I saw this coming. Last August, President Obama said:
We cannot have a situation in which chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people . . . We have been very clear to the Assad regime but also to other players on the ground that a red line for us is, we start seeing a whole bunch of weapons moving around or being utilized.
This was clearly taken as a threat of force. (NYT headline: “Obama Threatens Force Against Syria”).
Unfortunately, it was just as obvious that he didn’t mean it. Alas, it was obvious not just to me, but also to Assad. So when Assad started moving his chemical weapons around, the administration claimed it wasn’t clear that he was doing it. When we learned he was using them, they claimed it wasn’t clear that he was using them. And, when the evidence finally became undeniable, they were forced into a humiliating backpeddle.
The bottom line is that Obama is just really bad at this. This is a guy who actually says things like “don’t call my bluff.” In this case, the president’s aides had carefully developed a position that was supposed to scare Assad but not mean anything. But then Obama went and ad-libbed a new policy at the podium:
Moving or using large quantities of chemical weapons would cross a “red line” and “change my calculus,” the president declared in response to a question at a news conference, to the surprise of some of the advisers who had attended the weekend meetings and wondered where the “red line” came from.
This is a president who manages, on the fly, to invent a policy even worse than his intended policy of meaningless talk.
But his weakness goes so much further than that. When trying to develop a response to Assad disregarding Obama’s threats, the White House felt its hands were tied:
Mr. Obama’s advisers also raised legal issues. “How can we attack another country unless it’s in self-defense and with no Security Council resolution?” another official said, referring to United Nations authorization. “If he drops sarin on his own people, what’s that got to do with us?”
Well, that’s the problem with giving foreign dictators a veto over US policy, isn’t it? But what about “what’s that got to do with us”? A year ago Obama thought it had something to do with us, when he vowed to prevent foreign atrocities in a speech at the Holocaust Memorial Museum:
And finally, “never again” is a challenge to nations. It’s a bitter truth — too often, the world has failed to prevent the killing of innocents on a massive scale. And we are haunted by the atrocities that we did not stop and the lives we did not save.
These too are shown to be empty words. In April 2012 he was running for election and had to pretend to be strong, when in fact he is anything but. (See also, Benghazi.)
POSTSCRIPT: Remember this, from Joe Biden?
We’re going to face a major international challenge, ’cause they’re going to want to test him, just like they did John Kennedy, they’re going to want to test him, and they’re going to find out this guy’s got steel in his spine.
Tested he was, but steel in his spine? Not so much.