Sunday, May 05, 2013

The Thin Red Line

Latest Newspaper Column

These days, it seems like the only thing more incoherent than President Obama’s policy on Syria is the response of congressional Republicans to it.

Last year, as you may remember, the president announced that the use of chemical weapons by the Bashar al-Assad regime against the Syrian rebel forces would cross a “red line.”

Strong words, those, and, like most such tough talk about “red lines,” ill-advised. Because once it appears that there was evidence of rebels being killed or injured by sarin gas, suddenly they’re all, “Well, wait, let’s not be too hasty.” According to the president, “we don’t know what happened, or who did what to who.”

Not that I think haste is a good thing, mind you, especially when we’re talking about possible U.S. military intervention. But in drawing a “red line” and talking about “game changers,” Obama fell into one of the traps that always make me shake my head at the way some Democrats act whenever foreign or military policy comes up: They feel like they need to look tough so the Republicans don’t call them “weak on security,” so they forget to think before they speak.

The mistake is not being cautious now; the mistake was talking about “red lines” in the first place in any situation where our direct national security is not involved. Because here’s the thing: Trying to talk tough because you’re afraid the GOP is going to call you weak is a sucker’s game. They’re going to call a Democratic president weak whatever he does — unless it’s a strong military response, in which case they’ll call him reckless. I mean, have they learned nothing from the Clinton years?

I remember 1991, when there was a military coup in which Gen. Raoul Cédras ousted the elected president of Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The U.S. tried to get Cédras to step aside. He didn’t. The Clinton administration tried various scenarios, every one of which was slammed by congressional Republicans.

We tried economic sanctions. Republican response: “You can’t use sanctions! Those only hurt the Haitian people!”

We tried diplomatic pressure. Republican response: “Diplomatic pressure’s not going to work! This president is weak!”

When the idea of invasion came up, the Republican response was: “Invade?! You can’t invade! This isn’t worth losing American lives!”

So what did they want the president to do? “He should … uh … show leadership! Yeah, that sounds good. Leadership!”

This went on until 1994, when President Clinton did put the 82nd Airborne on planes and send them Haiti-wards while simultaneously sending Jimmy Carter, Colin Powell and Sen. Sam Nunn to let Cédras know it was his last chance. Cédras caved and left — after which Rush Limbaugh declared that Clinton had sent the troops into combat with only 14 rounds of ammo apiece. (That report was beautifully smacked down, on air, by a spokesman for the 82nd, who tore Rush a new one. Best 15 minutes of radio I ever heard.)

Depressingly, then as now, the only principle that the congressional Republicans seem to embrace is, “Everything the Democratic president does, proposes, or might possibly consider is wrong.”

We shouldn’t arm the rebels, insists Sen. Lindsey Graham, unless we can make sure the arms go to the “right people.” Yeah. That’ll work. We did so well with that in Afghanistan.

Well, how about putting in American troops? Both Graham and John McCain are “completely opposed to putting boots on the ground.” McCain and Graham have both expressed some support of a “no-fly zone” over Syria to keep the Syrian air force off the rebels’ backs, but let the first plane get shot down by a Syrian missile, with an American pilot killed or captured, and see how quickly they sing a different tune.
It must be powerfully tempting for the president, as chief executive of the last superpower, to draw “red lines” for other countries. It’s practically a conditioned reflex for the opposition party to, well, oppose. But neither one seems to have thought beyond that.

President Obama apparently had no idea what to do when his “red line” was crossed. But, apparently, neither does the GOP.