“I think what the Iranians understand is that the nuclear issue is a far larger issue for us than the chemical weapons issue, that the threat against Israel that a nuclear Iran poses is much closer to our core interests,” U.S. President Barack Obama told ABC News over the weekend, speaking of his decision to postpone any potential U.S. strikes on Syria in response to an apparent government chemical weapons attack on August 21 that killed more than 1,400 people.
Two weeks earlier, Obama’s secretary of state, John Kerry, was delivering a different message. He called the sarin gas attack an inexcusable moral obscenity that “defies any code of humanity.” The President, Kerry assured us, had made it clear to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that there would be “consequences” for its use of chemical weapons. “Nothing today,” he said, “is more serious.”
Now we learn that it’s not such a big deal after all — at least not compared to Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and the threat these might pose to Israel.
It’s hard to imagine anything Obama might say that would make him more loathed by Syrians who continue to be slaughtered by Assad’s forces.
As for “consequences,” these amount to an implausible and logistically near-impossible deal that would see Assad’s regime, in the midst of a civil war, hand over the chemical weapons it recently denied possessing. America’s partner in this game of diplomatic make-believe is Russia, which arms Assad and claims he didn’t use chemical weapons in the first place.
Nowhere in the Russian-U.S. deal is there any mention of preventing Assad from carrying out further atrocities without chemical weapons. Indeed, even when the United States seemed poised to hit Assad, it was to be a limited response to his alleged use of chemical weapons.
“What happens if Assad decides to round up 5,000 people and shoot them Einsatzgruppen-style,” Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, asked in an interview with Maclean’s.
“Is really the method of mass killing the principle motivator for international action, rather than the fact of mass killing? Even if you want to focus on the moral humanitarian aspect of this, that seems odd.”
The likely answer is that nothing would happen. Lining up 5,000 people and shooting them would be a war crime, but then so is gassing 1,400, and Assad is getting away with it. He has an implicit green light to kill, so long as it isn’t with gas, again.
And, for the sake of argument, let’s suppose that Obama were to deliver a solemn speech warning that machine-gunning civilians into ditches would constitute a “red line.” Who, now, would take him seriously?
Under Obama, the United States is neither feared nor loved in the Middle East.
Authoritarian allies look at his morally justified abandonment of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and doubt his loyalty. They will compare it to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s steadfast support for Assad and draw the appropriate conclusions.
Liberals and others who oppose the region’s thugs and dictators will look at America’s seeming indifference to their struggles and conclude they need to find friends elsewhere. The growing strength of radical Islamists among the Syrian opposition stems in part from the fact that Islamists in the Gulf and elsewhere will help where the West will not.
And America’s enemies will look at Obama’s feckless blundering over the past few weeks and conclude, rightly, they have less to fear from the United States than they once did.
Iran, too, is drawing lessons from America’s reaction. Video evidence emerged this week that large numbers of Iranian Revolutionary Guards are in Syria fighting with government forces. Iran’s is committed to preserving Assad. Two years ago Obama said Assad should go. The Iranians are willing to back up their words with actions. America, it’s now clear, is not.