On Syria, Rep. Adam Smith is the ‘Obama Whisperer’

House Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Adam Smith, D-Wash., says US military action in Syria would be unlikely to tip the balance in that nation's civil war. (Will Seberger/MCT via Getty Images)

President Barack Obama is taking heat from the left and right for what members of both political parties are calling his murky policy toward Syria, where the U.S. intelligence committee believes government forces used “small” amount of chemical weapons.

Many Republicans and Democrats are calling for Obama to steer the United States into the years-old civil war, hopeful American military intervention or other direct actions could tip the balance toward rebel forces and oust Bashar al-Assad’s regime. They are criticizing Obama for carrying out an incoherent strategy on Syria.

Those searching for insights about why Obama so far is reluctant to get directly involved should carefully study the words of Washington Rep. Adam Smith, the top House Armed Services Committee Democrat and an Obama administration ally. On Syria, Smith’s stance appears to capture the commander in chief’s conclusions about a U.S. mission there quite accurately. Just call him the “Obama Whisperer.”

Obama has said several times that if Assad’s forces use chemical or biological weapons against civilians or opposition forces, that would constitute the crossing of a “red line” that could lead him to get directly involved. On Thursday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the administration had told lawmakers in a letter that Assad’s forces have used chemical arms in “small doses.” It didn’t take lawmakers from both parties long to step up pressure on Obama to plunge America into the civil conflict.

With the intel community in agreement that some of Assad’s forces appear to have used chemical weapons twice recently, the Obama administration sounded a cautious tone Thursday. Its own “red line” had been crossed, but Obama did nothing. Why?

Obama ran in 2008 on a foreign policy influenced heavily by what he viewed as the George W. Bush’s misadventure in Iraq. Obama talked a lot about acting only when a situation presented a clear threat to the United States, and a major American interest was at stake. In short, it appears Obama continues to believe even with nearly 100,000 dead ion Syria’s internal conflict, the situation fails to meet those criteria.

While Obama has yet to state that explicitly, enter Smith, who did so clearly in a statement on Thursday afternoon:

“If it turns out that chemical weapons were used, it would be the latest atrocity committed by the Assad regime. The civil war in Syria is an enormous humanitarian catastrophe caused by a brutal and desperate regime. But as we consider option to respond to this atrocity, I am not convinced that military action is appropriate at this time. There is no evidence that U.S. military action will achieve anything, except cost American lives and treasure. As we respond, we must remember the lessons we have learned from the war in Iraq.

“We should work with the international community, as well as our allies in the region, to consider the best options to remove Assad from power and promote a regime that has the support of the Syrian people. However, we should be under no illusions that this will be easy. It won’t. We must exercise extreme caution, and we must not assume that the U.S. military can resolve this civil war.”

Like Smith, Obama clearly is “not convinced military action is appropriate at this time.” Also like Smith, Obama’s actions make clear he remains unconvinced that American military involvement will accomplish much other than, as his House ally put it, putting U.S. troops at risk. To this end, Candidate Obama in 2007 and 2008 savaged the Bush administration for sacrificing too much American blood and treasure in Iraq.

And speaking of Iraq, the lessons of that conflict are increasingly evident in the administration’s thinking on Syria. Obama is requesting a fresh set of eyes on the situation, via the United Nations. And during a Thursday conference call with reporters came this telling remark from a senior White House official:

“I would say that given our own history with intelligence assessments, including intelligence assessments related to weapons of mass destruction, it’s very important that we are able to establish this with certainty and that we are able to present information that is airtight in a public and credible fashion to underpin all of our decision-making.  That is I think the threshold that is demanded given how serious this issue is.”

John T. Bennett

John T. Bennett

Bennett is the Editor of Defense News' CongressWatch channel. He has a Masters degree in Global Security Studies from Johns Hopkins University.
John T. Bennett