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September 22, 2014

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Shadow of a doubt in Syria

WASHINGTON -- It’s a bewildering time here. Nancy Pelosi is the hawk urging military action. Britain refuses to be our poodle. The French are being more supportive militarily than superciliously. Republicans are squeamish about launching an attack. Top generals are going pacifist. The president who got elected on his anti-war stance is now trying to buck up a skittish Congress and country about why a military strike is a moral necessity. Donald Rumsfeld doesn’t want to go to war with the Army that Chuck Hagel has. John Bolton is the dove who doesn’t think we should take sides, or that it matters “what the intelligence shows.” Once more, we’re vociferously debating whether to slap down a murderous dictator who has gassed his own people, and whether we have the legit intel to prove he used weapons of mass destruction. Many around President Barack Obama are making the case that if he doesn’t stand firm on his line in the sand, having gotten so far out on a limb, he’ll look weak and America will lose face and embolden its foes. The secretary of state is arguing if the dictator had nothing to hide, why was he so reluctant to let in U.N. inspectors? In many ways, Syria is an eerie replay of Iraq, but with many of the players scrambled and on opposite sides. Just about the only completely consistent person is John McCain, who’s always spoiling for a fight. Once more, we see the magnitude of the tragedy of Iraq because the decision on Syria is so colored by the fact that an American president and vice president took us to war in the Middle East on false pretenses and juiced up intelligence, dragging the country into an emotionally and financially exhausting decade of war and an identity crisis about our role in the world. W. was so black and white, as he mischaracterized and miscalculated, that he ended up driving America into a gray haze, where we’re unsure if our old role as John Wayne taking on the global bad guys is even right. We now actually have a president who understands the difference between Sunnis and Shiites. But our previous gigantic misreadings of the Middle East, and the treacherous job of fathoming which sides to support in the Arab uprisings — are the rebels in these countries the good guys or al-Qaida sympathizers? — have left us literally gun shy. It should not be so hard to reach a consensus on trying to prevent President Bashar Assad from killing tens of thousands and making refugees of millions more with chemical weapons and traditional ones. But the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Tuesday dramatically showed how our misjudgment on Iraq infects our judgment on Syria. A panel of top Obama officials who don’t even agree themselves about what to do in Syria did their best to stick to White House talking points, arguing against what Secretary of State John Kerry called “armchair isolationism,” as they were grilled by skeptical, and sometimes hostile, senators. Kerry and Hagel both voted as senators for the authorization to invade Iraq and then came to regret it; Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress last spring that he was uncertain if the U.S. “could identify the right people” to give arms to in the Syrian opposition. But there was the trio trying to help the president make his case that American credibility is too big to fail. “After the fiasco of Iraq and over a decade of war, how can this administration make a guarantee that our military actions will be limited?” asked Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M. Indeed, Kerry showed how slippery the slope is when he answered a question by Chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J., who opposed the Iraq invasion but supports a Syrian smackdown. When Menendez asked Kerry if the administration would accept “a prohibition for having American boots on the ground” as part of a resolution authorizing force in Syria, Kerry replied: “It would be preferable not” to “have boots on the ground.” Then came the “but.” “But in the event Syria imploded, for instance,” Kerry said, “or in the event there was a threat of a chemical weapons cache falling into the hands of Al Nusra or someone else, and it was clearly in the interest of our allies and all of us — the British, the French and others — to prevent those weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of the worst elements, I don’t want to take off the table an option that might or might not be available to a president of the United States to secure our country.” Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chided Kerry: “I didn’t find that a very appropriate response regarding boots on the ground.” Realizing he had been undiplomatic, the top diplomat retreated from his scary hypothetical immediately, saying “Let’s shut that door now as tight as we can.” It’s up to Obama to show Americans that he knows what he’s doing, unlike his predecessor.

Maureen Dowd is a columnist for The New York Times.

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