in cases like Syria and Iran would criticize the United States for its supposed brazenness is laughable and indicative of the bravado that this most recent episode has given him. The proposal presented is a weak one and should be met with a good deal of skepticism by the United States, if not altogether rejected in favor of a more forceful diplomatic deal, overseen by a more trustworthy mediator, or a continued push for attack. Unfortunately, the politically crass administration’s pursuit of a route that will save face at home will likely force its hand to work and accept this deal, regardless of the major issues inherent in it.

Three weeks later, the hopes many espoused that this administration would find a lasting and meaningful resolution to this crisis remain just as dim and minimal as they were at the onset. Its series of mistakes, blunders and general incompetence have rendered the chances of finding a sound solution all but non-existent. The weakness and clumsiness exhibited by this president and his foreign policy team is embarrassing and has likely damaged this country’s image and reputation abroad. Recent activity from our enemies, including the report that North Korea has restarted operations at one of its nuclear reactors that has been shutdown since 2007 and the new that Putin is travelling to Iran to discuss its nuclear weapons program, seem to indicate that the negative effects of this ordeal are already unfolding. The most disconcerting fact, however, is that there still remains three more years until this inept leadership can finally be voted out.

Jonathan Godoy is a third year in the College majoring in Political Science.


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Syria and the Constitution: A Response to Jonathan Godoy

By: Jordan Reese

Mr. Godoy’s piece is right about many things, among them that the president’s actions and statements call into question a coherent foreign policy and his will to actually seek justice. However, I cannot help but object to few points where I think Mr. Godoy and other commentators have gone afield. Some of these will establish a defense of the president and some will not.

The central question of the Syrian situation is no longer the prudence or rightness of dismantling Assad’s capabilities, though that is a question of high importance if military action is to be undertaken. The president’s speech refocused the debate squarely on presidential authority, on the idea of a strong executive.

In the speech, the president stated: “I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization.” This President Obama doing just what every president from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush has done: rebuke the War Powers Resolution. The president is correct to believe that the WPR is unconstitutional, but that is a different discussion altogether. (It bewilders me why Congress needs to be consulted on every military action, especially when they retain the power to outlaw funding for such a military enterprise if they find that enterprise unsavory.) If the executive believes a congressional statute is unconstitutional, it has a duty to ignore it. This follows from the president’s explicit duty to faithfully execute the laws, of which the Constitution is the most supreme.

Designating laws unconstitutional and then leaving them unenforced is a tactic that has been used ad nauseam by this administration, and there is no reason why we would expect it to forgo that strategy now. In fact, we can discern this strain of thought in the Obama administration’s foreign policy by looking at the American presence in the skies of Libya or our operations in Abbottabad to kill Osama bin Laden. Neither situation was directly precipitated by a direct threat to America, and Congress granted military authorization in neither. (One is not wrong to think that the bin Laden assassination would not have happened if not for 9/11, but one would be wrong to think that the War on Terror and the endeavor to uproot radical, fundamentalist Islam is embarked upon solely out of an instinct for revenge. Rather, we seek to dismantle al Qaeda for the sake of protecting natural rights (among them, life), establishing liberal democracy, and preserving global stability.) President Obama was right to act in both Libya and Abbottabad, since each stabilized and ensured the future health of an international order that is both just and favorable to American interests.

The very stability and health of that international order is what is at stake in Syria, as the president has rightly pointed out. If the president were to act, as I believe he is constitutionally entitled to and maybe even constitutionally compelled, the question is what manner he is to act. By this I do not mean the act of determining which targets to launch missiles at or addressing the question of boots on the ground. Rather, it is whether he should consult Congress.

If the president is right that Congressional approval is desirable because it will show America as a united front, then there remains the question as to why the president did not seek Congressional approval to supply the rebels. (In June the White House directed the CIA to aid the rebels, but due to logistical issues the rebels haven’t actually received any munitions, per the Wall Street Journal.) Everyone expects the president’s military operation in Syria to be limited—perhaps launching a handful a missiles from one of our naval vessels at Assad’s weapons stockpiles. But what’s the difference? Is there really that wide of a gulf—whether it be a strategic, moral, or financial one—between transporting weapons for rebels to shoot at Assad and shooting at him ourselves from a safe distance? If the president is seeking to strengthen our constitutional democracy by consulting Congress and thereby presenting a united American front, has he not already weakened our constitutional democracy by not doing so in the cases of Libya, Abbottabad, and single-handedly initiating our aid to the Syrian rebels?

Godoy and other commentators are correct to infer from this that the president is seeking political cover. He is trying to preserve his own credibility as commander-in-chief, an admirable goal since we do not want to besmirch the president. But in doing so (this is what they seem to miss) he is weakening the office. The president will want Congress blamed if the authorization to use military force fails. Fairness would dictate that Congress receives the credit (something very rare these days) if the authorization passes and a Syrian strike is successful in shoring up international moral indignation against chemical weapons. The presidency is left out of the decision-making room except as a peripheral cheerleader.

In Federalist 70, Alexander Hamilton argues that the American republic requires one president—not two, three, four, or more—for a reason: “A feeble execution is but another phrase for a bad execution; and a government ill executed, whatever it may be in theory, must be, in practice, a bad government.” The president’s pleading to Congress effaces the idea of one president; in fact, he is inaugurating 535 more.

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The Politics Behind Syrian Intervention

By: Jonathan Godoy

In the week and half since the chemical attacks in the suburbs of Damascus, very few pieces of truly new information have come to light. The only one of note seems to be a continuously hackneyed response and lack of leadership from premier world leaders, especially those of the United States and Western Europe. Nearly every leader in the international community has refused to actually engage the situation; most have done this not due to personal preferences, but because of political forces at home preventing them from undertaking anything remotely related to military action. This phenomenon’s most conspicuous victim, British Prime Minister David Cameron, suffered an embarrassing defeat when Parliament voted against launching any attacks by a small margin. The final actors still left on the stage, the United States, France and, to a lesser extent, Turkey, have adopted stances that are enigmatic and opaque—perhaps purposefully so. French President Francois Hollande has weakly expressed support for limited action. Turkish prime minister Tayyip Erdogan has called for an international response, but refused to contribute serious military backing and resources to such an attack. Meanwhile, the United States has waxed and waned on its stance, with the president and Secretary of State John Kerry making statements that seek to strike a delicate, but at times conflicting, balance, the former remaining more calculated and ambiguous, while the latter being more critical and urgent in his remarks.

It is likely that the White House’s stance has been driven by two major factors. First, the president has always been reserved on issues of foreign intervention and stood purposefully apart from the so-called military “hawks.” Second, the administration is well aware that the present political climate at home is not friendly aggressive interventionism. Even after the chemical attack on August 21, polls show most Americans do not want direct military intervention. Additionally, the president’s approval ratings on foreign policy, once his strong suit, have taken a noticeable dip. Being the politically calculating man that he is, President Obama likely does not want to pursue a course of action that would tarnish his political image any more. All of these factors undoubtedly were motives for the president’s speech from the White House Rose Garden on Saturday morning.

Admittedly, the president took a justifiably strong stance in favor of action and outlined, with some degree of success, our national interest in following through with such a response. His major point—that America will follow through on its promises of military action and justice—is a crucial premise in the argument for an attack, however limited. It remains a fact that the promise to act if Assad used chemical weapons was made multiple times; it makes no difference whether such a red line resulted from well-thought policy and planning or were ad-libbed in order to maintain an image of strength and justice. Failure to follow through on such a promise would prove permanently damaging to our reputation and power of deterrence.

But here the positives of the American response to Syria end. The president’s new moves are nothing more than a blatant attempt to seek political coverage and dither further on the issue of an appropriate military response. Looking first on the question of timing, the president said that the timeframe for a response was unrestrained. According to him, he has been assured that an attack can occur months from now and still carry the same weight and effectiveness that an immediate response would hold. The reasoning behind this claim simply conflicts with the president’s point about credibility. A delaying of a response, in practice, gives Assad the incentive to use chemical weapons, at will, in the time until the attack occurs. Theoretically speaking, Assad will face no further costs for launching more attacks, thus giving him the ability, and incentive, to use such power. President Obama’s stated goal of preventing further attacks, and addressing our security concerns, becomes muddled and feckless. This, in turn, severely damages our reputation and deterrence ability. No longer will actions that work directly against our national interests be deterred for fear of an immediate and targeted military response. The initial dithering on the matter showed us ill prepared and weak, but this most recent point shows hesitance to use force in a situation where justice decidedly calls for it.

The delay is meant to accommodate a vote from Congress to support an attack. However, the president failed to call the members back from recess for a special session. If he truly saw this situation as one warranting an effective and powerful response, then the wait for Congress to return from break September 9 would be indefensible. This does not even consider the fact that he has had over a week to consult congressional leaders to argue in favor of attack and coordinate a vote.

What’s more, the deference to Congress elucidates the president’s self-centered political desires. The vote gives him a cover, a political “would-if-I-could.” Should he be granted congressional approval for attack, then his actions will be seen as politically legitimate. However, if Congress votes against action, then the president could easily blame the negative ramifications on their trepidation towards attacking. In short, President Obama has found a way to shift the onus of an attack and the liabilities therewith onto Congress, thus inoculating himself from any potential political damage. (The president, however, would be wise to recall that President Bush sought Congress’ approval for military action in both Iraq and Afghanistan, received it both times, and was summarily blamed for the failures and shortcomings of both wars.) In this endeavor the president believes he has killed two birds with one stone: He can appear with strength and resolve while still deflecting criticism of both action and inaction toward Capitol Hill.

The president claimed in his speech that this search for congressional approval is due to the United States being “the oldest constitutional democracy in the world,” one with a set standard of governance and rule of law. Such a claim is disingenuous and hollow. If he truly cared about following the appropriate procedure in seeking congressional approval, then he would have gone directly to Congress from the onset of this crisis. Most reports show that the president only decided to go to Congress this Saturday and surprised advisors with his announcement. Instead, he circumvented the legislature in favor of a unilateral and executive-centered approach. Likewise, the president, less than a minute after referencing this country’s rich constitutional tradition, stated that he believed he had the authority to launch an attack without consulting Congress. Such a claim directly contradicts his stated reason for going to Congress in the first pace. In it is revealed the president’s true view: that the Constitution provides not a strict set of rules by which to govern the country, but an undefined set of traditions and precedents that represent an outmoded and arbitrarily restrained rubric for governance. One cannot use the notion that the Constitution is a document that standardizes the decision-making procedure as a justification for pursuing greater consensus, while, at the same time, stating that the presidency possesses the authority to ignore it and make decisions unilaterally. Those two sentiments simply do not match up.

The issue of congressional approval is difficult one to settle. On the one hand, the War Powers Resolution allows for the president to send the military on short campaigns, of at most 60 days, without congressional approval. It would only be after 60 days when the president would be forced to seek Congress’s approval to continue the campaign. On the other hand, this engagement presents the United States with a difficult and potentially dangerous predicament that could lead to further hostilities in the region.  Failure to seek a bipartisan congressional consensus for attack could leave many on both sides angered with the lack of consultation. It is also fair to note in this discussion that the electorate and country, as a whole, is fairly war weary after more than a decade of conflict and would like to see the country take a diminishing military role, at least for the near future. Such a political dynamic is important to note in that in a republic, such as ours, popular sentiment cannot be wholly ignored on many matters, even when it would seem to go against the recommended course of action. Given this, it would seem wise for the president to go to Congress for approval or, at the very least, keep them abreast of the situation. His error was to argue for an attack out of a desire to maintain political credibility, not justice or the preservation of a reasonable international order.

This to say nothing of the major issues that the actual plan of attack presents. What purpose or strategic advantage does an attack “limited in scope” actually possess in deterring Assad from using chemical weapons later and restraining his power? The idea that we would publicly state that our intention is not regime change and that our attacks will be extremely confined is perplexing and harmful. Making such a statement ruined any hope we could have had to effect actual change and establish a strong precedent. The current limits imposed bring into question whether these attacks are useful or even necessary. The argument has already been put forth as to why a strong and effective response is necessary, but this plan of attack is nothing close to what is needed to truly address the issues the United States faces in the region.

During his speech on Saturday, the president exposed himself as a politically-driven and dangerously weak commander-in-chief. His demands, while on face value prudent and understandable, upon closer inspection are enigmatic and riddled with many errors and lapses in judgment. These new demands will likely only further weaken our image abroad and damage our enforcement capabilities, which were already hampered by the administration’s initially weak response to the attack. With this undisciplined behavior and moral morass, the message being sent to our enemies is a simple but damaging one: mess with us, and we will talk about doing something about it… at some point in the future.

Jonathan Godoy is a third year in the College majoring in Political Science.

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On Syria

By: Jonathan Godoy

On the issue of the use of chemical weapons, there has been a widely accepted, if unwritten, rule that the world powers that be would act swiftly and deliberately, likely with force, to hinder further attacks and punish the guilty regime. President Obama, acting in accordance with this approach, drew up his now infamous “red line” for the Syrian civil war, warning President Bashar al-Assad that such action would trigger direct military action from the United States. The rhetorical threat was something of a centrist ploy that satisfied the president’s own personal reluctance to engage directly in this conflict while giving consolation to the officials and diplomats who argued in favor of greater intervention. There is no way of knowing whether or not the president and his administration believed, at the time, that Assad would use such weapons or if the “red line” was something more akin to an insurance policy. Whatever his thoughts were then are all but moot now, as we presently face a situation where Assad has almost certainly used chemical weapons not once, but twice, on Syrian civilians and rebels. The latest attack represents a major escalation of hostilities, as estimates place the death-count somewhere between 300 and over 1,000, with the number injured well over that figure. The first attacks, which occurred last year, were not nearly as destructive or costly, but in the world of chemical attacks, size is not as important as the simple fact that such arms are used.

But with that first assault, the president did not so much as flinch, at least publicly. The red line was ignored in favor of the president’s trepidation about escalating the conflict with direct foreign intervention. The reasons for this approach are not clearly evident, but have been implied. Those opposing intervention in Syria can, for purposes of convenience, generally be placed into two categories: those fearful that a post-Assad Syria will present the country and region with major issues and likely hurt our interests by allowing for Al Qaeda-backed rebels to gain power; and those who fear that any escalation could ultimately culminate in a full-fledged ground war involving U.S. and allied militaries. Though many opponents likely cite both mitigating factors in their arguments, most usually reference one to be more compelling than the other. President Obama seems to fall flatly in the latter camp. As a politician whose popularity was, in part, driven by his fiercely anti-Iraq War stance and someone who holds something of a disdain for military intervention, it is not altogether surprising that the president would use such reasoning to justify a tepid response. Even in his most recent interview on CNN, which followed the latest attack, he took more time to caution against the dangers of intervention and long, drawn out warfare than speak to the national security and international stability risks inherent in such a chemical attack. Additionally, likely taking his guidance from the Clinton administration’s actions in Kosovo and following the procedure he used for Libya, the president has stressed that any action should be coordinated with members of the international community.

The image of the administration’s response that ultimately results from such a clash of approaches and quandaries is one that is muted, insensitive, and self-harming. Assad, seeing that he received no significant or substantive backlash for his first chemical attack, felt that he was well positioned to launch another similar attack, this time on a larger scale, without the fear of any direct action from Western countries. The current situation, one in which even six days after the first reports of the attack the administration is still trying to determine the appropriate response and gather international support while openly leaking its plans, does not pose much of a threat for the Assad regime either. In a fashion similar to his approach to Libya, the president has refrained from taking the lead on a response and deferred instead to taking an internationalist line. In the meantime, administration officials have leaked ad nauseam, it seems now, snippets of information suggesting that an official response is in the workings. Four aircraft carriers have been moved to the western Mediterranean, an area that would put them in a good position to launch cruise missile attacks against Syrian targets, if given the orders. Meanwhile, news reports continue to cite the administration’s sudden rhetorical shift in tone regarding Syria and the list of potential sites that could be targeted in such an attack.

The current circumstance, however, seems to reveal three important and disconcerting facts. The first is that it looks as if the administration or, at the very least, President Obama had not pre-planned the response to this attack. Secondly, the now six day long delay, whether intentional or not, communicates the wrong message to Assad and sets forth a potentially destructive precedent that could embolden American adversaries elsewhere. Thirdly, the situation reaffirms many officials’ previous concerns that the administration is willing to leak vital national security information that could compromise our goals and harm our interests.

On the first revelation, the fact that the president has, by all accounts, been briefed on the attack and given his options but has yet to make the decision is baffling, especially when considering how long it has been since the “red line” was drawn. Suggested in this delay is that the idea that the supposed “red line” he imposed over a year ago was little more than a baseless and ill-planned threat. Levying a definitive limit on the use of power is suggestive, and indeed warrants, the creation of a contingency plan of response that could be implemented should the figurative line be crossed. The idea that the president has waned on conceptualizing such a plan, failed to previously negotiate with world leaders an appropriate and coordinated international response, and prolonged the decision for almost a week after the attack is inexcusable. It would be one thing if this were a situation that was unexpected. It is another thing to say that this outcome was predicted by many officials and was already played out on a smaller scale not long ago. The American response to the Syrian civil war, since its inception, has been muddled and imprudent, but this case of poor planning represents what could be the administration’s most egregious error to on Syria date.

The second issue the current predicament highlights is perhaps the most destructive one, at least in the long run. As mentioned above, the first chemical attack, contrary to President Obama’s promises, was left unrequited and was taken by Assad as a sign that the West saw no need to militarily respond to such attacks. The current muddled and rather weak statement-centered response from the administration and the international community has done little to reverse the dangerous precedent set or allay the concerns many officials have that Assad will feel free to exert his power over the Syrian population by any means. For evidence of this we need look no farther than the Assad regime’s actions following the attacks. In an effort to cover up the assault, the Syrian air force bombarded the attack area with non-chemical bombs to rid it of any potentially damning evidence and allow time for the deadly chemicals to dissipate. What is perhaps most revealing of Assad’s new-found bravado is the fact that this chemical attack occurred on the day that an envoy from the United Nations arrived in Syria to determine if chemical weapons had been used in the previous alleged instances. In his latest act of arrogance, Assad has invited the UN officials to visit the site where the August 21 attack occurred. If Assad is this willing to call the West’s bluff and openly mock their concern, there is little reason to believe that his confidence is in short order and that similar attacks are not soon to follow should the response be weak. This delayed and haphazard response, however, is noticed and noted not only by Assad, but also, and most importantly, by Iran. They are taking the United States’ response to Syrian actions as a rubric for how this administration will respond to its own provocative actions with the development of its nuclear weapons program. The signal the Obama Administration has sent to Iran is a simple one: President Obama’s promise to not allow Iran to ever fully develop a nuclear weapons program is likely unfounded. Given its inability to adequately and directly enforce its red line on Syria, there is likely little veracity in his promise regarding Iran. Likewise, almost no confidence can be placed in the idea that this administration has drawn up plans on how it will militarily respond to the development of an Iranian nuclear weapons program. The indications drawn from this example imply that the administration would likely dither on deciding what is the best course of action for an extended period of time, giving Iran the figurative green light to continue with its uranium enrichment program without fear of facing immediate and damaging repercussions. The standard set here is a costly one that will likely irrevocably harm our efforts to rein in Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon.

The last revelation this situation exposes is one that begs the question: What exactly is this administration seeking to do? This administration has developed a habit of leaking information that divulges sensitive information regarding our operations and compromises important facts, all for seemingly political gains. However, the intentions with these series of leaks are less straightforward. There is likely nothing to be gained politically from revealing information regarding an attack on Syrian interests. The only effect this could have is to inform Syrian officials of our likeliest actions and allow them to prepare appropriately. It has already been reported that the most probable course of action would be to attack certain sites with cruise missiles launched from our naval ships located in the Mediterranean. However, the more recent reports give some detail as to what sites are being considered and the president’s motivations. For instance, an article in the Wall Street Journal talks about the president’s reluctance to strike more important sites because of his aversion to seeing the conflict escalate. What strategic advantage does this present to the United States? Informing the enemy that you are only willing to attack less symbolic targets sends the wrong message by not deterring them from taking further actions in the future. The article also reports that the president would be willing to consider attacks on higher profile targets only if Assad uses chemical weapons again or escalates the conflict further. The problem with this approach, if it is true, is that this would represent the third such instance where the administration flails on its responsibility to follow through on its promises, thus advancing the belief that it is ultimately unwilling to truly and exhaustively use its power of deterrence and giving Assad a carte blanche to launch new attacks. If the only threat Assad faces is enduring a few missile attacks on strategically unimportant sites, then what incentive does he have to stop his reign of terror?

Given these three extrapolated findings, and the insight they lend into the Obama Administration’s thinking, it seems fair to assume that the response to this attack will more than likely be subdued and ineffective. President Obama is a commander-in-chief who has showed great restraint in his use of military power, especially with respect to direct combat. The president’s hand has been forced on this issue only because the latest attack was so large and costly, in terms of lives lost. If not for the subtle pressure that the news coverage of this massacre places on the administration to act, it is conceivable that it would have simply opted for the route it took with the first attack. Wavering on this issue has been costly, in many ways. Our refusal to become more actively involved in the onset of the civil war likely paved the way for Al-Qaeda to exert its influence over the fragmented rebellion and prevented the various factions from becoming more consolidated and sympathetic to the United States’ goals. Now the benefits of ousting Assad are less defined and obvious. However, his use of chemical weapons, which presents a major national security threat, coupled with the fact that he is an ally and supporter of Iran and is an enabler of many terrorist organizations, including Hezbollah, do justify launching an attack with the intention of ultimately ousting him from power. Hopefully, in the days following the publishing of this article, the administration will have responded to Assad’s unbridled reign of terror with an attack that sends him a strong and clear message that the United States will not stand for such abuse and forcefully and unapologetically root out evil and advance its interests. However, given the president’s woeful record on this and other issues, it seems unfortunately more likely that such an outcome will never come to be.

Jonathan Godoy is a third year in the College majoring in Political Science.


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Counterpoint- Winter 2013

Winter 2013 Package

Welcome to the Counterpoint, the University of Chicago’s student-led conservative quarterly! We are formally launching this new website, where we will make our publications available as a PDF for all to see. In the future, we hope to move to a more interactive and developed site so as to have our articles posted individually and available for comment and sharing via social media. In the meantime, feel free to check out our latest issue and, should you be interested in writing for us in the future, contact us at counterpoint.chicago@gmail.com.

Below you can find a list of the articles featured in the Winter 2013 Issue.


Battling for Baseball: Where the National Pastime Has Been and Where It’s Going
       by Benjamin Silver

The Myth of the Obama Doctrine: The Dangers of Unprincipled, Paradoxical Leadership
       by Jonathan Godoy

Start Stop and Frisk: Why Chicago Should Adopt Prudent Measures to Combat Crime
       by Nicholas Saffran

Expanding the America Dream: Toward a Better Immigration System
       by Jeremy Sawyer

A Symposium on the 10th Anniversary of the War in Iraq

On Maintaining America’s Global Influence
       by Ramon Lopez

On the Achievements of the War in Iraq
       by Alexander Sarratelli

On the Movement Towards Multilateral Action
       by Eric Wessan

On Neo-Conservatism and Popular Sovereignty
       by Benjamin Silver

On the Surge and Political Courage
       by Jeremy Sawyer

On Changes in the Conduct of War
       by Jonathan Godoy

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