Chemical weapons are evil, but you could also say they’re a curse. They have a talismanic power to bend and distort U.S. foreign policy. Just ask George W. Bush or Barack Obama.
In 2003, then–deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz gave a lengthy interview to Vanity Fair that caused a huge uproar, largely because the magazine shamefully distorted what he was trying to say. Wolfowitz explained that within the Bush administration there were a lot of arguments for why we should invade Iraq. Some had to do with the fact that Saddam Hussein was a state supporter of terrorism. Some had to do with how Hussein treated his own people. Others emphasized alleged links between the regime and 9/11. And so on.
Each of these arguments had proponents and opponents, Wolfowitz explained. The result was that “we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on”: weapons of mass destruction.
The problem was that focusing solely on a single issue turned out to be disastrous for the administration when the WMD never materialized. It should have been clear to everyone that few important decisions in life boil down to a single issue.
Something similar has happened to the Obama administration.
“I’m less concerned about style points; I’m much more concerned about getting the policy right,” President Obama told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos on Sunday, in response to the widespread criticism that his foreign policy has been a hot mess of late.
It’s a fair point, even if a bit hypocritical for a president who goes by the moniker “No Drama Obama.”
The last few weeks have had more drama than a Desperate Housewives franchise during sweeps week. Still, if in some Mr. Magoo–like way the administration has blindly blundered into a policy victory, that’s preferable to smoothly sticking the landing on a policy failure.
The question, however, is: What policy?
In his ABC interview, the president repeatedly said that his goal is to do something about chemical weapons: “And what I’ve said consistently throughout is that the chemical-weapons issue is a problem. I want that problem dealt with.
“That’s my goal,” he declared. “And if that goal is achieved, then it sounds to me like we did something right.”
That is a huge bait-and-switch.
Until the August 21 chemical-weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs, the administration was not primarily concerned with chemical weapons. It was concerned with doing whatever it could — short of intervening militarily — to see to it that Syrian president Bashar Assad would either step down or be forced out. In 2011, Obama said: “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” And, a year later: “I have indicated repeatedly that President al-Assad has lost legitimacy, that he needs to step down.” And in May, at a news conference with the Turkish prime minister: “We both agree that Assad needs to go. . . . That is the only way we’re going to resolve this crisis. And we’re going to keep working for a Syria that is free from Assad’s tyranny.”
That goal is now dead. The new Putin-Obama compact is a boon to Assad in that it brings him into the so-called international community, which America has spent the last two years trying to kick him out of. This “represents an astonishing victory for the Assad regime,” writes Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg (no relation). So long as Assad only massacres his own people — including children — with old-fashioned weapons, he’s immune to international force. Worse, Assad is now our partner, because getting his WMD is now more important than getting rid of him. We’ve gone from siding with the rebels to acting like a boxing ref with no investment in who wins so long as neither side strikes any low blows.
Obviously, in reality, Obama’s short-term goal was to avoid getting into an unpopular war precipitated by his own ill-considered statements, or being humiliated by a congressional “no” vote precipitated by his decision to punt the issue to Capitol Hill. But what made that goal achievable was the curse of chemical weapons.
— Jonah Goldberg is the author of The Tyranny of Clichés, now on sale in paperback. You can write to him by e-mail at email@example.com, or via Twitter @JonahNRO. © 2013 Tribune Media Services, Inc.