On balance, the president did a good job making the weak case for military action over the violation of his red line. Perhaps the administration has now learned why presidents typically don’t draw such lines: They encourage would-be aggressors to believe they can take any action short of the line with impunity, and they deprive the United States of operational flexibility if the line is crossed — exactly what has happened in Syria.
The speech might have mattered a week ago. It doesn’t matter much now. It probably won’t move the needle with the American people; and in any event it’s unlikely that a military strike will come to a vote in Congress, or will ever happen. The diplomatic lifeline thrown out by Vladimir Putin serves the short-term interests of both sides. It allows the Obama administration to avoid a humiliating defeat in Congress, while reinforcing the impression that Russia is now more influential in the Middle East than the United States.
The president made a general statement tonight about the “peoples’ representatives” being “sidelined” regarding decisions to use force in the last decade. That was a gratuitous — to say nothing of unfair — slap at the Bush administration. Congress voted in favor of using military force in both the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts. The president may not remember that, but his vice president and secretary of state should; they voted for both resolutions. It was President Obama, not his predecessor, who used force (in Libya) without congressional authorization.
The president also celebrated, yet again, the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. In reality, the failure to negotiate a status-of- forces agreement, which would have allowed the United States to maintain troops in Iraq in a non-combat role, may have been the biggest failure of the administration’s first term. No one can know for sure, but if the United States still had a footprint in Iraq, Iran or at least Russia might not have filled the vacuum in Syria.
At minimum, Russian leverage would have been reduced, and Iran would not have had free use of Iraqi airspace for the last two years to ship arms, troops, and supplies to Assad.
The initiative in Syria is now in Russian hands. Depending on what Putin decides to do, there may well be some kind of agreement and perhaps a Security Council resolution regarding chemical weapons. It’s hard to imagine Assad actually giving those weapons up whatever the agreement might say, but he will probably be more careful in the future to kill his enemies without using them if at all possible. If that is true, it will be a point gained in principle, but it won’t change much on the ground in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, or any of the other places in the Middle East that are being destabilized by America’s failure to come to terms with the inaptly named “Arab Spring.”
- Jim Talent is a former member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and currently a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
Originally appeared in National Review Online.