The New York Times has another huge story on Obama's "red line" on the Syrian regime's possible use of chemical weapons, filled with juicy details and anonymous quotes from U.S. officials. One of them, referring to Obama's initial red-line comments in August, tells the paper:
“The idea was to put a chill into the Assad regime without actually trapping the president into any predetermined action,” said one senior official, who, like others, discussed the internal debate on the condition of anonymity. But “what the president said in August was unscripted,” another official said. Mr. Obama was thinking of a chemical attack that would cause mass fatalities, not relatively small-scale episodes like those now being investigated, except the “nuance got completely dropped.”
Mr. Obama’s advisers also raised legal issues. “How can we attack another country unless it’s in self-defense and with no Security Council resolution?” another official said, referring to United Nations authorization. “If he drops sarin on his own people, what’s that got to do with us?”
Ooph. Here's the problem with those remarks, however. After Obama initially laid down his red line -- the key words of which were "a whole bunch" -- various administration officials repeated them, sometimes losing the qualifier entirely. Here, for instance, is Vice President Joe Biden on March 4:
Because we recognize the great danger Assad’s chemical and biological arsenals pose to Israel and the United States, to the whole world, we’ve set a clear red line against the use or the transfer of the those weapons.
And here's Obama 17 days later:
I’ve made it clear to Bashar al-Assad and all who follow his orders: We will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people, or the transfer of those weapons to terrorists. The world is watching; we will hold you accountable.
But by Friday, April 26, the qualifier was back. "A whole bunch" had become "systematic," as my colleague Josh Rogin noted:
Obama said that if the use of chemical weapons is proven, "it is going to be a game changer," and added that the world cannot stand by and permit the "systematic use of weapons like chemical weapons on civilian populations."
So the nuance -- only the use or transfer of "a whole bunch" of chemical weapons would trigger a U.S. response -- was in Obama's original comments. It disappeared, and then it returned as "systematic."
What's going on here? I suspect that the United States wants to deter Bashar al-Assad from launching a mass-casualty attack using chemical weapons, but isn't prepared to make him pay a real price for smaller-scale incidents. U.S. officials often insist that the president doesn't bluff. But I'm not so sure about that, and it seems Assad is willing to call him on it.
Syrian Facebook pages are reporting a series of massive explosions in Damascus, as are the Syrian regime's media outlets. A video claiming to be of these explosions can be seen here:
Given the size of the blasts, and the news that Israeli jets earlier this week struck a shipment of Iranian missles thought to be headed for Hezbollah, everyone is assuming that Israel is behind these strikes as well. Syrian state TV is claiming that Israel hit a "research center," while opposition Facebook pages are saying that several elite units on Mt. Qassioun, overlooking Damascus, were the targets. (Hezbollah's al-Manar TV station is claiming an Israeli jet was shot down, but that seems unlikely.)
Israeli officials are keeping characteristically mum, but it seems plausible that they would have followed up their previous, successful strike with another one aimed at further degrading the Syrian regime's capabilities. Because it's so difficult, not to mention risky, to destroy chemical-weapons stocks from the air, the next-best thing is to take out Assad's means of delivering them. And Mt. Qassioun is reportedly where many of the Syrian regime's best missiles are kept.
If it was indeed Israel, wow, this is awkward for the Syrian opposition. The regime will seek to exploit the raids to tie the rebels to the Zionist entity, after spending two years painting them as an undifferentiated mass of "terrorist gangs." (Syrian television is already testing out this line, according to Reuters: "The new Israeli attack is an attempt to raise the morale of the terrorist groups which have been reeling from strikes by our noble army.")
But the propaganda can cut both ways. The rebels can point to the Israeli attacks as yet more evidence that Assad's army is for attacking Syrians, not defending the country. It's not clear to me which argument will carry the day.
The strikes also promise to hypercharge the debate over Syria in the United States. Advocates of intervention will ask: If Syrian air defenses are so tough, as U.S. officials have been saying, why was Israel able to breach them so easily? Of course, a no-fly zone is a much more difficult and risky endeavor than a one-off raid, but you can expect that important distinction to get blurred.
There's also a message here for Iran, whose nuclear program Israel has vowed to destroy if the Iranians cross Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's red line. Again, taking out Iran's fortified and far-flung nuclear facilities would be vastly more challenging than hitting a few warehouses in nearby Damascus. And U.S. officials doubt that Israel has the capability to do more than temporarily set back Iran's program. But the intended lesson here for Tehran (and Washington) is clear: Israel will defend itself when threatened, and we mean what we say.
The White House has long insisted that President Barack Obama's "red line" that would trigger ... something ... on Syria is crystal clear.
But as my Washington Post colleague Max Fisher notes, it's about as clear as mud. Obama first said in August: "We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus."
Many have interpreted this line to mean that if Assad moved or used chemical weapons, Obama would act. And on several occasions, the president or other U.S. officials have made more aggressive statements. Here's Obama on March 21:
I've made it clear to Bashar al-Assad and all who follow his orders: We will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people, or the transfer of those weapons to terrorists. The world is watching; we will hold you accountable.
But it seems to me that the key words in Obama's August statement were "a whole bunch." And if you read between the lines of the White House's letter to several senators today, that still seems to be the real red line, assuming it actually exists, because the letter stresses that the purported use in question was, or may have been, "on a small scale."
And even if the White House does go ahead and decide that Obama's murky, pinkish-reddish-orange line has in fact been crossed, it doesn't seem prepared to do much about it. The plan is to press for a United Nations investigation of the alleged chemical-weapons use, not to fire up the B-52s. The odds of Assad letting that happen are extremely low, not to mention the time it would take for an investigation to reach a clear conclusion one way or the other. And even if an investigation does conclude that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons against its people, does anyone still think Russia and China are going to dump Assad and authorize some kind of response through the U.N. Security Council?
Now, maybe all this murkiness is defensible and sincere, and certainly the American people aren't clamoring for another U.S. intervention in the Middle East, even though many in Washington are. But the point is, maybe the game hasn't changed as much as today's news reports would have us believe.
Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani on Wednesday accused the Syrian regime of using chemical weapons on its own people, joining Britain, France, and Israel in determining that Bashar al-Assad's forces had used deadly poison gas in violation of international norms.
Al Thani, answering questions at an event in his honor sponsored by the Brookings Institution, spoke frankly about Qatar's assertive foreign policy in the Middle East, which has thrust the tiny Gulf monarchy into the center of the region's conflicts and controversies.
The Qatari prime minister, who also serves as foreign minister, is in Washington with a delegation headed by Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who has ruled Qatar since deposing his father in a 1995 coup.
"Chemicals? He used chemicals, and there is evidence," Al Thani said, referring to Assad. He described the Syrian ruler's strategy as an attempt to "test your reactions" and incrementally cross U.S. President Barack Obama's "red lines." Al Thani did not say whether Qatar had made its own independent assessment of the use of chemical weapons, or whether it was relying on other countries' reports.
The United States has not made a determination on the Syrian regime's alleged chemical-weapons use, but a bipartisan group of senators sent a letter to the president Wednesday pressing him to make "a public determination on this important national and international security issue."
Al Thani, whose meeting with Obama Tuesday apparently went over time, urged the president to be more aggressive, though he declined to cite any specific measures. "The United States has to do more," he said. As for Qatar, "We did not want to take the lead. We wanted to take a back seat. But we find ourselves in the front seat."
Al Thani also denied persistent charges that Qatar is finding jihadi groups in Syria such as Jabhat al-Nusra, which has pledged its fealty to al Qaeda and been listed by the United States as a terrorist organization. "We did not give any aid financially or any other way to these people," he said, insisting that Qatar was working with the United States and other allies through "operation rooms" in Jordan and Turkey. He said accusations to the contrary were started by "families" in the region -- perhaps an allusion to one of Qatar's neighbors.
Al Thani described a meeting he had with Assad at the beginning of the uprising, before the Syrian leader gave his first speech on the crisis. He said he told Assad: "There is a way to rule before Bouazizi and a way to rule in our region after Bouazizi," referring to the fruit seller whose self-immolation sparked the Syrian uprising. "So things have to change."
Assad made certain promises, he said, but never followed through on his commitments. Instead, Al Thani said, he appeared before the Syrian parliament "and he was joking ... there was blood in the street, people being killed."
"He has only one way," Al Thani said. "Kill and kill and kill until you win."
Boston Globe reporter Billy Baker was on the scene of the marathon explosion. Watch as his tweets go from inspirational to horrifying in mere minutes:
After 2 hours atop Heartbreak Hill, starting to see the struggling runners, cramping and crying, inspiring, and soon to be smiling.— Billy Baker (@billy_baker) April 15, 2013
Marathon Monday is a nice reminder of how inspiring humans can be, and of how drunk Boston College students can get by noon.— Billy Baker (@billy_baker) April 15, 2013
I'm on Boylston just past finish line. Witnesses report two large explosions. Lots of blood. Ambulances descending on area.— Billy Baker (@billy_baker) April 15, 2013
Now getting gruesome first-hand accounts of hair on fire, severed limbs, battlefield scene in front of Charlesmark Hotel.— Billy Baker (@billy_baker) April 15, 2013
Two explosions right in front of Marathon Sports. Witnesses saw bones sticking out, legs on ground, blood everywhere, and awful smell.— Billy Baker (@billy_baker) April 15, 2013
I don't have much to say about the death of Robert Ebert, a great film critic and incredibly prolific writer. I'm sure the encomiums are flying fast and furious. But one thing I do find notable about Ebert, and little-appreciated, is his popularization of foreign films. In this list of his 100 favorite movies of the last decade, cobbled together from his annual top picks, I count 18 foreign pictures. Here they are:
1. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (China)
2. Innocence (Australia)
3. City of God (Brazil)
4. Y Tu Mamá También (Mexico)
5. Invincible (Germany)
6. Spirited Away (Japan)
7. The Son (Belgium)
8. In America (Ireland)
9. Moolaade (France)
10. Me and You and Everyone We Know (UK)
11. Yes (UK)
12. Pan's Labyrinth (Spain)
13. The Lives of Others (Germany)
14. Away From Her (UK)
15. La Vie en Rose (France)
16. The Band's Visit (Israel)
17. Happy-Go-Lucky (UK)
18. Slumdog Millionaire (UK)
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
With the news this week that the very smart Anne-Marie Slaughter, of "Having It All," State Department, and Twitter Fight Club fame, has been tapped to succeed Steve Coll as head the New America Foundation, I was curious: How many major American think tanks are run by women? The short answer: not many. Out of the top 50 U.S. think tanks as ranked by the University of Pennsylvania's James McGann, fully 42 are headed by men. (For the math-impaired out there, that's 84 percent.) Here's the full list, with the women in bold:
1. Brookings Institution - Strobe Talbott
2. Council on Foreign Relations - Richard Haass
3. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace - Jessica T. Mathews
4. Center for Strategic and International Studies - John Hamre
5. RAND Corporation - Michael Rich
6. Cato Institute - John A. Allison
7. Heritage Foundation - Jim DeMint
8. Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars - Jane Harman
9. Peterson Institute for International Economics - Adam Posen
10. American Enterprise Institute - Arthur C. Brooks
11. Center for American Progress - Neera Tanden
12. National Bureau of Economic Research - James Poterba
13. Pew Research Center - Alan Murray
14. Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace - John Raisian
15. Atlantic Council - Frederick Kempe
16. United States Institute of Peace - Jim Marshall
17. Open Society Foundations - Christopher Stone
18. Human Rights Watch - Ken Roth
19. Center for International Development, Harvard University - Ricardo Hausmann
20. Center for Global Development - Nancy Birdsall
21. Urban Institute - Sarah Rosen Wartell
22. Center for New American Security - Richard Fontaine
23. German Marshall Fund of the United States - Craig Kennedy
24. James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy, Rice University - Edward P. Djerejian
25. Belfer Center for Science and Int'l Affairs (Harvard) - Graham Allison
26. New America Foundation - Anne-Marie Slaughter
27. Earth Institute, Columbia University - Jeffrey Sachs
28. World Resources Institute - Andrew Steer
29. Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs - Joel H. Rosenthal
30. Hudson Institute - Kenneth R. Weinstein
31. Center for Budget and Policy Priorities - Robert Greenstein
32. International Food Policy Research Institute - Shenggen Fan
33. Foreign Policy Research Institute - Alan Luxenberg
34. Freedom House - David Kramer
35. Pew Center on Global Climate Change - Eileen Claussen
36. Resources for the Future - Philip Sharp
37. Stimson Center (FNA Henry Stimson Center) - Ellen Laipson
38. Inter-American Dialogue - Michael Shifter
39. Acton Institute for Study of Religion and Liberty - Rev. Robert A. Sirico
40. Economic Policy Institute - Lawrence Mishel
41. East West Institute - John Edwin Mroz
42. Competitive Enterprise Institute - Lawson Bader
43. Manhattan Institute - Lawrence J. Mone
44. Reason Foundation - David Nott
45. Center for Transatlantic Relations, SAIS Johns Hopkins - Daniel Hamilton
46. East-West Center Honolulu - Charles E. Morrison
47. Center for the National Interest - Dimitri K. Simes
48. Mercatus Center, George Mason University - Tyler Cowen
49. Aspen Institute - Walter Isaacson
50. Institute for Policy Studies - John Cavanagh
A few of the smaller shops, including the Middle East Institute (Wendy Chamberlain), Truman National Security Project (Rachel Kleinfeld) and the National Security Network (Heather Hurlburt), are run by women. But otherwise, Thinktankistan is still very much a man's world.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Many of you may have already read Vali Nasr's scathing inside account of the State Department's struggle to put diplomacy at the center of U.S. efforts to end the war in Afghanistan. If not, go read it right now. Are you back? Good. Now check out this fracas at Monday's State Department press briefing, conducted by spokesman Patrick Ventrell:
QUESTION: On Afghanistan. Vali Nasr, who used to be at the State Department, just came out with a new book detailing a little bit about the work with Richard Holbrooke and how President Obama's White House team kind of shut him out. Specifically, he writes that "the White House encouraged the U.S. Ambassadors in Afghanistan and Pakistan to go around the State Department and work with the White House directly, undermining their own agency."
I'd like your response to that, whether that's an accurate assessment, and whether the State Department felt that the White House was taking too much control over the Afghan - Af-Pak file.
MR. VENTRELL: Well, you know, Elise, it wouldn't be appropriate for me to comment on the specifics in this book or our interagency discussions.
QUESTION: Why not?
MR. VENTRELL: That's not something that we do from this podium.
QUESTION: Well, there's a specific charge laid out in this book from someone who used to be in this building.
MR. VENTRELL: Look, I'm not going to comment on a former official's characterization one way or another, or our interagency processes one way or another. But let me talk a little bit about Afghanistan, where we are, some of the progress we --
QUESTION: No, I don't - I mean, I'm specifically --
MR. VENTRELL: I'm not --
QUESTION: You can talk about Af - I'm happy to hear what you have to say --
MR. VENTRELL: Okay.
QUESTION: -- about Afghanistan, but specifically, do you feel that the State Department has equal equity in the policy deliberations on Afghanistan and Pakistan?
MR. VENTRELL: Look, I'm just not going to --
QUESTION: You don't know whether you do?
MR. VENTRELL: I'm not going to comment on a former official's characterization.
QUESTION: Well, I'm not asking you to - so don't comment on his book, but specifically, do you feel as if the State Department has equal equity on policy deliberations on Afghanistan and Pakistan?
MR. VENTRELL: We have an excellent working relationship with our White House and interagency colleagues. And let me just tell you a little bit about where we are in Afghanistan, because that's - some of the thrust of the book is talking about policy development on Afghanistan. We've increased the capacity of Afghan security forces to fight insurgents, transitioning Afghan security lead - transitioning to an Afghan security lead, building an enduring partnership with Afghanistan. We now have Afghan forces leading nearly 90 percent of operations across the country. We've signed the Strategic Partnership Agreement. We're working on a new - negotiating a new bilateral security agreement. We're working on preparations for a free, inclusive, and transparent election in 2014. So we really stand behind the record of the progress we've made in Afghanistan, but beyond that I'm not going to get into interagency discussions.
QUESTION: But it's not a new charge. I mean, it's a charge that analysts are making around Washington, that the foreign policy is being decided in the White House with not enough input, or very little input, from the State Department.
MR. VENTRELL: We make our input, but I'm just not going to characterize it beyond that.
QUESTION: Are you listened to? Do you feel that you're listened to properly in the White House?
MR. VENTRELL: Look, the State Department has - we have an excellent working relationship, as I said, with the White House, with the interagency, and --
QUESTION: You can't say whether you feel as if you're getting equal input?
MR. VENTRELL: Look, I'm not going to characterize some sort of historical discussion about what happened in years past. All I'm going to say is --
QUESTION: I don't think it's historical, because it also goes to what's happening today in the White House.
MR. VENTRELL: Look, guys, I've said what I can on this. I think we've done what we can here. Thanks.
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