If life were a movie, Barack Obama would look into the mirror and see George W. Bush. He would rub the mirror and Bush would still be there, giving him that galling smirk. Obama, no fool he, would quickly understand: Here he is, like the predecessor he so (rightly) loathed, metaphorically trudging the vast Arabian desert, searching for Weapons of Mass Destruction. Only history can decide if this movie is a comedy or a tragedy.
Already, the Syrian debacle has taken on aspects of Iraq. Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons are, as we once thought about Saddam Hussein’s, on the move. “Today, we have information that the regime began to move chemical materials and chemical weapons to Lebanon and to Iraq,” Gen. Salim Idriss, the opposition’s military leader, told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. “The regime is behaving like Saddam Hussein,” he later added.
Precisely. And now Obama is forced to behave like Bush.
Whether Assad has transferred his WMDs to Iraq, of all places, is not at all certain. (The Iraqis deny it.) What is much more certain, though, is that WMDs have been on the move within Syria. The Wall Street Journal, citing a variety of authoritative sources, reports that chemical weapons have been dispersed to at least 50 sites. The job has been done by the regime’s elite and extremely loyal Unit 450, which is exclusively composed of Assad’s fellow Alawites. The unit can be tracked by satellite and presumably hit by missiles. That, though, might mean a loss of control and a scramble for what remains. Will jihadists get their hands on sarin gas?
Obama must be choking on irony. This is a president, after all, who campaigned against the war in Iraq and has since proclaimed himself the war-ender, not the war-starter. He is the complete anti-Bush — thoughtful, reflective, cautious and never suggesting that he has heard from the Almighty on what to do next.
Still, Obama has so lost control of his foreign policy — if he ever had one — that he must now wait on Assad to go through with a deal the Russians, of all people, made possible. He must continue to threaten force, but the American people, Congress and, most important, the Russians will not permit it and — here’s Bush smirking again — don’t believe him. In the end — and the end could be months down the road — the Syrians may well surrender their stock of chemical weapons, but Assad has literally gotten away with murder. He gassed about 1,400 civilians, including 400 or so children, and did not pay a penalty. So much for “red lines.”
The pity of it is that, had Obama used force early on, Assad would not have dared to gas his own people. The dead and the wounded are as much a victim of U.S. weakness and vacillation as they are of Assad’s brutality — the former made the latter possible. Obama was so fixated on not being Bush, so worried about stepping into a quagmire, that he wound up losing control of the situation. The administration made policy by blurt — first Obama on red lines and then Secretary of State John Kerry on how a military strike could be avoided and then all this silliness about a shot across Assad’s bow and the slap-on-the-wrist nature of any planned military response.
It’s not difficult to pick winners and losers here. Clearly, Russia is a winner — the deal-maker, the guarantor, the U.N. Security Council member packin’ a veto. Israel wins in the short run if Syria actually disposes of its WMDs. The long run, though, is a different story. Israel’s preoccupation is Iran and its presumed effort to make a nuclear weapon. If this happens, that’s another Obama red line — possibly another chance to wobble. But the Syrian people are the sure losers. The United States, the Russians and the Assad regime have a deal. WMDs must go. The killing by other means can continue.
As for everyone else, we’re all losers. Because of Obama’s fecklessness — abetted by a Congress that has turned darkly isolationist — the world is now a less safe place. Bush had a red line for WMDs that didn’t exist. Obama, in the end, didn’t have one for WMDs that did.
Richard Cohen is a Washington Post columnist.