The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Empty Threats on Syrian Chemical Weapons

With Assad reportedly activating his chemical weapons stash for potential use, the Obama administration is tying itself up in knots trying to parse nuances in the meaning of the word “move” and backing away from previous threats to intervene:

When Mr. Obama warned against moving chemical weapons, administration officials said he did not mean shifting the weapons from one site to another, which has happened several times, but preparing them for use.

But in recent days, that is exactly what intelligence agencies fear has happened. American officials have detected that Syrian troops have mixed small amounts of precursor chemicals for sarin, a deadly nerve gas, at one or two storage sites — though there is no indication that Mr. Assad, whose troops are under fierce assault from rebel forces, is ready to order the use of his arsenal.

This is not the first time in this mess that a gap between tough U.S. rhetoric and cautious U.S. deeds have left Washington looking weak. Too often policy makers confuse speaking with acting, and think a tough speech is a mighty deed. But if others come to believe that you speak lightly and inconsequentially, they will treat you the way birds treat a scarecrow once they realize it can’t actually move.

If this NY Times article has it right—and with fast breaking, complex news stories that is always a question—Assad seems to have reached that conclusion about at least some of the Obama administration’s rhetoric. That really is too bad. Now is the time we need Assad to listen.

Published on December 7, 2012 9:08 am