RANCHO SANTA FE, Ca., August 27, 2013 — President Obama has spoken forcefully on numerous occasions about the United States’ unique role when it comes to responding to international violations of human rights. His recently appointed Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, has written multiple books about the issue. Yet, in the absence of a coherent foreign policy, how will our nation respond to the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war?
On March 28, 2011, President Obama delivered a speech at the National Defense University about the Libyan crisis that had hints of what has since transpired in Syria. Obama said:
“To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and — more profoundly — our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are. Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as president, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.”
Since that speech, approximately 100,000 people have been killed in Syria, which is a staggering number in contrast to recent estimates of 4,700 killed and 2,100 missing in the entire Libyan revolution. The number pales in comparison to the 620,000 Americans who lost their lives during our Civil War, but countries were less inclined to intervene in conflicts of other sovereign nations in those days.
Less than 18 months after the President’s Libyan speech, rumors surfaced that chemical weapons may have been used in the Syrian conflict. Obama immediately addressed the issue on August 20, 2012, at an impromptu press conference when he announced:
“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 chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation. … We’re monitoring that situation very carefully. We have put together a range of contingency plans.”
Rumors continued to circulate, and on March 19, 2013, an alleged chemical weapon attack killed 31 people in Khan al-Assal in the province of Aleppo and wounded over 100 more. The Syrian government blamed the rebels and the Syrian rebels blamed the government, while both maintained that they didn’t use chemical weapons.
The next day, in a joint news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, President Obama said:
“We know the Syrian government has the capacity to carry out chemical weapon attacks. We know that there are those are in the Syrian government who have expressed a willingness to use chemical weapons if necessary to protect themselves. I am deeply skeptical of any claim that in fact it was the opposition that used chemical weapons. Everybody who knows the facts of the chemical weapons stockpiles inside of Syria as well as the Syrian government capabilities, I think, would question those claims. Once we establish the facts, I have made clear that the use of chemical weapons is a game changer.”
“When you start seeing weapons that can cause potential devastation and mass casualties and you let that genie out of the bottle, then you are looking potentially at even more horrific scenes than we’ve already seen in Syria. And the international community has to act on that additional information. We have been clear that the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people would be a serious and tragic mistake.”
Soon thereafter, the U.N. established a chemical weapons team at the request of the Syrian government to investigate the Aleppo incident, but the Syrian government balked when the U.N. wanted to expanded the investigation to other sites.
In June, the Obama Administration began sending small arms to the Syrian rebel forces, who are aligned to a degree with al-Qaeda, after U.S. intelligence agencies inferred that the Assad regime had used sarin in several smaller incidents. However, to date, Obama has refused to consider any direct military involvement by the United States.
In July, Russia notified the U.N. that it had conducted tests on materials secured from the Khan al-Assal site in a Russian laboratory certified by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Russia asserted that the tests concluded that Syrian rebels had launched an unguided projectile filled with sarin at government forces in the area. That inference was reached because the delivery mechanism was not industrially manufactured and because it used an opening charge that is not used in standard ammunitions.
Then on August 21, exactly a year and a day after the President’s “red-line” speech, the stakes were raised when a large scale chemical weapons attack allegedly took place in towns within Ghouta, east of Damascus, and possibly in Muadhamiya to the west. This time, social media postings and unverified video of the aftermath of the attacks were available.
Over 355 people were confirmed dead and over a thousand more were injured as a result of the attack.
Three days later, August 24, Obama convened his top military and national security advisors to consider the full range of responses available to the United States should it be found that the Syrian government did use chemical weapons in the attack. He also conferred with British Prime Minister David Cameron, who expressed his country’s concern. As the president has stated on several occasions, his preference would be for an international response, but he has not ruled out independent action by the United States.
The United Nations chose to act immediately on August 21, the day of the incident, by calling an emergency meeting of its Security Council. Samantha Power, the United States’ newly appointed Ambassador to the U.N., was unable to attend to represent our nation’s interests because she was engaged in personal trip to Ireland.
Given that Obama prefers to act with international approval and that his past “red line” rhetoric may have backed the United States into a corner to respond in a definitive manner, some will argue that Power’s decision was highly questionable. In view of her history as a staunch human rights activist, it also appeared to be uncharacteristic.
This is an individual who won the Pulitzer Prize for her book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. Yet, when an emergency meeting of the Security Council was called to address a possible war crime, Power was missing in action.
Why did this happen and what are the possible consequences?
It is entirely possible that Power just couldn’t make it back in time. In light of the communication technologies that are available today, her physical presence may not even have been necessary. Why those same technologies haven’t been used to obviate the need for a large number of Obama’s interminable speaking tours would be an interesting topic for discussion.
Power’s absence also may not have been significant from a pragmatic perspective.
Russia sits on the U.N. Security Council. It is tightly aligned with the Syrian government. As a result, it is likely to have exercised its veto against any resolution for which the United States might have built a consensus.
Additionally, there is a chance that Power would not have been sufficiently versed to serve as an effective advocate on our nation’s behalf.
The ambassador had only been in office for 19 days prior to the attack. She may not have been sufficiently familiar with the president’s thinking about Syria to represent his position.
In the past, Power has been far more “hawkish” than Obama. For example, she called for an armed intervention in both the Balkans and Libya.
However, this isn’t to suggest that she would default to a military option. Power has also said, “If you think of foreign policy as a toolbox, there are a whole range of options — you can convene allies, impose economic sanctions, expel ambassadors, jam hate radio. There is always something you can do.”
For those who have suggested that Power may not be “seasoned” enough to stand up to members who sit on the Security Council, such as Russian Ambassador Churkin, keep in mind that she served as a senior foreign policy adviser to then-Senator Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign. While she was forced to resign for referring to Hillary Clinton as “a monster,” she obviously has the courage to speak her mind.
Speaking of Clinton, we can only wonder if she would see the use of chemical weapons as something that would “change (her) calculus,” or would she view the use as inconsequential. If we were to extrapolate from her famous quote about Benghazi, we might expect her to say, “With all due respect, the fact is we have hundreds of dead Syrians. Whether it was because of conventional weapons or because guys outside for a walk one night decided to go kill some Syrians with chemical weapons. What difference at this point does it make?”
Words matter. Actions matter even more.
Have Obama’s pontifications about “(refusing) to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action” and how the movement or utilization of chemical weapons would be a “red line” for the United States backed us into a corner in the eyes of the world? Will we be forced to take action because of evidence of WMDs once again?
Keep in mind, on February 5, 2003, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell gave a compelling speech before the United Nations’ General Assembly that described in detail how Iraq had allegedly continued its WMD programs. Powell said:
“We have firsthand descriptions of biological weapons factories on wheels and on rails. The trucks and train cars are easily moved and are designed to evade detection by inspectors. In a matter of months, they can produce a quantity of biological poison equal to the entire amount that Iraq claimed to have produced in the years prior to the Gulf War.”
A strong implication was also made that the chemical weapons had been transported to Syria; one of only five countries that refused to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention of the U.N.
In the aftermath, no evidence of functional WMDs was ever found in Iraq. The Bush Administration was disgraced over the assertions, and thousands of American military personnel lost their lives, their limbs, and their emotional health as the result of the war.
Will we follow this path once again? Will we proceed with more caution? What will drive our decisions? Will we take action to preserve our Nation’s reputation, to respond to atrocities, to cement political legacies, etc.? No one really knows.
Could we intelligently leverage this situation to call for a meaningful reform of the United Nations? The single member veto power of U.N. Security Council represents the definition of “stalemate.” As a result, the U.N.’s primary purpose has been almost totally emasculated:
“To maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace, and to bring about by peaceful means, and in conformity with the principles of justice and international law, adjustment or settlement of international disputes or situations which might lead to a breach of the peace.”
Given that the United States serves as the home of the U.N. and provides disproportional funding for the organization’s general budget and even a higher percentage of the budget for the U.N.’s peacekeeping forces, this may be a uniquely suitable time to coerce the U.N. to do its job or go the way of its predecessor, the League of Nations.
The crisis in Syria is extremely fluid. On Sunday, August 25th, the Syrian government acceded to U.N. inspections of the areas in which chemical weapons are believed to have been used. A cease-fire has been put in place to protect the inspectors. On Monday, August 26th, the inspectors were fired upon by snipers but finally made it to the site. Their presence and testing may bring more answers, but naysayers have already speculated that critical information has already been lost in the days that have passed.
Over time, we will learn what the Administration’s response will be. Until then, what would you do?
- If the chemical weapon attacks are proven to have occurred, would you assume that they had been committed by the Assad regime, or would you wait until you had definitive proof of which side had orchestrated the attacks?
- How would you intervene (i.e., with international support or independently; militarily or via sanctions; if militarily, by surgically targeted strikes designed to degrade capabilities or by full assault)?
- What would your response be if both sides were ultimately shown to have used chemical weapons?
- Would your response change depending on which party was proven to have initiated the usage of chemical weapons?
- What role, if any, should the United Nations play in the determination and sequencing of the range of responses?
- What risks are involved in your strategy and what are their potential adverse consequences?
- Could this issue be used to bring pressure upon the U.N. to become more proactive in the execution of its core mission to preserve the peace or, in the alternative, to force it to disband because of its ineffective record?
At a more fundamental level:
- Does the United States have a moral responsibility to intervene in the civil atrocities of foreign nations?
- Does the United States have a legal right to intervene in the affairs of foreign nations?
- Would your answer be the same if the alleged atrocities were occurring within the United States and foreign powers sought to intervene?
There are no easy answers to complex issues. Then again, being President of the United States isn’t your typical civil service job. It’s more than just giving speeches and attending fundraisers. It’s more than just arguing with the opposing Party. It’s about making critically important decisions that can impact millions of lives and the history of the world. Choose wisely.
A Civil Assessment has been designed to serve as an Op-Ed forum for YOU. You are invited to offer your opinion and to discuss your position with other commenters who may agree or disagree with your position. Just because many of our elected officials seem to be incapable of participating in this type of dialogue doesn’t mean that you should be precluded from doing so. CAVEAT: Please be sure that your “assessments” remain “civil” so that they may earn the respect of others.
T.J. O’Hara is an internationally recognized author, speaker and strategic consultant in the private and public sectors, and in 2012, he emerged as the leading independent candidate for the Office of President of the United States.
T.J. will be providing nonpartisan political commentary every Tuesday on The Daily Ledger, one of One America News Network’s featured shows (check local cable listings for the channel in your area or watch online at 8:00 and 11:00 PM Eastern / 5:00 and 8:00 PM Pacific).