Shadow Government

Some Nagging Questions Left Unanswered in the Syrian WMD Story

The Washington Post has a feel-good story about how the Obama administration coordinated with global partners to remove and destroy a very large cache of Syria's chemical munitions. With the administration struggling to cope with crises at home and abroad, this story offers a rare foreign-policy success -- rarer still, one that involves dogged and creative staff work. After months of stories about sloppy staff work, the administration can be excused for praising itself for how the Syrian case showed it could, as National Security Council staffer Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall put it, "...be inventive, entrepreneurial, collaborative, seize the initiative, and be relentless about getting it done. This is one we can be proud of." 

This is indeed a moment for the loyal opposition to concede that we were too pessimistic about the prospects for successfully implementing the Syrian chemical weapons deal. I know I was, and I was persuaded by the pessimistic assessment of other experts. As the Washington Post story makes clear, this was an enormously complex operation that stalled at several points along the way and could have easily broken down altogether. It is a remarkable achievement that the administration accomplished what it accomplished.

But what exactly did the administration accomplish and at what cost? Here the Washington Post story is frustratingly incomplete, for there are four important questions left hanging that are left unasked and unanswered:  

1. How much of Syria's WMD arsenal remains?

The agreement got Assad to admit that he had chemical weapons -- a noteworthy achievement in its own right since he had been pretending otherwise -- and got Assad to agree to dispose of all of the weapons it declared. Although Assad further surprised skeptics by declaring an arsenal close to the size Western experts had estimated, it is far from clear that the declaration was full and complete. Proving the negative is hard to do, and we should be chastened by the memory that an important part of the Iraq WMD intelligence fiasco was the difficulty of proving that Iraq had not hidden away other stockpiles that it had not declared. Yet is it plausible that Assad actually declared 100 percent of his arsenal and in the space of nine months went from having one of the world's largest stockpiles to having nothing? The Post story leaves a tantalizing clue that this is not the case, but does not develop the idea any further: "The OPCW mission will continue in Syria, making sure that all remnants of the chemical program are gone." We can say with certainty only that the Obama administration succeeded in pruning the Syrian WMD arsenal. What the "remnants" might look like is an open question.

2. What should be done about Syria's chemical attacks, which coincided with the program to prune the stockpile? 

The catalyst for the confrontation with Syria was Obama's red line, which concerned not Assad's possession of WMD but rather Assad's use of the arsenal. Unfortunately, even as Assad was offering uneven cooperation with the stockpile removal, he was continuing to use the remaining arsenal in repeated attacks. Does the removal of the last of the declared arsenal amount to sufficient punishment, or will the administration hold Assad accountable for repeatedly crossing the president's red line? Should it?

3. What price was paid for Assad's compliance? 

The administration has claimed that it paid no price for removing the arsenal (beyond the in-kind financial costs of transporting and destroying the weapons, costs that are rightly considered negligible compared to the stakes). In the administration's telling, Assad made all of the concessions, and he did so in a desperate attempt to forestall imminent U.S. airstrikes. As many others and I have shown, this interpretation simply does not fit the facts of the case. Syria and Russia made their "concession" when the threat of airstrikes was receding. The player desperate for a deal was President Obama, who was on the brink of a congressional rebuke that would have made airstrikes very unlikely -- as if the president's own manifest reluctance to order the strikes didn't already make them a remote prospect anyway. Why would Syria offer up a significant portion of their arsenal to forestall airstrikes that were unlikely to happen anyway? Because in doing so Assad could buy regime survival, forcing the administration to partner with Assad and giving him the whip hand to frustrate all other elements of Western efforts to influence the outcome of the Syrian civil war. Here the skeptics of the deal have proven far more prescient. As they predicted, Assad is in a far stronger position vis-à-vis the rebels and vis-à-vis Western diplomatic initiatives than he was a year ago. Perhaps this was a price worth paying, but we can only make that assessment if we consider the costs and benefits carefully, something that the Post story does not attempt to do. 

4. What are the broader geopolitical consequences of the Syrian episode? 

As Mike Green has shown, the Obama administration also paid a heavy price in terms of global reputation when it backed down from its confrontation with Assad. While most of the world would join in celebrating the pruning of Assad's chemical arsenal, few global leaders accept the White House talking points on how the episode underscores the steely resolve of the president. If the Syrian crisis did undermine the president's reputation for resolve, how has that shaped the myriad crises that have arisen in the past nine months?

It is right and proper to celebrate a tactical success, but before we can declare it a strategic success we have to ask and answer some tough questions that the triumphalist account does not consider.

Nigel Treblin/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Central America's Security Crisis is the United States' Problem, Too

With the Obama administration scrambling to address the "humanitarian crisis" of thousands of unaccompanied children crossing the U.S. southern border, let's hope it has learned a sobering lesson about how presumably well-meaning (and politically expedient) words and actions on a such a hot button issue as immigration can have serious real-world consequences. Whatever the administration was trying to say or do over the past few years on immigration reform got lost in translation to thousands of Central American families whose only hope in life is to make it to the United States to find safety, security, and a decent day's wage.

Reports are that the number of unaccompanied minors, primarily from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, detained at the border has more than tripled since 2011, with most of them believing -- manipulated by unscrupulous human traffickers --that some sort of legal status awaited them.

As one regional expert told the Washington Post, what the message came down to was "this is your big chance. If you want to get into the U.S., now is the time."

The administration is now contending with a logistical nightmare to house and feed the migrants while launching an intensive public diplomacy campaign to discourage further Central American families from making the perilous journey north, for themselves or their children.

But, frankly, these are merely stopgap measures. Moreover, they do not address the "push" factor. The administration's new effort may help to staunch the "pull" effect of enticing people to leave their homes, but just as important is addressing the conditions that are "pushing" people to seek better lives elsewhere.

In short, that is the escalating criminality and corruption in the region -- most of it fueled by drug trafficking to the United States -- that are undermining democratic institutions, rule of law, economic opportunity, and public safety.

The statistics are grim. Central America is now considered the most violent non-war zone in the world, with a homicide rate more than four times the global average. Robberies, extortion, kidnappings, and human trafficking are all up. This touches the average citizen through rising gang activity and violence. Many being interviewed at the border say they decided to leave because of gang extortion and forced recruitment of children.

It is a tragedy that such conditions are prevailing in our own neighborhood. But Central America's security problems are also our problem. For starters, the current flood of refugees is overwhelming the Border Patrol's capacities, meaning that security functions are taking second place to humanitarian concerns. That drug traffickers and other criminals would seek to exploit such gaps is elementary.

Secondly, the same networks -- aided and abetted by gangs -- that traffic people through Central America right to the U.S. border are the same networks that traffic drugs, weapons and other contraband, and any other entity that wishes to do the United States harm. Clearly, it is in the United States' interest to cripple those chains further down south rather than wait until some threat reaches the U.S. border and then hope to catch it there.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration hasn't shown much conviction at the appropriate levels to address this "push" factor in immigration flows. Certainly there are programs in place such as the Central America Regional Security Initiative, but there is very little high-level association with the issue -- in other words, ownership.

Of course, there are no silver bullets to restoring peace and stability in the region. The most important contribution that can be made to cutting crime and violence and strengthening rule of law in Central America is through reform of judicial, penal, and law enforcement institutions. But U.S. leadership, access, and interests in our very own neighborhood, where our past engagement has made a real and lasting difference, are essential. Drug traffickers, criminal networks, and others who wish us harm, are not affected by budget constraints or crises elsewhere and are taking advantage of the vacuum left by waning U.S. leadership.

Right now, Central America is confronting a crisis every bit as dangerous to their stability as the Soviet-Cuban threats in the early 1980s. The difference then was an administration that was willing to step to the plate and get the job done. 

John Moore/Getty Images