The probable chemical weapons use by the Assad regime in Syria and the Obama administration’s handling of this matter have many negative repercussions.
It is certainly wise to look closely at the evidence, for intelligence can be and often has proved to be wrong. But the refusal of the intelligence community (IC) to state a conclusion with absolute certainty cannot always be the best guide to action–or inaction. In the case of the Syrian nuclear reactor discovered by Israel in 2007, the IC told the president that it had “low confidence” that reactor was part of a nuclear weapons program. Why? The reactor was not connected to Syria’s electric grid, so it was obviously not meant to produce electricity. What else could it be? The IC said they could not find, yet anyway, the rest of the program: efforts to build a warhead, for example. Thus the “low confidence” judgment. When asked what they thought the reactor was, they would say “part of a nuclear weapons program.” That was the only logical conclusion. But they could not say it as an official assessment. Once burnt in Iraq, twice shy. That was one reason President Bush did not act against that reactor, leaving any action to the Israelis–who fortunately destroyed it.
The problem today is not only that this may leave Assad free to use chemical weapons again. A related issue of great consequence is what the administration has said about the use of chemical weapons: that it would be a game changer, that it is a red line, that it is unacceptable, and that all options are on the table for a U.S. response. Sound familiar? The administration has used exactly such language–”unacceptable,” “all options are on the table”– about the Iranian nuclear program. If such terms become synonyms for “we will not act,” the regime in Tehran will soon conclude that there is no danger of an American military attack and therefore no need to negotiate seriously. They may have reached that conclusion already. What is at stake here is not only the future of Syria, but our own government’s credibility. In March 2012 the President said “as president of the United States, I don’t bluff.” Let’s hope not, but that’s the way it begins to appear in Syria.
A small side note: in discussing this issue, Secretary of Defense Hagel said this week “As to a red line, my role as secretary of defense is to give the president options on a policy issue. That’s a policy issue. And we’ll be prepared to do that at such time as the president requires options.” This echoes a position Mr. Hagel offered during his nomination hearings, that as secretary of defense he “won’t be in a policy-making position.” Former Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird eviscerated that view in a Wall Street Journal article, and many people thought Mr. Hagel had just misspoken. But apparently he continues to view his job this way. That’s wrong, and confuses the role of the uniformed military–say, that of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs–and of the IC with that of SecDef, a key Cabinet post. Harking back to Bush administration discussions of the Syrian reactor and what to do about it, DNI McConnell, DCI Hayden, and CJCS Pace were careful to offer professional and technical advice about the options presented and not to stray into policy areas. But Secretary of Defense Gates rightly did offer policy advice, which the President rightly sought from him. I disagreed with that advice and might disagree with Hagel’s, but our system will not work if secretary of defense is viewed as or turned into a technocratic position. There’s a reason there is a high position called Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, and Mr. Hagel ought to reflect on that.