“The infrastructure that accompanies the president’s travels is beyond our control.”
-- Ben Rhodes, a spokesman for President Obama, explaining to the Washington Post why the cost for first family’s trip to Africa later this month could approach $100 million despite automatic spending reductions.
The only time that the impending involvement of U.S. forces in a genocidal Middle Eastern civil war can be considered good political news is when the alternative story is bad enough.
A few eyebrows are arching in Washington today as the Obama White House makes ready for the next phase in a years-long escalation of U.S. involvement with the effort to topple the Assad regime and bid to install a new government.
After months of downplaying the “red line” on chemical weapons President Obama drew last year, the administration changed course on Thursday and announced a finding that the regime had in fact gassed its own citizens. The consensus was that Obama would likely soon start providing direct military aid to some of the Islamist rebels in Syria.
A stout majority of voters in the latest FOX News poll and surveys from other outlets said they do not like the idea of America intervening in the sectarian conflict in Syria. Obama, though, seems increasingly ready to buck their wishes after years of pressure from interventionists left and right.
Blue hawks like Obama’s new National Security Adviser Susan Rice want to intervene on humanitarian grounds to stop the sectarian genocide. Red hawks like Sen. John McCain are concerned about a regional conflagration that draws in U.S. allies Turkey and Israel and allows enemy state Iran to further expand its growing regional clout.
Unlike other genocidal civil wars that never gain U.S. military attention, this one is in a region important to American strategic interests. Syria is a fulcrum point surrounded by Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel.
The Syria hawks all argue that if the U.S. doesn’t help pick a winner in the civil war, what follows will likely be even worse than the current murderous, oppressive regime. Picking the right faction among the rebel forces has proven difficult since al Qaeda affiliates and militant Islamists are thick in the ranks of the opposition.
Arming and training those folks doesn’t always end happily, see Afghanistan and Libya. But then again, that’s a region where all the options are usually bad and endings haven’t been very happy since Scheherazade told her tales.
Obama’s selection of Rice as his top security adviser, despite her delivery of doctored talking points about an Islamist attack in the previous country in the region in which the U.S. helped install a new regime, was a strong sign that Obama was ready to move on Syria. So too was the choice of liberal hawk Samantha Power as his nominee for U.S. ambassador to the UN.
The Clintons and others on the left have been joining the ranks of the Syria interventionists and Republican hawks have been keeping up the pressure for American military action, at least on par with the logistical and air support U.S. forces provided in Libya.
So, the furrow in which to plant the seed of U.S. military action in the region is well plowed indeed. Despite the overwhelming popular opposition, Obama can come to this war in the posture of the regretful belligerent as he did in Libya and Afghanistan.
But Power Play correspondents this morning, including some usually immune to conspiracy theorizing and others with big national security credentials, wanted to know if the tail was wagging the dog in Syria.
Certainly the timing is good for war, since all of the other news for the president is bad. Obama has so far declined to take bold steps to address the many woes besetting his administration. He hasn’t much defended his recently exposed and highly unpopular domestic spying program. Neither has the president done much to keep the scandals at the IRS and the Department of Justice from entering a full-on fester.
The same is true for his other problems, notably with the implementation of his 2010 health law, which has been further jeopardized by crashing confidence in its enforcers at the IRS, and an ethical tangle for his secretary of Health and Human Services, who recently admitted that she had sought contributions from some of the firms she is supposed to regulate.
And so far, the administration is standing stock still about the widespread use of secret email accounts by political appointees.
Down in the polls and rapidly losing the confidence of the electorate, Obama might have at least subconsciously considered the political advantages in having a story to distract the press and public from the daily disclosures of unhappy news from Obamaland.
Plus, Obama is getting ready to go globetrotting. He’s got trips to Europe and Africa in the coming weeks and might benefit from being seen as an international man of action at a moment when his administration seems to be shrinking from domestic difficulties.
But surely if Obama were going to “wag the dog” he would have either found a way to make the intervention more popular or picked a cause more appealing to American voters than intervening in a conflict where the aim is not to push forward the least bad faction when all the choices are pretty terrible.
Syria is a dog of a political issue, not a tail.
What looks more likely here is that a politically weakened president is being pushed into a military campaign by those whose help he needs to keep some clout intact.
While he may take another hit with ordinary citizens for entangling America in the Syrian civil war, Obama’s war footing will make happy many in Washington. The political considerations here look to be of the Beltway variety, not about rousing patriotic sentiment.
And this looks to be the trendline for Obama. As we rumble into budget season and other Washington fights, Obama will need to pick his battles cautiously. He can’t afford any more enemies.
The most important political fight in Washington, after all, is always self-preservation.
And Now, A Word From Charles
“Everybody waits on the United States. When the Gulf War happened in 1990 and the invasion of Kuwait, nobody acted. But the minute America said we are going to act with allies or without, everybody else joined the coalition. So nothing happens until [President Obama] says. He has to say. Unless he does, I think it's going to be a Hamlet performance. You know what happens at the end of Hamlet. Everybody dies.”
-- Charles Krauthammer on “Special Report with Bret Baier.”
Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com. Catch Chris Live online daily at 11:30amET at http:live.foxnews.com.
Chris Stirewalt joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in July of 2010 and serves as politics editor based in Washington, D.C. Additionally, he authors the daily Fox News Halftime Report political news note and co-hosts the hit podcast, Perino & Stirewalt: I'll Tell You What. He also is the host of Power Play, a feature video series on FoxNews.com. Stirewalt makes frequent appearances on network programs, including America’s Newsroom, Special Report with Bret Baier and Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace. He also provides expert political analysis for FNC’s coverage of state, congressional and presidential elections.