The "sheer, gross, terrible incompetence" of the Obama administration is one of the biggest barriers to a congressional consensus on military intervention in Syria, foreign policy expert Elliott Abrams said Tuesday.
As Secretary of State John Kerry made the administration's case before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Tuesday to endorse U.S. strikes against the Syrian regime, Abrams noted an understandable divide among lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
In an exclusive interview with Newsmax TV, the senior fellow on the Council on Foreign Relations and former National Security Council officer in the Bush White House said the Obama administration has "badly mishandled Syria for 2½
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"There is a sense among Democrats as well as Republicans, among people who have supported the president, that there's just a lot of gross incompetence here," he said. "This Syria crisis has been mishandled from the beginning …
"They don't seem to know what they're doing and they're wavering. So, for friends and enemies, there's a sense that you really don't know where this administration stands. The president would probably get this congressional vote but the way he has handled this really weakens him and, since we have one president at a time, it weakens the United States."
Abrams said Republicans, in particular, have a host of reasons to distrust the Obama administration – from its "sheer, gross, terrible incompetence" – with President Obama and Kerry going from delivering "a couple of moving, tough war speeches" to Obama’s pulling "the rug out from under" Kerry over the weekend – to anger at Obama "for the way he’s treated Republicans … for four years," to a "weariness after Afghanistan and Iraq" and a sense "the Middle East is kind of hopeless and we should stay out of it…"
"[It’s] a mistake for the country to turn away from this and say, wrong address, don't talk to us about this, but I don't think it's at all surprising," he said.
The bungled leadership also dashes any hope for a brokered deal, he added.
"Why should [President Bashar Assad] negotiate, particularly if it looks as if the United States is wavering?" he asked.
"… Assad thinks he has military options. He's got Iran behind him, he's got Hezbollah behind him, he's got [President Vladimir] Putin and Russia behind him, so why should he negotiate? He thinks he's doing OK. So maybe now he won't be able to poison gas but he can still use the artillery and other things he's been using…"
Yet, Abrams said, a "yes" vote on U.S. intervention is crucial.
"The taboo on using poison gas is at stake, the credibility of the United States is at stake, and we have a real national interest in seeing Iran defeated in Syria" he said, adding a lack of action would undermine us in the Mideast, and "more broadly."
"When you look at the countries like Japan, Australia, South Korea, Taiwan, that are worried about China, then you have the Middle Eastern countries worried about Iran — everywhere a ‘no’ vote gives the sense that you just can't count on the United States anymore."
Abrams said he doesn’t believe Syria has the will to strike back to a military response by the United States.
"I'm struck by the fact that, certainly in the case of Israel, they don't strike back. Israel bombed the Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007," he noted. "What the Syrians did in response, nothing. Israel has killed a number of terrorist leaders in Syria. Response? Nothing.
"So if we are really tough and if we let Assad know privately if there's any response to these strikes, the people who do it are going to be very, very tough, there won't be a response."
Abrams said Obama has "the power and the right to strike" without going to Congress, noting "he did it in Libya and other presidents have done it all the way back to President Reagan in Grenada and the first President Bush in Panama."
"But he made the decision to go to Congress so I don't see how you can then ask for the authority and not get it and turn around and say, ‘never mind.’ … If he doesn't get it it's going to be very hard for him to move forward anyway," he noted.
Abrams said he wishes the United States would be more like Israel in its "tough-minded" approach to foreign policy.”
The Israelies have drawn their own "red line" – "not giving Syrian missiles or air-defense systems or, above all, chemical weapons to Hezbollah, which is a terrorist group."
"And the Israelis have hit Syria, we know, about four times publicly — I'm told there are a few more times that have not been made public," he noted. "They really enforce their red line and they have prevented those weapons from moving to Hezbollah and Lebanon so far."
But when it comes to who should govern Syria and enforcing the international taboo on poison gas, "that's the responsibility of the international community maybe led by the United States," he said.
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