Elliott Abrams

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Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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The President’s Syria War Scare

by Elliott Abrams
April 2, 2014

In an interview this week on the CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley, the President defended his passivity on Syria with a remarkable and misleading argument: that the choices were doing nothing, and all-out war.  Here is the exchange:

PELLEY: When you see those children starving and dying, as you put it, do you regret not applying U.S. force and not applying it early?

OBAMA: It is, I think, a false notion that somehow we were in a position to, through a few selective strikes, prevent the kind of hardship that we’ve seen in Syria.

PELLEY: And Syria’s not worth that to you?

OBAMA: Well, it’s not that it’s not worth it. It’s that, after a decade of war, you know, the United States has limits. And our troops who’ve been on these rotations and their families and the costs and the capacity to actually shape, in a sustained way, an outcome that was viable without us having a further commitment of perhaps another decade, you know, those are things that the United States would have a hard time executing. And it’s not clear whether the outcome in fact would have turned out significantly better.

Troops? Who was mentioning troops? Where did that come from?  The decision back last summer was for a one-time air strike that Secretary of State Kerry called “unbelievably small.” Asked why an “unbelievably small” air strike could not have been done, Obama replied that we don’t want another decade of war and longer troop rotations. Equally misleading is the notion that we would achieved almost nothing in preventing hardship. Surely the President, and his Secretary of State, thought then that we might well achieve that–and logically so. Any constraint on Assad’s butchery would have prevented serious hardship and saved lives.

There may be ways to defend the President’s decision last year–hiding behind public opinion polls, for example, or hiding behind Congress–but the claim that our troops had to be spared ten more years of land wars is not one of them.

 

Post a Comment 15 Comments

  • Posted by Omerli

    Needless to say, President Obama’s foreign policy has been one of minimal engagement and maximum use of whatever excuses are handy at the moment. Clearly as much thought goes into answering these queries as has gone into his current worldview – it must have been the thousands of troops that went into Libya (!) that guides him. Yes, Libya is no Jeffersonian democracy but thousands aren’t dying in horrible ways every month either. From the Ukraine to Syria to Iraq we are reaping the harvest of a US that is leaving the field to whomever and the sooner the better. The shameful moral abdication aside, the US game plan is to hold off anything approaching a responsible foreign policy until his term ends. Clearly this is going to make it that much harder for the next administration to pick up the pieces and regain a minimal level of trust from US allies in the Middle East and elsewhere.

  • Posted by pnina

    Elliot you forgot to mention hiding behind Bush

  • Posted by Sheila

    Nothing that President Obama does or does not do surprises one anymore. Everything about his actions/non-actions in this, his final term, leaves us feeling uneasy. Is this non-action a moral stand? Is he saying that the US cannot continue telling the rest of the world how to live?

    Yet he is certainly trying to tell Israel how to live, what it should do, demanding that it free murderous barbarians in exchange for a very doubtful peace, when the USA itself would never EVER release such people from its prisons. This also calls into question his frequent assertion that Israel’s security is uppermost in US Middle East policy. I have stopped believing that even for a second.

    So, his non-action is not a moral stand. Perhaps he simply does not care anymore, if he ever did, and all that remains is the gorgeous, practised smile hiding the emptiness.

  • Posted by Irish Mike

    But it was POTUS who both drew the “red line” AND threatened the consequence of the (“unbelievably small”) air strike. Then, to paraphrase Maggie Thatcher, he got all wobbly, first deferring to Congress and then to Mr. Putin. After whiffing on the “Assad must go” and “arm the rebels” pitches, Obama has struck out in Syria, and now has to sit on the bench and watch. It’s embarrassing.

  • Posted by Beatrix139

    We were right to have all out war during WW2. Any other choice would have been immoral. Bush was right to fight back when we were attacked on 9/11, but he was wrong to respond with two huge 20th century type wars in response to a 21st century terror attack. It’s not all or nothing in war, it’s applying the right amount of force for the situation.

    For America, the most powerful nation on the planet, to sit here and do nothing while the world suffers in inexcusable. Obama treats a backward nation with a bit of science like Iran and a has-been nation like Russia as thought they were the two great powers and he treats America as some weakling that has to cower at their feet.

    Why do we have an inexperienced schoolteacher leading the most powerful nation in the world?

  • Posted by ah

    As a general note, I’ll state that I disagree with most of the comments in this section as they are short on facts and rich in anti-Obama rhetoric.

    However, as a note of principle, I will try to learn here. What you suggest that Obama should do or should have done in Syria? And how would this action actually have a real impact on changing the situation on the ground?

  • Posted by Jeremiah Bourque

    Come now, we’re to take Kerry’s word about small strikes at face value? Kerry? I don’t have time to make a list of who was mentioning troops, but that’s not the point: escalation follows its own logic, and those who firmly wanted the US deeply involved in Syria’s civil war on the rebel side knew that from the start. They wanted air strikes because that would have been a starting point, not an ending point. Platitudes to the contrary were just that: platitudes. Even Obama knew better. Even Obama.

  • Posted by Marc

    Mr. Obama’s foreign policy seems to have all the ingredients of Jello.

  • Posted by Wes

    ah:

    Obama should launch air and naval strikes against the Assad regime that hopefully aren’t “unbelievably small” to try to turn the tide of the war in favor of the rebels. The Obama administration should also arm and train the liberal and moderate Syrian rebels on a much larger scale than they’ve done so far.

    Otherwise, the Assad regime may not really be damaged in the long run and/or or the more powerful and hardened jihadist fighters would gain an advantage. In Syria, a one-two punch of military training for the liberal/moderate opposition forces and air/naval strikes against Assad’s forces should really help the liberal and moderate opposition forces.

  • Posted by johnt

    A harsh truth, but it appears Obama has a soft spot somewhere for islam. No “clinging to their guns and religion” for them. The 2009 speech in Egypt, the guests at the WH, the urging for openness & inclusion for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, them of all people, doesn’t leave much room for doubt as to his sympathies. We, Obama, may leave them alone, they won’t leave us alone. And Obama will twiddle his thumbs.

  • Posted by Jack

    John is right. A soft spot for Islam. At least in the abstract. But when real flesh and blood Muslims are slaughtering each other, he doesn’t care so much.

    Would Obama care to deliver that 2009 Cairo speech again since its fulsome praise for Islam has been so gainsaid by events?

    Someone should ask Obama to respond to John’s point. “No “clinging to their guns and religion” for them”. Why are guns & religion OK for Muslims but improper for folks in upstate Pennsylvania or Kentucky or wherever?

  • Posted by Carl

    I fear Ah that the Sheeple have spoken and thier retoric leaves a lot to be desired. When did it become acceptable to denounce arguments only while they are not in line with ones own? Why are the insergents in Syria called rebels, why will these people not admit to other news sources which declare with ample proof or food for thought rather than this tired old human rights, responsibility to protect ruse. The west is backing their jihadist, islamo terrorist as they did in Yugoslavia, libya and now in Syria. They have armed and trained and paid these foreign fighters to wage war on those sovereign States in the world who refuse to kowtow to western imperialist ambitions. How can people be suggesting honestly that a country be bombed to protect it. If I may add other web sites provide me personally with another perspective globalresearch.ca et al will provide readers with facts and not hearsay from unknown sources. Being anti an argument irrespective of its meaning, truth, content, facts, relevancy is ignorant. Reading the so called mainstream media which is actually extremely rabid and hold no real mainstream opinion, the presstitute media coining a phrase (parenti) is not at all mainstream they by and large suport the imperial wars and pending imperial wars with a veracity shrouded by its god given legitimacy.. The sheeple must go long live the People.

  • Posted by EMT

    In my view Obama started too late to show his interest in Syria. It was imprudent to say that Assad needed to go, while he had already the active support of Iran and Russia. After Obama withdrew US forces from Iraq his word had no power and no chance of influencing anything, short of the US being prepared to start a war. We left behind millions worth of military equipment in Iraq and Afghanistan.
    Obama only excels in meddling and interfering in other countries’ affairs, such as stirring up the Arab Spring of which nothing positive came out, and now trying to force Israel into signing an agreement with Abbas, the successor of Yasser Arafat, who by George Bush’s account was a terrorist and a liar. I am sure that peace can be achieved, if the Palestinians stop listening to the PLO, and become a reliable partner for Israel.

  • Posted by ah

    Wes,
    I see your point, but I think those things are a) easy to say, very difficult to do, and b) slightly myopic and overly optimistic. I think from the start, the Obama Admin. has known this, and thus chose to not get too involved in a lose-lose situation. Whether this is right or not, I will leave to the historians to decide.

    I think the general understanding from military experts is that there is no such thing as precision strikes or small attacks. To launch air attacks on targets requires eliminating anti-aircraft guns and missiles, which are spread across the country in rural and urban areas.

    As for the training of “moderates”, the US is certainly doing this in Jordan under the CIA and Jordanian security. Yet the definition of “moderate” is ever changing, and Jordan also does not wish to be drawn into a war – whether overt or covert – with Syria.

    Obama should launch air and naval strikes against the Assad regime that hopefully aren’t “unbelievably small” to try to turn the tide of the war in favor of the rebels. The Obama administration should also arm and train the liberal and moderate Syrian rebels on a much larger scale than they’ve done so far.

    Otherwise, the Assad regime may not really be damaged in the long run and/or or the more powerful and hardened jihadist fighters would gain an advantage. In Syria, a one-two punch of military training for the liberal/moderate opposition forces and air/naval strikes against Assad’s forces should really help the liberal and moderate opposition forces.

    As for the comments by Jack and John… your dumb statements are not deserving of a response.

    EMT – as always, we disagree (first of all, your intentionally dishonest effort to link Abbas to Arafat to terrorist and lying and somehow George W…).

  • Posted by stephen albert

    Interesting the President Americans giving being tired of war as reason for the failure to act in Syria. Foreign policy made by public opinion poll.

    Americans can be tired of war. Putin isn’t .Neither is Assad. Nor Hezbollah/Iran. You can ignore the world.The word won’t necessarily ignore you.

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