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Obama Vs. The Hawks

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Seven months since that hot August afternoon, the Syrians, after fits and starts, have handed off over 500 metric tons of deadly chemicals, nearly 46 percent of their stock, and the deadline for the rest to be destroyed comes at the end of April. Which looks like a better outcome than a prolonged bombing campaign, but conventional Beltway wisdom is that Obama fumbled in August, angered the Saudis and Israelis, and "damaged American credibility," as The Wall Street Journal put it.

On the Senate floor in February, McCain stood before photographs of dead Syrian children, predicting a future president would have to "apologize" for Obama's inaction. "What haunts me even more than the horror unfolding before our eyes in Syria is the thought that we will continue to do nothing about it," McCain said.

Worst of all, by Washington insider standards, Obama theoretically diminished his own power by asking for congressional authorization. In D.C., it's an axiom that you never willingly give away any kind of power, especially executive power, and especially when it comes to military strikes.

But many of those who shared the president's reticence were the very men and women who would have been in charge of putting themselves and their people on the line: the military. In a letter to the House Foreign Affairs Committee two days before the chemical attack, Joint Chiefs Chairman Dempsey expressed grave concern over establishing a no-fly zone, warning that any military action could spiral out of control and lead to American boots on the ground. "There's a broad naiveté in the political class in foreign-policy issues," retired Lt. Gen. Gregory S. Newbold complained to The Washington Post regarding a potential strike on Syria. Beltway thinking, he said, reflects a "scary simplicity about the effects that employing American military power can achieve."

Syria's chemical weapons were being steadily offloaded when the Ukrainian crisis blew up in February, and all eyes turned to Putin's audacity. Now, hawks grumbled that if only Obama had backed his red line with some bombs, Putin might have hesitated at the Crimean border. But the president believes he achieved the objective of the "red line," Rhodes says, and doesn't regret using the term. "He actually said the opposite. To this day he would say, 'Look, chemical weapons are a distinct issue, and they are getting rid of them, and I have no regrets.'

"One of the worst arguments I've seen in recent days is that if we bombed Syria, through a bank shot you keep Putin from going to Crimea," Rhodes says. "That's not a reason to go to war. You don't go to war in Syria to send a message to Russia not to invade Crimea. Bush invaded Iraq and didn't keep Russia from going into Georgia."

The fact is, many who want America to attack Syria don't want to stop at removing chemical weapons – they want the U.S. to effect total regime change. "That's why you see this narrative about the U.S. disengaging from the world," says Rhodes. "That comes from a point of view that the only way to show you are engaged in the world is by using military force."

The carnage in Syria goes on, but the ongoing removal of Assad's stockpiles of chemical weapons is a quiet accomplishment without a single dead American soldier. Those who call it luck or accident, or who were disappointed at how the president defended his red line, might have predicted it by considering his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. "The instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace," he said in Oslo in 2009. "And yet this truth must coexist with another – that no matter how justified, war promises human tragedy. . . . War itself is never glorious, and we must never trumpet it as such."

This story is from the April 10th, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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