For a few days last summer, the United States teetered on the precipice of a decision that would have profound ethical, political and security implications. The Obama administration claimed to have an ironclad case against the Syrian government, who it said was the only party that could have been responsible for carrying out an attack using sarin nerve gas in Ghouta, an eastern suburb of Damascus.
US spokespersons regarded any question of the Syrian government not being responsible for the attack as a preposterous notion, while Secretary of State John Kerry spoke at length of the moral imperative to respond militarily.
President Obama’s ‘red line’ had been crossed, prompting him to unveil plans for allied airstrikes across Syria to ‘punish’ the government of Bashar Assad. The administration aggressively asserted its stance – that Assad, and only Assad, could have used sarin – in the days following August 21, only for Obama to call for congressional approval for the intervention less than two days before the planned strikes. The congressional vote was called off once Washington agreed to a UN-backed plan to dismantle Syria’s chemical arsenal.
If the administration was so confident of its assessment of the events that unfolded on August 21, what influenced Obama to cancel his plans for military action? If the president chose not to consult Congress prior to his approval of intervention in Libya, why did he feel compelled to ask for congressional approval to strike Syria in the face of what the administration considered an egregious violation of his ‘red line’?
Despite the unrelenting resolve of Washington that the Syrian government committed a heinous crime, why has the White House failed to provide any additional evidence of Syrian involvement in the sarin attack since the airstrikes were canceled?