The New York Times is hard at work these days trying to make it easier for U.S. President Barack Obama to do nothing about the Syrian war, maintaining the policy that has been in place by the current administration for over two years. The inaction strategy became more difficult after there were reports earlier in the week suggesting that the Syrian government had crossed a red line drawn by Obama himself last summer, regarding use of or even movement of biological or chemical weapons by the Syrian regime.
On August 20, The New York Times reported that the president had spoken of the dangers of such weapons in making his first direct threat to use force in the conflict: "President Obama warned Syria on Monday that it would face American military intervention if there were signs that its arsenal of unconventional weapons was being moved or prepared for use. It was Mr. Obama's first direct threat of force against Syria, as he has resisted being drawn into the bloody 18-month rebellion."
The New York Times story emphasized that for Obama, there was grave danger if these weapons fell into the wrong hands, presumably, Hezbollah, al-Qaida or other radical groups: "We cannot have a situation in which chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people," Mr. Obama said in response to questions at an impromptu news conference at the White House. "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."
"That would change my calculus," he added. "That would change my equation."
For a president who tried to sell the concept of leading from behind in Libya, when our involvement in that conflict was predicated by a "responsibility to protect" civilians in that civil war, the 70,000 plus dead in Syria never created a similar pressure to act.
Today, The New York Times has a very different take on the president's statement from last August, now that journalists and members of Congress are pressing the administration on whether it will respond to the new reports that the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has either moved or used chemical weapons.
In essence, The New York Times' effort to create some space for Obama begins by claiming that the president's earlier remarks were merely "off the cuff." In other words, the August statement did not reflect new policy worked out among the hegemons of the administration's foreign policy establishment, but something more akin to a slip of the tongue.
The president's remarks followed the first reports of possible use or movement of chemical weapons by the Assad government last summer. The president's response was to signal to Syria this was a very bad idea: "… the White House devised a 48-hour plan to deter President Bashar al-Assad of Syria by using intermediaries like Russia and Iran to send a message that one official summarized as, 'Are you crazy?'"
One might wonder about the nature of U.S.-Iranian ties if the president is counting on Iran to send a message to Assad on our behalf. Assuming that Russia would serve as a reliable messenger also seems to be a stretch.
But the new spin on Obama's August statement, also suggests that the president should never be far away from a teleprompter or without a prepared script: "The idea was to put a chill into the Assad regime without actually trapping the president into any predetermined action," said one senior official, who, like others, discussed the internal debate on the condition of anonymity. But "what the president said in August was unscripted," another official said. Mr. Obama was thinking of a chemical attack that would cause mass fatalities, not relatively small-scale episodes like those now being investigated, except the "nuance got completely dropped."
So, the new interpretation is that Obama's earlier statement did not have the proper "nuance," and now we have a situation that requires such nuance. No mass fatality chemical attack has occurred. Ergo, Obama need not do anything, since that was what he and his policy advisers believed should be the real red line last August. Only mass casualty attacks would get us interested in intervention, not some "small scale episode."
It is therefore not surprising that the administration has been busily leaking and confirming reports that Israel had launched air attacks of it own in Syria or on the Syrian-Lebanon border, either on chemical weapons factories or on missiles being transported from Syria to Hezbollah -- Iran's Shiite terror army in Lebanon (and now actively engaged in the fighting on behalf of the Assad regime).
The administration's statements over the past few days have been better, of course, than the outrageous remark made by former General Lawrence Wilkerson, former Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, another opponent of military action abroad in his years in the Bush administration. Wilkerson tried to provide additional cover to the White House for its inaction in Syria, arguing that if chemical weapons had been used in Syria, it was more likely by the Syrian rebels or Israel itself in a false flag operation, than by Assad. Wilkerson added a few choice quotes for the Israel hating contingent including these: He says Israel's leadership is so "inept" that they need something big to provide them with this chance and he also referenced Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as an "idiot," and as someone President Obama is trying to help deliver from "strategic isolation."
For once, this administration seems un-conflicted about Israeli military action against its neighbors. If Israel can take care of business, then America doesn't have to. And since the administration's interpretation of what has occurred this week is more along the lines of a "small scale episode," rather than a "mass casualty attack," this was not the type of event that would have signaled the need for U.S. action.
The support for Israel's actions, and the new spin on why America need not get involved in the Syrian conflict, is one more signal, in a long line of them, that this administration has no intention of launching any military action against Iran's nuclear weapons program.
Presumably, the Obama administration would prefer no Israeli action against Iran either, unless it could be sure that there would be no blowback by Iran or its clients and agents abroad against U.S. military assets in the region, or even terror attacks against civilian targets in the United States.
There is probably real nervousness now in Obama's White House, as foreign policy failures become more evident, and even friendly mainstream media outlets begin to push certain story lines the administration would prefer to be left unpursued. The details of the September 11 Benghazi attack and the decisions made relevant to Libya in the months preceding the attack are now emerging.They present a picture of lies, cover-ups and deliberate deception, designed, it seems, to protect then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the president in the weeks before the November election.
The deteriorating situation in Syria; the collapse of the so-called Arab Spring into a new religiously-based authoritarianism in Egypt and elsewhere; mounting evidence that Iran is getting closer to manufacturing a nuclear bomb; and North Korea's threats are all creating anxiety for the administration, suggesting that things are not going well abroad, and that the death of bin-Laden and withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan are not the end of our role and responsibility abroad. Finally, there was the Boston Marathon bombing, which destroyed the narrative claiming that al-Qaida had been destroyed, terrorism was finished and that the homeland was safe.
Israel's objectives in Syria are undoubtedly different than America's. This is also the case with Iran. The U.S. nuclear deterrent may make containment an acceptable approach for Obama in a world with Iran possessing nuclear weapons. There is increasing evidence that the U.S. is moving toward this acceptance. Israel, of course, sees things differently.
In any case, when the administration's cheerleaders in the press twist themselves into pretzels trying to provide a rationale for the U.S. to stay out of the Syrian conflict, clearly the policy favored by the president, the implication for our reassurances to Israel about never permitting Iran to obtain nuclear weapons rings increasingly hollow.