A handout image released by the Syrian opposition's Shaam News Network shows smoke above buildings following what Syrian rebels claim to be a toxic gas attack by pro-government forces Aug. 21 in eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus. The allegation of chemical weapons being used in the heavily populated areas came on the second day of a mission to Syria by UN inspectors, but the claim, which could not be independently verified, was vehemently denied by the Syrian authorities. (AFP / Ho / Shaam News Network)
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Friday explained how his concerned about a Middle East war he ended has made him reluctant to start another.
Obama swept into office in 2008 warning about the George W. Bush administration’s ill-fated war in Iraq. During a television interview, Obama rekindled his concerns in explaining why he has so far opted against a Syria intervention mission.
Obama said he is “sympathetic” to interventionist lawmakers like Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who favor getting involved to help end a civil conflict that has claimed more than 100,000 lives.
“I am sympathetic to Sen. McCain’s passion for helping people work through what is an extraordinarily difficult and heartbreaking situation, both in Syria and in Egypt, and these two countries are in different situations,” Obama said on CNN’s “New Day” program.
Obama, however, then pivoted to rhetoric that sounded a lot like that of 2008 candidate Obama.
“But what I think the American people also expect me to do as president is to think through what we do from the perspective of, what is in our long-term national interests?” Obama said.
“And, you know … sometimes what we’ve seen is that folks will call for immediate action, jumping into stuff, that does not turn out well, gets us mired in very difficult situations, can result in us being drawn into very expensive, difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment in the region,” Obama said, clearly alluding to the Iraq war.
Obama acknowledged that “the United States continues to be the one country that people expect can do more than just simply protect their borders.”
But does that mean America should be the world’s policeman or firefighter?
“That does not mean that we have to get involved with everything immediately,” Obama said. “We have to think through strategically what’s going to be in our long-term national interests, even as we work cooperatively internationally to do everything we can to put pressure on those who would kill innocent civilians.”
Last August, Obama declared that should Assad use chemical weapons against Syrian citizens or opposition forces, it would constitute a “red line” for the American commander in chief.
“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,” Obama said then. “That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”
Since then, Obama and other Western and regional officials believe Assad’s forces have done just that several times. Yet Obama has done little to get directly involved, taking only small steps to aid opposition forces.
A year later, it remains unclear just what “change my equation” means. It’s also unclear if Obama will ever come to side with McCain and other GOP interventionists, who feel Syria’s instability is a US national security issue that warrants direct military action.
Many of Obama’s Democratic allies in the Senate, in conversations with Defense News, for months have criticized the president for making the red-line declaration then failing to enforce it.
Asked about his red-line remark, Obama seemed to revert to the constitutional-lawyer-in-chief persona for which many Republican and Democratic pundits have panned him.
“You know, if the US goes in and attacks another country without a U.N. mandate and without clear evidence that can be presented, then there are questions in terms of whether international law supports it, do we have the coalition to make it work,” Obama said. “And, you know, those are considerations that we have to take into account.”
Obama also appeared to pour cold water on any chances for a US mission in Syria by talking about the price military members have paid in America’s two major wars since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“But keep in mind, also, Chris — because I know the American people keep this in mind — we’ve still got a war going on in Afghanistan,” Obama said to CNN anchor Chris Cuomo.
“You know, we’re still spending tens of billions of dollars in Afghanistan. I will be ending that war by the end of 2014, but every time I go to Walter Reed [National Military Medical Center] and visit wounded troops, and every time I sign a letter for a casualty of that war,” Obama said, “I’m reminded that there are costs and we have to take those into account as we try to work within an international framework to do everything we can to see Assad ousted.”
Obama’s comments came one day after McCain harshly criticized him in a statement over his inaction in Syria, saying Washington’s credibility is at an all-time low.
“Credible reports coming out of Syria suggest that Assad and his forces have escalated their use of chemical weapons,” McCain said.
“Last week marked the two-year anniversary of President Obama’s call for Assad to leave power. It has been a year since the President said that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would constitute the crossing of a red line,” McCain said. “But, because these threats have not been backed up by any real consequences, they have rung hollow.
“As a result, the killing goes on, Assad remains in power, and his use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians apparently continues,” said McCain, a senior member of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees. “It is long past time for the United States and our friends and allies to respond to Assad’s continuing mass atrocities in Syria with decisive actions, including limited military strikes to degrade Assad’s air power and ballistic missile capabilities.”
McCain offered this about America’s standing in the region because of the Obama administration’s inaction on Syria — and what McCain sees as the administration’s mixed signals on Egypt: “American credibility in the Middle East has never been lower.”