In “Obama AWOL on Syria” Mr. Kristof has a question: Why is Obama passive as thousands of Syrians are dying? Top strategists want him to act now. Ms. Collins considers “The Wacky Primary Voters” and says thanks to the Tea Party, a lot of Democrats are smiling. Here’s Mr. Kristof:
President Obama’s finest moments in foreign policy, like the Osama bin Laden raid or the Libya intervention, resulted from close engagement and calculated risks.
His lapses come when he’s passive or AWOL — as in Syria. I’m generally a fan of Obama’s foreign policy, but on Syria there’s a growing puzzlement around the world that he seems stuck behind the curve.
The United States shouldn’t invade Syria. But we should work with allies to supply weapons, training and intelligence to rebels who pass our vetting.
I’m in Aspen for the annual meeting of the Aspen Strategy Group, a bipartisan group looking at international affairs, and I’m struck by how many strategists whom I respect think it’s time to move more aggressively.
William Perry, a secretary of defense under Bill Clinton, told me that if he were in the Pentagon today, he would be recommending a military intervention in Syria — conditioned on Turkey’s participation and without ground forces. Specifically, he said he would favor imposing a no-fly no-drive zone in northern Syria.
“This isn’t a full strategy, but it could facilitate the overthrow of Assad and have a real humanitarian benefit,” Perry said. “And if successful, it could help us influence the post-Assad government. If we sit by, we’ll be in no position to influence it.”
Madeleine Albright, who was secretary of state under Clinton, told me: “I’m for intervention, but it doesn’t have to be on-the-ground military intervention. We do have to get more involved in this.”
Albright said that the American intervention should be multilateral, but that the inability to achieve a Security Council resolution shouldn’t block action any more than it did in Kosovo in 1999. “We can’t afford to be in a cul-de-sac while people are being killed,” she said.
As I see it, there are three main reasons for action in Syria.
First, the longer the fighting goes on, the more it destabilizes the region. Syria is now in a civil war linked to the Sunni-Shiite divide in the region. The more deaths, the more refugees, the more revenge killing, the tougher it will be to put Humpty Dumpty together. The longer the war persists, the more risk of spillover into Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan.
Second, Assad is believed to have many tons of sarin and VX nerve agents. Those chemical weapons could end up in the hands of jihadis or on the global black market, and we should work with Syrian rebels to help secure them if necessary.
Third, there’s a humanitarian imperative. It appears that several times more people have been killed in Syria than in Libya when that intervention began, and the toll is rising steeply.
Protesters began peacefully but have been subjected to unspeakable violence. An iconic victim is a boy named Hamza al-Khateeb, who was apparently detained at an anti-Assad demonstration — and then sexually mutilated and tortured to death at the age of 13.
What can we do? One step would be for the United States to move naval forces off the Syrian coast, while Turkey and Israel moved more troops close to their borders with Syria. This would pin down Syrian troops so that Assad would have fewer forces available to murder his people.
Anne-Marie Slaughter, a Princeton scholar who previously served as a senior Obama administration official, has offered sensible proposals for action. She suggests that the United States and other countries provide antitank and antiaircraft weapons and perhaps air cover to commanders who protect civilians and eschew sectarian or revenge killings. Some Free Syrian Army commanders have signed such a code of conduct.
With our allies, we can also advise Syrian commanders that if they abandon Assad they may have a role in Syria’s future. If they go down with Assad, they won’t.
An intervention can always go awry, and there are legitimate concerns about the behavior of Syrian rebels. It is also true that an election year isn’t an ideal time for an intervention, although on this one Obama could work with Republicans to win bipartisan support.
Look, I’m no hawk. I was strongly against the Iraq war and the Afghan surge, and I’m firmly against today’s drift toward war with Iran. But Syria, like Libya, is a rare case where we can take modest steps that stand a good chance of accelerating the fall of a dictator. And after 17 months, there’s growing agreement that Obama should no longer remain a bystander.
“The Middle East needs U.S. leadership on Syria,” said R. Nicholas Burns, a former under secretary of state for political affairs, now a Harvard professor. “I’m a supporter of the president’s approach to the Middle East in general, but his administration has been entirely reactive on Syria. You hear from all the Arabs: ‘Where is the United States?’ ”
President Obama, your answer?
Great. Let’s meddle some more in the Mideast. Here’s Ms. Collins:
Missouri Republicans have just nominated a Senate candidate who appears to believe that the government’s college student loan program is the equivalent of Stage 3 cancer. Actually, he said “the Stage 3 cancer of socialism,” which is perhaps not the exact same thing. But I believe you get the idea.
This was a week after Texas Republicans nominated a Senate candidate who is worried about protecting the world’s golf courses from the United Nations. Republicans, I think you need to get a grip.
Meanwhile, the most cheerful place this side of Disney World is the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, the Democratic incumbent, was regarded as the political equivalent of roadkill until the Republicans picked Representative Todd Akin for her opponent. Now, the McCaskill campaign is doing a happy dance while Akin will be trying to explain that he thinks student loans are cancerous only when they come from the government rather than private industry.
This is not the kind of argument you really want to be having on your big primary win day. Also, Akin not only wants to keep the government out of the student loan business, his past votes suggest he also wants to see it steer clear of school lunches.
Before the primary, McCaskill ran an allegedly anti-Akin ad that cynics saw as an actual attempt to propel him to the front of the pack. It failed to mention the congressman’s principled opposition to the national School Breakfast Program, but instead denounced him as “too conservative” and an enemy of Planned Parenthood. Honestly, if you wanted to drive Tea Party voters to the polls, it was the next best thing to hiring a bus.
The Tea Party is once again giving Democrats a new lease on life. Not everywhere, of course. Tennessee Republicans seem to be happy with their incumbent senator, Bob Corker, while Democrats woke up on the day after their primary to discover that voters had nominated an anti-gay-rights activist named Mark Clayton, who, according to ClaytonforSenate.com, “works in insurance and is also writing a book intended as a scripture study aide.” A spokesman for the Tennessee Democratic Party, which is disavowing Clayton, theorized that he won because “his name was at the top of the ticket.”
We have been through this sort of thing before, Democrats. Remember Alvin Greene? The guy you accidentally nominated to run against Senator Jim DeMint two years ago? The one who turned out to be facing felony obscenity charges? Didn’t everybody agree that from then on, if you gave the voters a ballot full of totally unfamiliar names, you would warn them which ones to avoid?
But mainly, the Republicans are the ones getting stuck with the unhappy surprises. Richard Lugar, the longtime senator from Indiana, was tossed out in a primary by a Tea Party favorite, Richard Mourdock, who went on to become involved in a controversy over whether or not he compared Barack Obama’s auto industry bailout to slavery. We do not really need to resolve the issue, except to say that Mourdock is fond of making convoluted historical analogies and that he really, really did not like the auto bailout, despite Indiana’s rather large population of autoworkers.
Besides Tea Party upsets, one of the big trends this year is for Democratic Senate candidates in red states to demonstrate their independence by announcing that they are not going to the party convention. This is pretty much a no-brainer, since these events are really, really boring anyway, unless 1) You really like to eat finger food paid for by special-interest groups or 2) You really enjoy being in Southern cities with high humidity around Labor Day.
Skip the convention! Everybody’s doing it! Although Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia did seem to be going a little bit overboard when he refused to say if he’ll even vote for President Obama. “I am just waiting for it to play out. I am not jumping in one way or another,” Manchin told The National Journal. “I’m worried about me. I’ve said it’s not a team sport. You need to go out and work for yourself.”
You’ve got to give the man credit for candor. Manchin may be pretending to be more worried than he really is, given that the Republicans nominated a Senate candidate whose big media splash involved comparing no-smoking regulations to the Nazis’ actions. (“Remember Hitler used to put Star of David on everybody’s lapel, remember that? Same thing.”)
Next week we have Wisconsin, where former Gov. Tommy Thompson, the guy everyone expected the Republicans to nominate for the Senate, is in trouble thanks to a challenge from — yes! — the Tea Party. And will Connecticut Republicans nominate a former congressman with a reputation for bipartisanship or a businesswoman whose claim to fame is building a professional wrestling empire? Duh.