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President Overruled Cabinet On Syria, Now Faces Stark Choices

In one of the biggest national security stories in a long time, Leon Panetta revealed yesterday that the Pentagon and the State Department had backed arming the rebels in Syria last year. The White House wasn’t interested. That now looks increasingly like a historic mistake that increases the odds of the ultimate nightmare for the Obama administration in the Middle East: the choice between accepting a nuclear Iran or launching military operations against its nuclear capability.

The NYT replays the gripping testimony:

“How many more have to die before you recommend military action?” Mr. McCain asked Mr. Panetta on Thursday, noting that an estimated 60,000 Syrians had been killed in the fighting.

And did the Pentagon, Mr. McCain continued, support the recommendation by Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Petraeus “that we provide weapons to the resistance in Syria? Did you support that?”

“We did,” Mr. Panetta said.

“You did support that,” Mr. McCain said.

“We did,” General Dempsey added.

Neither Mr. Panetta nor General Dempsey explained why President Obama did not heed their recommendation. But senior American officials have said that the White House was worried about the risks of becoming more deeply involved in the Syria crisis, including the possibility that weapons could fall into the wrong hands. And with Mr. Obama in the middle of a re-election campaign, the White House rebuffed the plan, a decision that Mr. Panetta says he now accepts.

This decision to overrule the most senior members of his own national security team leaves the President with three big problems:

First, Syria itself is worse off than before, and the worst elements of the resistance are far more powerful and influential (and the better elements much weaker, less well organized and less capable) because the U.S. didn’t act.

Second, Iran seems much less worried about what this administration might do to it. The mullahs seem to believe that faced with a tough decision, the White House blinks. The loss of momentum by the Syrian rebels gives them hope that Assad or forces friendly to them can emerge from the crisis in better shape than they once feared; and the White House reluctance to act on Syria, they seem to think, means that the White House will blink again when it comes to the ultimate showdown with Iran.

Third, both the Israelis and the Sunni Arab states have smelled the same weakness the Iranians think they’ve smelled. This will affect the President’s ability to shape events on a variety of regional issues.

What this episode most clearly shows is that not acting is as much an active choice as intervening. In this case, it sure looks like it was the wrong choice. Failing to send arms to Syria has increased the chance that the U.S. will have to send troops to Iran and reduced America’s ability to promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians—and we gained nothing in the bargain.

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