The Corner

Rhetoric Running on Empty

The latest disclosure — and the most grave — of the Assad regime’s supposed deployments of chemical weapons puts the West in general and the U.S. in particular in an untenable position. 

By all accounts, if the evidence proves to be legitimate (and given the nature of these militias that could be a big “if,” given that the losing side always seeks some sort of strategy for winning Western air support without much gratitude afterwards — cf. the Libyans), Assad has passed a redline. He should be deserving of concerted multilateral-sponsored action of the sort that would start with no-fly-zones and escalate accordingly. 

But there are problems with such a humanitarian intervention (well beyond the now stale assertions that Assad was a “reformer” in the eyes of our past and present secretaries of state, and worth visiting in the mind of Nancy Pelosi during the Iraq War, and worth talking to and engaging with in the 2008 campaign rhetoric of Barack Obama) — and unfortunately they are almost all of the Obama administration’s own making. 

The president’s rhetorical quiver is empty. After tough talk about boots on the ground and the good war in Afghanistan, deadlines to Iran, and redlines to Syria, all of which proved sorta/kinda pipe dreams, there are no more “make no mistake about/let me be perfectly clear/game-changer/I’m not kidding” arrows. Assad knows that, and the world knows it as well. In other words, another Obama speech will earn guffaws.

But the time for intervention, if one thought it would preclude the sort of devilish attack that may have occurred, was long ago, when the opposition was not so clearly dominated by al-Qaedists and their sympathizers, the Assad regime in the heady days of the Arab Spring was tottering, and the notion was preventing carnage, not post facto reacting to it.

In sum, not to do something about the latest violation of our pink lines would green-light Assad and others to do whatever they wished (or indeed even to do more than they wished on the principle that adding humiliation of the U.S. to their aggression was of some strategic and psychic value as well). Assad also knows there is no going back now. In defeat, if he were lucky, nothing would remain other than a dismal walled compound in Tehran. And so he will fight barbarously to the finish.

Yet to intervene now will require a steady hand, and, of course, presidential engagement of the sort we have not seen in Afghanistan, Benghazi, or Egypt: shuttle diplomacy with our NATO and Gulf allies, such as they are, reaching “across the aisle” to senior Republican senators and statesmen, adroit handling of Turkey, skillful U.N. gymnastics, a muzzle on the sort of idiotic remarks about jihad and the Muslim Brotherhood that a Clapper or Brennan is capable of, no photo ops around the TV console between card games, and a confident military in the age of sequestration — all impossible for a commander-in-chief photo-oping from the back nine or absorbed with the latest “they did it” strategy for the upcoming election.  

I doubt after the diplomatic double-cross in Libya (in which we asked for no-fly zones and humanitarian aid and ended up offering lead-from-behind ground support to the rebels), a once humiliated Russia will risk such a loss of face a second time, well apart from its own strategic interests in keeping Assad, and in the age of reset increasingly being against whatever we are for, even in cases of seemingly common concerns.

All of the above hypotheticals and diplomatic nuances would not matter to a Churchill, Truman, or Reagan. They would size up the humanitarian crisis, grasp the strategic consequences of legitimizing the use of WMD, weigh the prior rhetorical investment of the U.S. in warning against what apparently is now happening, and craft an air strategy that might stop the violence without pulling U.S. ground troops into the mess — and act with dispatch and moral confidence. 

And now? Enough said.

Victor Davis Hanson — NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won.

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