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Jewish World Review
Sep 11, 2013 / 7 Tishrei, 5774
The administration is muddled on Syria
John Kerry wanted to make one thing perfectly clear.
“We’re not asking Congress not to vote,” the secretary of state informed the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.
What the Obama administration is asking for is not readily apparent. Ten days ago, President Obama was on the verge of sending U.S. missiles into Syria to punish Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons. Then he said he wanted Congress to authorize such a mission in advance. Then it began to appear that Congress would reject the Syria attack and cripple Obama’s credibility. Finally, Obama was offered a lifeline by the very regime he was planning to attack, when Syria agreed to a Russian plan for it to surrender its chemical weapons.
So when administration officials appeared at Tuesday’s hearing, titled “Proposed Authorization to Use Military Force in Syria,” Kerry’s opening statement omitted a request for authorization. “Will the president still seek a congressional vote?” Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) inquired.
That’s when Kerry improvised with his “not asking Congress not to vote” formulation. The president “wants the Congress to act, but I think that the Senate has made a decision to hold off to see whether there are any legs in this Russian proposal,” he said, adding: “Nothing has changed with respect to our request for the Congress to take action with respect to this. As to when and how, that’s something the president may want to chat with the leadership about.”
The president may want to chat?
The administration has lost control of the Syria situation and is now watching developments much like everybody else. Russia is drafting a proposal. France is taking a different proposal to the United Nations. And the people’s House has returned to its previously scheduled program: holding votes undoing Obamacare.
It may turn out that the Russian proposal gives Obama, and the United States, a face-saving way out of a conflict that neither the public nor lawmakers have supported. It may even be that the possibility of an U.S. attack spurred the Russians and Syrians to act. But it feels as if the ship of state is bobbing like a cork in international waters.
This was to be the week the president made the case to the nation that military action was necessary. He gave a series of TV interviews Monday and scheduled a prime-time address for Tuesday. But instead of rallying the nation to war, Obama found himself with a lot of airtime and nothing concrete to say.
He said the Russian idea, which had been discussed privately for months but came about Monday in response to an offhand comment Kerry made, is a “potentially positive development.”
NBC’s Savannah Guthrie asked if he might attack without congressional support.
“It’s fair to say that I haven’t decided.”
Is he confident he’d get the votes from Congress?
“I, you know, I — I wouldn’t say I’m confident.”
ABC’s Diane Sawyer asked whether he expected congressional action in a matter of weeks.
“I’m not going to put a particular time frame on.”
Obama’s leadership, particularly in his second term, can most charitably be described as subtle. But he is so subtle that he sometimes appears to be a witness rather than an actor — a presidential bystander.
He left immigration up to Congress, which put the issue on ice. Congress also buried gun control and efforts to replace the sequester. Obama, meantime, has been reacting to events — Egypt, the National Security Agency revelations — rather than shaping them. He launched a fresh push to sell Americans on the merits of Obamacare — yet more than four in 10 remain unaware that the law is still on the books.
The potential agreement on Syria came about by happenstance, when a reporter asked Kerry on Monday whether Assad could do anything to avoid an attack. “Sure,” Kerry said. “He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week. . . . But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously.”
State Department officials quickly said Kerry was merely pointing out that Assad couldn’t be trusted. But after Russia and Syria embraced the disarmament idea, administration officials on Tuesday were taking credit for the “outline” Kerry offered.
“Yesterday, we challenged the regime to turn them over,” Kerry told the committee, and the Russians “responded by saying that they would come up with a proposal to do exactly that.”
So is the administration withdrawing or delaying the request to use force in Syria? “I’m not officially asking you to withdraw it, no,” Kerry said. “And I’m not asking delay.”
What he is asking for is . . . vague.
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