We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region that that's a red line for us and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons. That would change my calculations significantly.
The above quoted is President Barack Obama warning the Syrian government and its president, Bashar Hafez al-Assad, what would happen if it used chemical weapons to fight and neutralize the various rebel factions in its ongoing civil war.
It's also a quote that's been rehashed, reheated and given it's own unique garnish by countless other officials in and around the White House. So much so that the original intent was quickly lost to the winds:
The idea was to put a chill into the Assad regime without actually trapping the president into any predetermined action,” said one senior official, who, like others, discussed the internal debate on the condition of anonymity. But “what the president said in August was unscripted,” another official said. Mr. Obama was thinking of a chemical attack that would cause mass fatalities, not relatively small-scale episodes like those now being investigated, except the “nuance got completely dropped.
That's the thing about tough talk in the geopolitical arena - it makes you and your country appear strong and resolute, but it gives you little room to wiggle out of a showdown if and when the time comes, which in turn makes you look like a complete chump.
And damned if someone in Syria didn't go ahead and use those chemical weapons. U.S. intelligence points to the Syrian government as the responsible party. However, recent reports weave a much different narrative, from a Saudi-sourced delivery from intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan intended for Al-Queda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, to numerous rebels who simply didn't know what they had their hands on, leading to their deaths and approximately 1,400 others.
Even more intriguing is Saudi Arabia's role in the anti-Assad column. According to various sources, Prince Bandar went into talks with Russian president Vladimir Putin using a classic carrot-and-stick approach: kick Assad to the curb and we'll give you some sweet, sweet crude and look after your gas contracts. Otherwise, we know plenty of Chechens who'd love to ruin your winter Olympics. Meanwhile, Putin dismissed U.S. claims of chemical attacks as "utter nonsense."
But the big story isn't how Turkey, once a significant backer of Jabhat al-Nusra is now having second thoughts about having its Seal of Approval on a wayward product. Or how Syria is lining up to be yet another stepping stone in the U.S. geopolitical game of hopscotch towards its true target, Iran. Or even the possibility of anti-Assad rebel groups pinning the blame for the chemical attacks on the Assad regime in hopes of some good ol' fashioned American intervention.
Nope, it's about how Congress has suddenly found its principles, forcing the president to go through it to authorize any military action whatsoever on Syria.
The whole issue of congressional approval for military operations has been, for lack of a better word, iffy. World War II was, by most counts, the last major war that received congressional approval. Since then, running these sorts of things past Congress was more of a formality rather than an absolute necessity, as proven at various points by Reagan, Clinton and both Bush the Elder and Younger. And thanks to the War Powers Resolution of 1973, U.S. leaders have as much as a 90-day window to commit military forces wherever needed sans said congressional approval.
This isn't to say that clearing these sorts of things through Congress isn't the proper thing to do. Even the president thought it was fitting and proper to go to war only after Capitol Hill gives the OK. But the sudden objections against unilateral military activity from the right wing seems a tad hypocritical given the relative lack of formality concerning the junior Bush's military forays into Iraq and Afghanistan. It all has less to do with any actual concerns that House and Senate GOP members may have and more to do with political posturing and a continuing case of Obama Derangement Syndrome.
From the left wing comes the usual concerns about Syrian blood on American hands. People who are already disappointed over the president's stance on drones will likely be further disappointed if the U.S. enters the conflict. Those who thought the president would base his time in office as someone who'd completely eschew overseas conflict in favor of more peaceful and non-interventionist solutions may also be disappointed with his actions. Between disillusioned liberals and disgruntled conservatives, the president is in between a rock and a hard place.
To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, there are no "known knowns" when it comes to Syria. U.S. military intervention here means diving into the unknown. At best, the president will end up with a replay of the recent Iraq War and its aftermath on his hands. At worst, the debacle of yet another "unwinnable war" will likely have him facing impeachment by emboldened Republicans. It's little wonder the president has so far only committed to aerial strikes - fighter jets and drones sound more appealing than putting actual boots on the ground.
Of course, that doesn't count the wide-ranging geopolitical effects that are sure to reverberate throughout the Middle East and the world. Who's to say that a U.S. military strike against Assad's forces won't set off a new wave of terrorist attacks against the U.S., or if Russia decides that the U.S. presence in Syria is a bridge too far and plans some sort of retributive measure in response? What if Israel sees the president's supposed indecisiveness on Syria as a sign of weakness and initiate their own course of military action? What about the implications of Saudi involvement in trafficking chemical weapons for use against the Assad regime? Is that something that the U.S. is secretly in on?*
Drawing a line in the sand in the first place might have bolstered the president's credentials as a tough, fearless leader among many, but it also comes with its consequences. Fortunately for him, asking Congress for official permission to act on behalf of anti-Assad forces gives him an out. In the event that GOP congressmen give the thumbs down on a U.S. intervention into Syrian affairs, the political fallout lands squarely on Congress while the president avoids any backlash for his bold rhetoric. Also, he won't look too much like a chump for having his hands tied by the good folks on Capitol Hill.
* Seems far-fetched, but it doesn't hurt asking, considering the CIA's lengthy and storied history.