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Obama's red line on Syria gets squiggly

The hawks are squawking. Congressional conservatives and the right-wing media are blasting President Barack Obama for going soft on the Syrians. The president insists there is a "game-changing" red line the Syrian government will have crossed if it is found to have used chemical weapons against its people, but he has bent the red line so far, the hawks say, that not only the Syrians, but the Iranians and North Koreans will conclude Mr. Obama is a man with a marshmallow spine whose warnings can be flouted with impunity.

The president has, indeed, added more caveats to his tough talk. In his press conference last Tuesday, the president said if rock-solid proof is found that a gas attack has taken place he would "rethink" what to do next, choosing from an unspecified range of punitive options that may not include military action. His line got more elastic after last week's ominous but rubbery announcement that U.S. intelligence agencies have found evidence of a possible use of the nerve gas, sarin -- somewhere, sometime, against somebody in Syria, "with some degree of varying confidence" (in the words of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel).

Though equivocal, that finding is evidence enough for the hawks who long for a much more resolute president in the mold of George W. Bush. Mr. Bush, under the sway of his very hawkish, neo-conservative advisors, seized on a bushel of bad intelligence to justify the Iraq invasion in 2003. Mr. Obama wisely, and necessarily, is taking a much more cautious approach, clearly reluctant to go before the international community without unimpeachable evidence against the Syrian regime. He knows he is facing a skeptical world that has a vivid memory of the very impeachable evidence the Bush team used to sell a war to the United Nations. Syria's chemical weapons need to be proved much more real than Saddam Hussein's phantom weapons of mass destruction.

"If we end up rushing to judgment without hard, effective evidence, then we may find ourselves in the position where we can't mobilize the international community to support what we do," Mr. Obama told reporters.

Even if such evidence can be provided, there is still the hard question of what to do in response. Having spent a decade fighting two wars in the Middle East with dubious results, there are not many Americans beyond Senate hawks like Lindsey Graham, Saxby Chambliss and John McCain who are itching to jump into one more tangled, vicious conflict in yet another Muslim country.

Sure, Syria's President Bashar Assad and his thuggish cronies are nasty people who have oppressed and killed thousands of their countrymen. And it is true the Syrian civil war has turned vast numbers of people into refugees. And, yes, there are probably true democrats and liberty lovers among the anti-Assad rebels who deserve help in their fight. But the rebels also include a disturbing number of Islamic militants who, if they gain power, would be as ruthless and undemocratic as Assad.

Senator Graham, the South Carolina Republican who has been most vocal in calling Mr. Obama a foreign policy weakling, acknowledges that it's a tricky situation. His solution to dealing with the rebels is to "give the right arms to the right people" and "to be ready to fight two wars" -- one against Mr. Assad and the other against the Islamist rebel faction. Lest that sound too much like a quagmire, Mr. Graham adds that it can be done without "boots on the ground."

If that is what passes for a plan of action from the hawks, we can be grateful that the president is looking for other options. It is worth remembering that not too many years ago we armed a rebel army in Afghanistan to drive out the Soviets. After the Soviets were gone, a large share of those rebels became the Taliban.

We still have "boots on the ground" fighting them today.

Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David Horsey is a political commentator for the Los Angeles Times. Go to latimes.com/news/politics/topoftheticket/ to see more of his work.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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