President Obama’s surprise announcement that he will seek congressional approval for any military action in Syria led former UN Ambassador John Bolton to declare the decision will hurt U.S. deterrence, emboldening Iran to march “full steam ahead” on its nuclear weapons program.
“I was stunned,” Bolton told Newsmax in an exclusive interview.
“It was perhaps the worst decision that he could have made. But its one that follows 10 days of bad decisions, and indeed a year of bad decisions going back to the original ‘red line’ statement.”
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Bolton says he has opposed the use of force in Syria because the administration has planned such a limited response he feared it would actually encourage rather than dissuade, further military adventures by Syria and Iran.
“But even as somebody who doesn’t support the use of force,” said Bolton, “what the president did today was display weakness of the kind we haven’t seen in an American leader in decades, if not since the 19th century.
“I just think the effect on America’s position in the Middle East and around the world is going to be very, very negative,” Bolton added.
The announcement by President Obama on Saturday afternoon, as Vice President Joe Biden stood dutifully at his side, caught analysts off guard.
After all, the administration had spent the past week excoriating the brutal chemical weapons attack in Syria, and presenting intelligence estimates expressing a “high degree of confidence” that strongman Bashar Assad’s regime was responsible for the gassing deaths of over 1,400 people.
Middle East expert and Newsmax contributor Lisa Daftari was sharply critical of Obama’s decision to wait on Congress, telling Fox News:
“This is a memo to Syria, to the Iranian regime, to Hezbollah, that while I’m out golfing and enjoying my Labor Day barbecue you guys have until Sept. 9 to hide all the assets, the targets we might be hitting," she said. "You have time to plan and plot a really hefty retaliation towards us, and toward Israel, and toward our interests in the region. And we’ll think about it and let you know what Congress decides at that point.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell appeared to welcome the president’s willingness to seek congressional approval, while remaining noncommittal about whether he would support an attack.
He issued a statement observing: ‘The president’s role in commander and chief is always strengthened when he enjoys the express support of Congress.”
Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio added that Congress should return to Washington “immediately” and begin debating the issue.
"The United States should only engage militarily when it is pursuing a clear and attainable national security goal. Military action taken simply to send a message or save face does not meet that standard," he said.
But if the president seeks legislative approval for a strike and fails, as did British Prime Minister David Cameron earlier this week, the political consequences could be dire.
Veteran journalist and host David Shuster, speaking on Al-Jazeera television, appeared all but flabbergasted at the news.
“I gotta say, this is one of the biggest political gambles you will ever see any president make,” he said, “perhaps one of the biggest gambles we’ve seen any president make in the last 40 years,” he said. “Because if he loses this vote, and again there’s no guarantee that he’s going to get that, it will cripple his presidency in the second term. He will be the weakest of lame ducks we’ve seen in 40 years.”
At times, the president has seemed out of step in recent days with members of his own administration. Secretary of State John Kerry, for example, has stressed the time-sensitive nature of a U.S. military response to what he termed “a moral obscenity.”
But with Congress not due back in session until Sept. 9, the urgency Kerry articulated on Friday now appears to be on hold.
President Obama’s Democratic allies in Congress are expected to call for Congress to expedite its return to the nation’s capital. But with the president’s political position becoming more uncomfortable with each day that passes without a response, and in light of the growing effort on the right to slow down the march to war, it is difficult to see why the GOP-controlled House would be in any rush.
The president’s top military officer, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, has further complicated matters for the administration by openly expressing reservations over what a limited military engagement against select Syrian targets could accomplish.
In a recent letter to Democratic Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Dempsey wrote that actually controlling Assad’s chemical weapons would require a major military operation.
“At a minimum,” he wrote, “this option would call for a no-fly zone as well as air and missile strikes involving hundreds of aircraft, ships, submarines, and other enablers. Thousands of special operations forces and other ground forces would be needed to assault and secure critical sites. Costs could also average well over one billion dollars per month.”
But even if the administration embarked on the much more limited, stand-off strike that has been discussed in recent days, Dempsey says it could involve “hundreds of aircraft, ships, submarines . . . depending on duration, the costs would be in the billions.”
Columnist and Fox News commentator Charles Krauthammer blasted Obama’s announcement Saturday, calling the administration’s handling of the matter “sort of amateur hour.”
“When there were the first attacks six months ago, or if you like when we had the current attack, he should have immediately called in the Congress the way that the Prime Minister of Britain called in the Parliament, had a debate and then got a resolution, and then went out and told the world we’re going to do X or we’re not going to do X,” Krauthammer said.
“But idea that you make the case, you leak the details, you tell the world this has to be done, and then you say, ‘Well, I’ll take my time, I’ll go to Congress and we’ll see.’ This should be done in three days. It’s not like people aren’t aware of the arguments.”
Speculation as to the motives behind the administration’s sudden reversal on attacking Syria was wide-ranging. Some analysts say it reflects the weak public support for further U.S. involvement in the Middle East.
Others speculate the administration may believe it can use the Syrian vote as a wedge issue to divide the Republican Party, thereby gaining an advantage on other issues, such as raising the debt ceiling or passing immigration reform.
But beyond the tactical political struggle, the larger question is how the President Obama’s decision to hold off on a strike may impact U.S. deterrence vis-à-vis its major geopolitical rivals, especially Russia, China, and an Iran that by all accounts continues to ramp up its push toward nuclear capability.
“I think they’re going to go full-steam ahead toward nuclear weapons,” Bolton tells Newsmax. “I was worried about the use of force by Obama here because he kept saying it was going to be a limited, narrow response. Prime Minister Cameron of Britain talked about a proportionate response.
“That’s not how you establish deterrence,” he said. “You establish deterrence by an overwhelming display of potential force.”
Bolton says a weak deterrence is worse than no force at all, “because if a level of force is minimal, that is an acceptable price for an Assad regime or an Iran to pay. Better to do nothing that to confirm the response would be minimal.”
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