Obama hands Congress a Syrian Catch-22

President Obama handed a hot potato to Congress, seeking Congressional approval for military action in Syria. Photo: AP

INDIANAPOLIS, August 31, 2013 — President Obama announced today in the White House Rose Garden that he is ready to launch a punitive attack against Syria’s President Bashir al-Assad.


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His presentation was another illustration of Obama’s talent for avoiding responsibility, claiming credit, and setting up the opposition for blame.

Obama will seek congressional approval for any action against Syria. The odds are that he will request approval for action without providing any details, forcing Congress to decide whether to give him carte blanche. If Congress refuses and things get worse in Syria — as they will, no matter what action the U.S. takes — Obama can blame them for denying him the power to prevent it.

Obama unilaterally drew an ambiguous “red line” against chemical weapons use 13 months ago; it was big talk, no detail. He reaffirmed the “red line” in March, again without details.

When chemical weapons use was alleged last Spring, Obama did nothing. Now that their use is well-documented, Obama has his “red line” plan, which turns out to be nothing. He has the Navy’s destroyers and Tomahawk missiles ready to attack something, but nothing important lest Russia and Iran get involved.


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Though the fact of its use is uncontested, the source of the sarin gas is still not positively established. Everyone assumes that the Assad regime used it, because he has the means to produce and deliver it. We know very little about the delivery, and sarin is not a high-tech weapon. It can be produced and delivered by amateurs. The Aum Shinrikyo cult released homemade sarin on the Tokyo subway in March 1995.

The proof that Assad released these weapons is not established. In an interview with the Russian news service Izvestia, Assad asked rhetorically, “How is it possible that any country would use chemical weapons, or any weapons of mass destruction, in an area where its own forces are located?”

Amateur videos have surfaced that seem to show rebels deploying sarin. Without hard evidence, it seems as plausible that the rebels used it as that the government did. There is already popular distrust and hatred of the regime; a gas attack against civilians would not give Assad any advantage. The suburb where the attack was launched was never identified as a “rebel stronghold,” and there is no report yet about who the target was. The random gassing of civilians is not a sound military strategy.

The regime has many options at its disposal, including low-risk conventional military options. The rebels lack quick mobility and supplies, and must improvise. The al Qaeda gang has no stake in preserving Syrian civilian life. It is trying to take over the country, perhaps in this case by provoking foreigners into helping them. A thousand or two random Syrians are nothing, compared to the prize they seek.


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An irony is that Obama is suddenly compelled to act because of the use of sarin. He did nothing as the first hundred thousand civilians died. Is the weaponry used to kill civilians more-important to Obama than the people it kills?

Perhaps Obama’s problem isn’t with mass murder; it’s with the technology used to do it.


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Tim Kern

Tim Kern taught economics for fifteen years, and discovered that understanding life is easy; it’s recognizing reality that takes practice. He holds a music degree, and later earned an MBA in finance from Northwestern University. He has lived across the US, and now makes his home in Anderson, Indiana.

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