Door Number Three
Published on: September 3, 2013
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  • Anthony

    “All opportunism and no principles…. The president simply does not care enough about this business to have ever really thought it through….” There is not much to add to above beyond your call to restoration of American credibility as signal reason for choice number three. Somewhere in my professional life Adam Garfinkle, I have acquired the thought that credibility remains the greatest obstacle to an overture of power. And at bottom, you are talking about utilization of power which is neither created nor destroyed only transformed or transferred. Your essay infers that the confrontation being seeded overlaps the negotiation being matured but that the game of power goes on and the credibility continuum should not be broken – power is mortgaged and repayments are inescapable.

  • Larry, San Francisco

    Pretty scary. Adam what do you think the chances of a general war are? Do you think that since neither Israel nor Saudi Arabia has confidence in Obama stopping Iran they might cooperate in a joint attack?
    Also here is a link to the Hof article.
    It is just hard to believe the administration is so amateur.

    • Nathan

      Without taking time to read your linked article, I think it is unescapable to say that it really matters what we do now. That’s the whole point of the credibility argument. If we go with Adam’s option 3, however difficult, and make a good play of it, we get some credibililty back with many more nations than the ones you mentioned. If we don’t, those concerns start looking more serious.

      Really, any of these bad options open up the door to a greater conflict in various ways, though. In this scenario, it is Iran & Hezbollah, probably along with an opportunistic Hamas, that start expanding the war beyond Syria. There’s no telling what awaits down that road.

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  • Peter

    Now this was an insightful posting.

    And the observation regarding Obama — “And What the hell is this guy thinking anyway? Does he want Congress to vote “yes” or “no”? The fact that no one’s really sure is not at all helpful, to put it mildly” — is spot on.

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  • John Burke

    Hmmm…I’m inclined to agree about Door #3 but I’m not sure. With Obama in charge, the prospect of his managing the potentially dangerous fallout from a serious blow to Assad may be scarier than our muddling through three more years of Obama’s ineptitude after a pin prick.

    My lack of respect for the guy climbed another notch when I read today that, in Stockholm, he said, “I didn’t set a red line. The world set a red line.” Really!! He couldn’t even embrace his own words, explain and defend them when he’s supposedly on the verge of enforcing his warning and he’s asked Congress for support? Jeez, the guy could have said, “Yes, I said it would be a red line and I’ll tell you why. Because of X, Y, and Z.” If I were in Congress, I’d be mighty pissed that the Prez is trying to disown responsibility for his own words, while asking me to take a political risk by backing those words. Everyone in “the world,” friend and foe, knows Obama said it, now knows he didn’t really mean it, and knows “the world” doesn’t much care what Assad did. Even as Kerry and Hagel are making the case, Obama’s out undermining it by not forcefully embracing his own policy. What if (hypothetically) Russia were to bring the issue to the Security Council and a majority (forget the vetoes) voted down international action, which is what would happen? So much for “the world” drawing lines!

    I think it’s even money that Obama would prefer Congress not to authorize, because at heart, the guy is a peacenik — one who feels he was snookered into beefing up Afghanistan in 2009, which he now badly wants out of, and was pressured by Britain and France into the Libya intervention. This is not a guy who likes the fact that the left of his party is starting to call him Bush-lite while he has to rely on hawkish Republicans.

    • John Burke

      I would add that today’s 10-7 committee vote in the Senate is no landslide and perhaps a harbinger of serious trouble getting 60 votes if cloture is needed. According to Politico, only 10-12 Republicans are aye votes and as many as 12-13 Democrats are either on record opposed or trying to find someplace to hide.

      Also, I should have mentioned that Obama’s “the world set the red line” baloney is especially foolish on the eve of the G-20 where much of “the world” will be represented without much support for attacking Syria in evidence and Putin’s having the opportunity to spotlight that fact.

    • Yes, the statement in Stockholm was really quite extraordinary, and you put your finger exactly on why.

      Bush-lite is one way to describe him, and many do; but to me, after the Stockholm language caper, we seem to be in the company of a UCSiC–Used Car Salesman-in-Chief. Where is Tom Donilon when you need him? (Rhetorical questions……we know where he isn’t, and that’s more important right now.)

      • John Burke

        So now, Kerry’s in Paris trying gamely to back up the “world red line” theme by claiming that a meeting of Arab foreign ministers agreed “without exception” with the proposition that use if CW crossed an “international, global red line.” Not just global, mind you.

  • Nathan

    I’m not certain that Obama’s appeal to Congress will bind the hands of future presidents all that much. That could happen, but the circumstances here seem a bit unique. Public support for action on Syria is dramatically weaker than similar actions have seen in a long time (in my mind, this is probably the #1 thing that pushed Obama in Congress’s direction). Some real damage control needs to be done with the public before they’ll support another foreign venture, but that support is likely to recover at some point. A different president with a few more years separating us from Libya (most would credit Iraq here, but the public still supported intervention in Libya and felt itself burned) might face fewer obstacles. I get the gist of what Adam is saying here, and he’s not wrong.

    On the other hand, this seems like a surreal flip from the aforementioned Libya operation. Obama didn’t consult with Congress for several months of ongoing bombing operations. While I’m not comfortable with 535 Secretaries of Defense, I wasn’t comfortable with the way the Libya action was handled, either.

    What a mess.

    • agree, except that by definition nothing can be “a bit unique.”

  • Matthew Brotchie

    How much influence will Saudi lobbying have on congressional authorization?


    • Excellent question. I don’t know the answer except to say “not none.”

      • Matthew Brotchie

        On the flip side, Bandar threatened Putin with Chechen terrorism during the Olympics at Sochi if they don’t drop Assad.

        “…Prince Bandar pledged to safeguard Russia’s naval base in Syria if the Assad regime is toppled, but he also hinted at Chechen terrorist attacks on Russia’s Winter Olympics in Sochi if there is no accord.

        “‘I can give you a guarantee to protect the Winter Olympics next year. The Chechen groups that threaten the security of the games are controlled by us,’ he allegedly said.

        “Prince Bandar went on to say that Chechens operating in Syria were a pressure tool that could be switched on an off. ‘These groups do not scare us. We use them in the face of the Syrian regime but they will have no role in Syria’s political future’.”

        • Matthew Brotchie

          How much “leverage” does the Saudi’s have on us? I’ve read in a Gerald Posner book that they have self-destruct mechanisms installed in all of their oil reservoirs and that their destruction would bring on a economic disaster like never before. Is this true?

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  • WigWag

    Certainly after Obama’s decision, no Democratic President will lightly contemplate any even remotely significant use of force without congressional authorization” (Adam Garfinkle)

    I wouldn’t be so sure about that. If the most likely scenario comes to pass and Hillary Clinton is the next President, I think that it’s easy to contemplate the possibility that she would use force without congressional authorization. I doubt that she would agonize unduly about failing to seek congressional approval.

    What would Congress do anyway; impeach her?

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  • Evidently this is what it looks like when a postcolonial college professor gets hold of the levers of power.

    • First, I have never been been a full-time college professor, but I have had paychecks come from the Departments of State and Defense, and have done consulting work for the intelligence community. And you?

      Second, I don’t know what postcolonial means in this context.

      And third, snarky remarks that are entirely devoid of substance do not contribute to a discussion. If you have nothing constructive to say, try harder not to say it.

      • Larry, San Francisco

        I think Lorenz is talking about Obama not you Adam. Post-colonial thinking basically posits that all current problems can be traced back to western imperialism (although the argument is usually made with a lot more verbiage).

        • Oh, I see how that could be. I was very tired when I read the comment. Sorry Lorenz if I misread.

      • Brian

        Ha! I’m pretty sure “postcolonial college professor” is him referring to Obama. Postcolonial refers to Dinesh D’Souza’s idea that Obama’s worldview was shaped largely by his dad’s anti-colonial past. I think that’s what he means anyway.

  • AK

    Choose door #3 or “…risk three years with …President’s reputation so far down in the crapper”?

    The former may well mean starting a regional war by our CiC who has no stomach nor competence to prosecute a real war. Ditto for his national security team — amateurs all around. That’s what really scary.

  • Alex

    Choose door #3 or “…risk three years with …President’s reputation so far down in the crapper”?

    The former may well mean starting a regional war by our CiC who has no stomach nor competence to prosecute a real war. Ditto for his national security team — amateurs all around. That’s what really scary.

  • Government Drone

    Why do I get the feeling that Obama, when asked to choose between doors #1, 2, or 3 will respond with something like “I’d like to buy a vowel”?

    • Nathan

      Hindsight is a funny thing, but would you believe that this is actually what happened? This Putin/Assad proposal thing is crazy.

      • Yes, it is, and I am writing about now. I’ll post soon.

  • John Burke

    I’m watching Denis McDonough today, and notwithstanding my bias in favor of giving the Irish guy a chance, his argument didn’t seem to cut much ice. It’s all about the CW and gassing “hundreds of kids.” In a way, it must be, because Obama’s “red line” warning triggered the issue, but my totally unscientific polling tells me that people really don’t care. I don’t know anyone, left, right or center, even avid Obama fans, who support military action in this case. I sense a qualitatively different public feeling than was the case with respect to Libya in 2011, much less Iraq in 2003 or Afghanistan even today. The “humanitarian” argument is falling flat because at heart most people are fed up to their eyeballs with Arabs and Muslims. Whether they would say so or not in so many words, the attitude is, “Let them kill each other.”

    Perhaps Obama’s speech, Kerry’s lining up some semblance of support abroad, and a full court press lobbying members can produce a slim majority in Congress, but this will remain deeply unpopular. If anything goes wrong, there will be hell to pay, and of course, a lot can go wrong.

    R2P is not enough. There must be a case for vindicating some recognizable US interest or deflecting some security threat. Perhaps Clinton did not need such a case in Kosovo, but there has been a lot of water under the bridge since then — a lot of warfare and casualties, a lot of scenes of rampaging, hostile Arab or Muslim mobs, a lot of terrorist bombs, a lot of cases of infuriating duplicity from Muslim “allies.”

    But McDonough didn’t even try to advance any argument beyond Assad must be punished for gasding his own people. I think an overwhelming majority of Americans have the same reaction to that: “Meh!”

  • Brian

    I can’t imagine that he wants Congress to say no to him. No one in Congress really wants to touch this, since it’s a clear political loser, and if he wasn’t trying to pull some strings to get authorization for it, D’s and R’s would gladly join hands to toss nay votes his way.

    What I’m most surprised at is that he would have made his announcement without first feeling the water out to see if he had the votes. If he gets rebuked, which seems decently likely, he looks bad, Congress looks good, and America looks stupid on the world stage.

    • Well, maybe so; but the impression of ambivalence is a problem in its own right.

      The idea of attacking any ME country for whatever reason is very, very unpopular in the hinterlands, and Congressmen got a snootful during the recess. I would not be surprised at all if he loses the vote.

  • John Burke

    So now, Kerry submarines the whole business by saying the US is planning an “unbelievably small” strike. I actually feel kind of sorry for Kerry about this faux pas since it was his job to go out there and explain how “targeted and llimited” it would be. When you think about it, that translates readily as “unbelievably small.” Maybe Susan Rice was the better choice after all, though, because there’s a woman who knows how to stick to her talking points!

    And I can’t restrain myself from pointing out that Kerry may say Obama’s thrust is unbelievably small, but last year Joe Biden assured us that Obama has a big stick.

    • These people need to shut up and do something, or not do something, as the case may be. But they definitely need to shut up before their mouths run out of room for more feet.

      • Alex M.

        Yeah, this is getting somewhat ridiculous, which is unfortunate.

        Whether one thinks that R2P, limited sovereignty, humanitarian intervention and such are a good idea or not, they, like other approaches to foreign policy, need to be repeatedly tested (Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, etc) if we are to find out how well they work in practice.

        But what do you learn if you put The Tree Stooges in charge of conducting an R2P experiment and it fails? That the policy is unworkable? Or that it’s not a good idea to put The Tree Stooges in charge of anything?

        • Alex M.

          Sorry, not sure how “The Three Stooges” became “The Tree Stooges”.

  • John Burke

    Serious question of the day: did Kerry loft the idea of Assad forking over his CW on the wing, or was it planned? Putin jumped on it. Syria allowed some interest. The Secretary General climbed on board, saying a CW transfer plan should go to the Security Council. And Obama told Chris Matthews that, in effect, he’s willing to see how it plays out for weeks (while also admitting that the American people “are not persuaded” that an attack on Syria is in order).

    Is this Obama’s way out? Seems to be, especially since Congress was not likely to approve an attack before this morning and is less likely with the Russian propossl on the table.

    • Amazing. This feels like the 11th hr proposal in 1991 that Saddam forestall war via a partial withdrawal from Kuwait. Saddam didn’t do it. Would Assad actually comply?

      The bizarre aspect of all this is that is wildly exaggerates the importance of chemical warfare in the context of the Syrian cicvil war. Wildly.

      • Philip Breault

        Assad might comply if the Russians work out a deal beforehand with the Obama administration along the lines of the agreement ending the Cuban missile crisis. Say, the Russians removing Syria’s chemical weapon stocks in exchange for the U.S. ending its support for training and arming Syrian rebels in Jordan.

        I just wonder if there’ll also be a secret agreement as well along the lines of pulling US nuclear missiles(and listening posts) out of Turkey.

      • Nathan

        I don’t think the 11th hour comparison is accurate since this really *isn’t* 11th hour. Congress was taking its time getting a vote together and that vote was likely to fail. After that, the only threat was Obama going against both his public and his Congress to launch an attack. I have no idea what the odds on that are, but in any case Russia/Syria had time to play the game out. The timing is all wrong for this to have been caused by the threat of a US strike…it would have happened last week when a strike looked likely.

        To me, this stinks of something else. My best guess is that this whole thing is really about Russia & Syria, and little about the United States.

        What if Russia found out that Assad really did use the chemical weapons, that the information would soon be public, and felt that the political costs of supporting a confirmed (rather than suspected) WMD-killer would be too high for their tastes?

        That would turn this situation into an attempt to save their relationship with Syria rather than having to cut them off.

        To be clear, I wouldn’t propose that Russia really cares about humanity aspect of the chemical weapons attack. Being the friend of a confirmed WMD-killer costs more than being the friend of a suspected WMD-killer, and they may not value their relationship with Syria more than the difference between the two.

        • The 11th hr comparison isn’t exact but it’s good enough for government work. As for the rest of your speculation, I’m skeptical. I address both of these matters in my new post, from yesterday.

  • WigWag

    Here’s the take of Monty Python’s John Cleese


    The English are feeling the pinch in relation to recent events in Syria and have therefore raised their security level from “Miffed” to “Peeved.” Soon, though, security levels may be raised yet again to “Irritated” or even “A Bit Cross.” The English have not been “A Bit Cross” since the blitz in 1940 when tea supplies nearly ran out. Terrorists have been re-categorized from “Tiresome” to “A Bloody Nuisance.” The last time the British issued a “Bloody Nuisance” warning level was in 1588, when threatened by the Spanish Armada.

    The Scots have raised their threat level from “Pissed Off” to “Let’s get the Bastards.” They don’t have any other levels. This is the reason they have been used on the front line of the British army for the last 300 years.

    The French government announced yesterday that it has raised its terror alert level from “Run” to “Hide.” The only two higher levels in France are “Collaborate” and “Surrender.” The rise was precipitated by a recent fire that destroyed France ‘s white flag factory, effectively paralyzing the country’s military capability.

    Italy has increased the alert level from “Shout Loudly and Excitedly” to “Elaborate Military Posturing.” Two more levels remain: “Ineffective Combat Operations” and “Change Sides.”

    The Germans have increased their alert state from “Disdainful Arrogance” to “Dress in Uniform and Sing Marching Songs.” They also have two higher levels: “Invade a Neighbour” and “Lose.”

    Belgians, on the other hand, are all on holiday as usual; the only threat they are worried about is NATO pulling out of Brussels ..

    The Spanish are all excited to see their new submarines ready to deploy. These beautifully designed subs have glass bottoms so the new Spanish navy can get a really good look at the old Spanish navy.

    Australia, meanwhile, has raised its security level from “No worries” to “She’ll be right, Mate.” Two more escalation levels remain: “Crikey! I think we’ll need to cancel the barbie this weekend!” and “The barbie is cancelled.” So far no situation has ever warranted use of the last final escalation level.

    John Cleese ,
    British writer, actor and tall person

    And as a final thought – Greece is collapsing, the Iranians are getting aggressive, and Rome is in disarray. Welcome back to 430 BC.

    Life is too short…

    • Yeah, my son brought this to my attention a few days ago. Ya gotta laugh at this…..that’s how depressing it all is.

      • WigWag

        Yes; its funny but unsettling at the same time. I especially liked the part about the Belgians. They better hope that NATO doesn’t pull out of Brussels; if it does things could get pretty nasty pretty fast between the Flemish and the Walloons. They really don’t like each other very much, though thankfully its hard to picture one side launching sarin laced missiles at the other.

        At least I hope it’s hard to picture.

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