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Article Highlights

  • Obama's Syria policy is a riddle wrapped in an enigma surrounding nothing.

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  • If only 150 are dead from chemical weapons and the other 100,000 were dead from bullets, are chemical weapons really so decisive?

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  • The leader of the free world himself took to Charlie Rose to explain what was happening in Syria, except he didn't.

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Last week, in a muddle of leaks and background briefings and contradictory rumors, the White House let it be known that President Barack Obama has decided to arm the rebels in Syria. Perhaps. Maybe small arms, maybe not.

The news slipped out much in the way that foreign policy has been conducted throughout the Obama administration -- in whispers and asides that bear little imprimatur from the commander in chief himself. Rather, it seemed that, as in Libya, the president had been backed into a corner by circumstances, allies, aides, or forces outside his control.

Then there is another question: Why arm the rebels? Not clear. Possibly it was Assad's use of chemical weapons (now confirmed) that "changed the President's calculus." Then again, if only 150 are dead from chemical weapons and the other 100,000 were dead from bullets, are chemical weapons really so decisive? America's interests? Who knows? And who, apparently, cares? Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security advisor who is reportedly one of Obama's few trustees, manned the phones for the White House, providing the first -- and some of the only -- on the record statements about the apparent decision and speaking with administration pets and confidantes. Some in Congress (read: John McCain) heard the news; others did not. Where was John Kerry? AWOL.

The Washington Post reported its understanding from unnamed sources that the president had decided to actually arm the rebels. But the Daily Beast insisted, based on (presumably) other unnamed sources, that "lethal arms are not part of the new items" Obama was planning on sharing. "The president has made a decision to provide the Syrian opposition with military items that can increase their effectiveness on the ground, but at this point it does not include things like guns and bullets." Gotcha.

But wait! The Los Angeles Times has better news from unnamed "White House officials." Yes, "[d]elivering weapons and ammunition to beleaguered Syrian rebels will take weeks," according to one, but, hey, at least the source said "weapons." Still, the rebels had to be glad that, as Foreign Policy reported (citing a "senior administration official"), "help is on the way." That same official inexplicably expressed hope that the undefined aid would "change the emotional balance" in Syria. Because what the rebels really want is a hug.

The sourced stories were little better. While reporters may have been able to attach a name to that shyest of breed, the "senior White House official," they were unable to elicit any sense. White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough waved off questions about details, saying, "I don't think we've gotten into the kind of individual puts and takes." Huh? White House spokesman Jay Carney blathered about the president's thinking: "Every option that he considers, he evaluates, and his team evaluates, based on the long-term view of whether or not implementation of a new policy option will actually help bring about the desired result, as opposed to seeming like a good thing to do but not actually changing the situation or improving the situation and perhaps worsening it instead." Well, that's nice, but could he do that before he leaks a policy decision to the national press?

There are more stories out there. Some have it that Washington is considering a no-fly zone over Syria. But Rhodes says no. Obama's ambassador to NATO will say only that there are no NATO plans for a no-fly zone. So does that mean Obama might put together another coalition of the willing? Unclear. Finally, there's the putative recipient of the weapons-that-aren't-weapons: the leader of the Free Syrian Army Supreme Military Council, Gen. Salem Idris. He hasn't heard anything from the Obama administration about arms.

Days after Obama's new policy trickled out to the press, the leader of the free world himself took to Charlie Rose to explain what was happening, except he didn't. "I've not specified exactly what we're doing, and I won't do so on this show," Obama told the American people. How about why? Was it the 100,000 or so dead, Mr. President? The confirmed use of those chemical weapons? A bank shot against Iran? The moral case for freedom? Al Qaeda? The stability of the Middle East? The president alluded to some rather fuzzy ideas: "The goals are a stable, non-sectarian, representative Syrian government that is addressing the needs of its people through political processes and peaceful processes." All good and nice, to be sure, but if he decided to arm the rebels "weeks ago," as the Washington Post reported, then why the confusion?

Barack Obama was first elected, at least in part, on the premise that he would end America's wars in the Middle East. His re-election was similarly boosted by the notion that he was all for "nation-building here at home." So what the hell is he doing in Syria? What principle animates him? Why there? Why now? What's the strategy? Like the roll-out of this supposed policy change, the answer is unclear, the vision missing, the leadership off doing something else. Possibly playing golf.

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About the Author

 

Danielle
Pletka

  • As a long-time Senate Committee on Foreign Relation senior professional staff member for the Near East and South Asia, Danielle Pletka was the point person on Middle East, Pakistan, India and Afghanistan issues. As the vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at AEI, Pletka writes on national security matters with a focus on Iran and weapons proliferation, the Middle East, Syria, Israel and the Arab Spring. She also studies and writes about South Asia: Pakistan, India and Afghanistan.


    Pletka is the co-editor of “Dissent and Reform in the Arab World: Empowering Democrats” (AEI Press, 2008) and the co-author of “Containing and Deterring a Nuclear Iran” (AEI Press, 2011) and “Iranian influence in the Levant, Egypt, Iraq, and Afghanistan” (AEI Press, 2012). Her most recent study, “America vs. Iran: The competition for the future of the Middle East,” was published in January 2014.


     


    Follow Danielle Pletka on Twitter.


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