Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton says President Obama was wrong to ever publicly draw a red line on involvement in the Syrian civil war and U.S. credibility will be damaged as a result.
Obama stated months ago that the U.S. would not be getting directly involved in the conflict but that would change if the Assad regime resorted to using chemical weapons against the rebels. Intelligence from multiple nations, including the U.S. and Israel, recently concluded that Sarin gas was likely used in some attacks. However, Obama now says the U.S. has to take a closer look at the situation.
Regardless of the specific policy, Bolton says drawing a red line and then waffling on it has major repercussions for the U.S.
“I think it’s a big problem. I think that’s why presidents should be very careful before they set red lines,” said Bolton. “Having set the red line, not to follow through on the implicit threat to do something when the Assad regime crosses the red line is a terrible blow to the president’s credibility and, even worse, to the United States itself. It’s unfortunate, but it fits a pattern for this president, that he speaks in national security matters he doesn’t fully understand the implications of what he says. I’m trying to be charitable and diplomatic here. And then when he crashes into reality, that’s when he begins to think through the implications of what he said, rather than thinking first and speaking later.”
Bolton believes Obama still has no intention of intervening in Syria and will kill time by asking the United Nations to investigate the claims of chemical weapons deployment.
“As I said (Monday) morning in a Wall Street Journal article, there’s about as much chance of the UN conducting a thorough investigation as there is of the Israeli National Symphony Orchestra conducting a thorough investigation in Syria. It’s not going to happen,” said Bolton. “So if the president’s trying to cover himself and give a reason why he didn’t do anything, certainly throwing it to the United Nations is the perfect way out.”
So what is the right policy? Some advocates for military action, like Arizona Sen. John McCain, believe the U.S. has a responsibility to help the rebels, topple Assad and prevent a further humanitarian crisis. Others counter that we are essentially watching a satellite regime of Iran go to war with Al Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood and other radical components so there’s not much downside to watching them destroy each other. Bolton largely subscribes to the latter view, with one major caveat.
“The way you answer a complex question like this is to say, ‘What is America’s fundamental interest here? What do we have at stake? How are we threatened by this situation?’ What we are really threatened by is the chemical weapons getting outside of Syria, falling into the hands of terrorists, whether Al Qaeda or others, who would then have the capability to use them worldwide against us, against our citizens, against our friends and allies. Preventing that from happening is a very vital national interest,” said Bolton.
He says a light military footprint would be needed to deal with the weapons threat, but he says a limited number of special operations forces would be able to handle the job.
Bolton says Syria had a chemical and biological weapons program at the time Israel destroyed a nuclear reactor there in 2007. He also says it’s possible that some of Saddam Hussein’s weapons ended up in Syria. He says that cannot be verified but, if true, could mean we could be dealing with a much bigger arsenal than first thought.
He is sensitive to the humanitarian crisis spawned by the war in Syria, as more than 70,000 people are now reported dead from the fighting. But Bolton says that should not be enough to put U.S. troops in harm’s way.
“To put American service members’ lives at risk purely for humanitarian purposes there when nobody else is stepping up to the plate, nobody else is volunteering to do anything about it, I don’t think is warranted,” he said.
Besides, he says, there’s no good outcome to this war.
“There are no white hats. I have nothing good to say about Assad. He is basically a satellite of the ayatollahs in Iran, but unfortunately the opposition, basically from the beginning, has been shot through with terrorists and radical Islamists. I’ve been waiting for two years for the people who saywe should arm or assist the opposition to name the opposition leaders who would adhere to western values, who would be in favor of representative government, against conducting a bloodbath if they won. I still don’t know who those opposition leaders are,” said Bolton. “I think it would be a big mistake for the United States or for the West as a whole to give weapons and capabilities to people we don’t know and don’t have any basis to trust.”