The Obama administration is dusting off another sales pitch for bombing Syria, one that ironically was last used by President George W. Bush to dupe then-Sen. John Kerry into voting for the Iraq War, the claim that a war authorization is needed to create pressure for a diplomatic settlement.
On Monday, after the Russian government followed up an offhand suggestion from Secretary of State Kerry about Syria surrendering its chemical weapons, deputy national security adviser Tony Blinken was immediately spinning the Russian initiative as another reason to vote for war.
"It's very important to note that it's clear that this proposal comes in the context of the threat of U.S. action and the pressure that the President is exerting," Blinken said. "So it's even more important that we don't take the pressure off and that Congress give the President the authority he's requested."
President Barack Obama struck a similar note during an interview with Fox News in which he urged Congress to press ahead with votes on a limited war resolution. "I think it is important for us not to let the pedal off the metal when it comes to making sure they understand we mean what we say," he said.
In other words, the Obama administration's lobbying for its Syria war plan now will include the argument that a peaceful resolution of the crisis in Syria requires a war resolution from Congress.
The irony of this retread argument should be not lost on Kerry and other congressional Democrats who bought it as a reason to give Bush the authority to go to war against Iraq in 2002. Later -- after Bush pocketed the congressional approval and made a mockery of any diplomatic strategy to avoid war with Iraq -- Kerry complained that he had been tricked.
During his presidential run in 2004, Kerry repeatedly offered as his excuse for voting in favor of the Iraq War resolution the argument that he had simply wanted to give Bush the clout to force concessions from Iraq's Saddam Hussein. What Kerry learned, however, was that once Congress granted Bush the war power, Bush was free to use it as he wished -- and what Bush wanted was war.
Bush simply went through the motions of resolving the dispute over Iraq's WMD peacefully at the United Nations. After Iraq formally declared that it had destroyed its WMD and accepted UN inspectors who then found no WMD, Bush ridiculed Iraq's WMD denials and pressured the inspectors to leave so he could press ahead with his invasion.
Only after the U.S.-led invasion was it discovered that Iraq had been telling the truth about its WMD, but -- for many of Bush's neocon advisers -- the WMD case had always been a P.R. pitch to gain popular support for the removal of an Arab leader who was considered a threat to Israel and to U.S. interests in the Middle East.
A decade later, the new target is Syria's Bashar al-Assad who is seen as a crucial ally of Iran, which is regarded as Israel's new chief nemesis and the ultimate bete noire for the neocons today. Over the past few years, the neocons -- from their perches at major think tanks and on influential op-ed pages -- have been maneuvering Obama toward a more belligerent position against both Syria and Iran.
Poor Staff Support
For his part, Obama has surrounded himself with older conventional thinkers like John Kerry at State and John Brennan at CIA, who long since have had any original thoughts bleached out of them, and younger foreign policy careerists like Susan Rice and Samantha Power, who recognize that their tickets to the top echelons of the national security establishment depend on burnishing hawkish reputations.
All of Obama's team understands that the Israel Lobby and the neocons remain extremely powerful forces in Washington who are crossed at one's personal peril. So, it's far safer for your career -- or your next confirmation hearing -- to stay on the good side of those interest groups.
It also makes a lot of sense to keep silent about why Syria possesses chemical weapons in the first place, the unmentionable fact that Israel owns a sophisticated (and undeclared) arsenal of nuclear weapons (as well as its own stockpile of poison gases). For Syria, chemical weapons have served as the poor man's deterrent to Israel's nukes.
As veteran journalist Barry Lando writes...
"An air of inanity pervades the debate about Syria ... It's evident, for instance, that the 800-pound [gorilla] hovering behind the debate is Israel and its American backers, one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington.
"What has not been made clear is that, lurking in the background, is another shadowy hulking presence: Israel's nuclear weapons capacity, which -- as I've previously blogged -- Israel has never officially acknowledged and most U.S. administrations have done their best to ignore. As have the mainstream press and the gaggle of statesmen, commentators and 'experts' with weighty proposals on how to resolve the current crisis."
Lando notes that Syrian officials amassed chemical weapons "not with the intention of deploying CW against their own people. It was instead an attempt to develop an affordable and meaningful deterrent to Israel's daunting military might, particularly to Israel's nuclear capability...
"That's the bottom line of several serious studies of Syria's weapons program, done over the past few years by American and other experts. As a study published by the European Union's non-proliferation consortium in July 2012, concluded, 'Syria's CWs are not tactical or battlefield weapons, but rather a strategic deterrence against Israel's conventional superiority and its nuclear weapons arsenal.'
"While Israeli leaders have always portrayed their country as an embattled David, confronting an existential threat from an Arab -- and now, Iranian -- Goliath, Syria's perspective has been totally different. As the rulers in Damascus have seen it, Israel, thanks to its sophisticated industrial base, and unwavering financial and political support from the United States, has been able to develop by far the most powerful military forces in the region -- with its own nuclear trump card.
"The Syrians, on the other hand, have suffered one humiliating setback after another, from the failure to defeat Israel in 1948, to Israel's on-going occupation of the Golan Heights, which they took in 1967, to Israel's repeated forays into South Lebanon. The Syrians, however, came to realize they could never equal Israel's military might. They opted instead for a practical alternative: chemical weapons. If not strategic parity, CW would at least give Syria, if the chips were down, a fearful enough weapon to brandish against Israel's nuclear capabilities."
An Israeli Edge
So, Syria's tentative agreement to relinquish its chemical weapons represents another strategic victory for Israel, even as U.S. politicians and pundits keep their blinders in place whenever it comes to addressing or even acknowledging Israel's fearsome WMD arsenal.
And, to make sure that Syria divests itself of its chemical weapons, the Obama administration now has some new political and diplomatic options. It could push a binding UN resolution that could include punishment of Syria if it is deemed in breach of its commitment to relinquish its CW, much as President Bush advanced his Iraq War plan behind the cover of counter-proliferation resolutions approved by the UN Security Council. Syria might find it as difficult to prove the negative -- that it no longer possesses chemical weapons -- as Iraq did in 2002-2003.
As the UN maneuvering plays out, the Obama administration also could continue pushing for a congressional war authorization arguing -- as Bush did on Iraq -- that having a club in the closet is necessary to keep Syria and Russia honest.
Adding to the irony, Secretary of State John Kerry was back in Washington on Tuesday telling a House committee that the Obama administration would not tolerate any "delay" or "avoidance" in implementing the Russian plan. "We're waiting for that proposal, but we're not waiting for long," said Kerry.
Those were words that George W. Bush could have spoken in persuading Sen. John Kerry to vote for the Iraq War.