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Over the course of four decades in politics, Leon Panetta has enjoyed the model Washington career. He has been a congressman, head of the budget office, White House chief of staff, Central Intelligence Agency director and secretary of defence, and at each stage he won high marks for being effective, loyal and polite.
“I feel I’ve been jerked around by every CIA director over the last decade,” Senator Barbara Mikulski said last week, “with the exception of Mr Panetta.”
Yet in his final public appearance before retiring as Pentagon boss last week, Mr Panetta might well have dropped his president right in it. During questions at a Senate hearing on Thursday, he admitted that the senior members of President Barack Obama’s national security team had supported arming the Syrian rebels last year, but that the White House vetoed the idea.
The plan had been devised by David Petraeus, who was then head of the CIA, and was supported by Mr Panetta, the joint chiefs of staff and Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state. The idea was to provide training, funding and arms to some of the groups now fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
Mr Panetta’s admission is embarrassing because it exposes divisions within a famously disciplined national security team and because of the vague hint of electoral politics – the decision to veto the plan was taken during the presidential campaign.
But the real problem for the White House is that Mr Panetta has drawn attention to the fact that the administration’s strategy for the Syrian civil war is in tatters. The war is intensifying, the humanitarian disaster growing and the regional consequences expanding. Yet most of the reasons that the US has given for not becoming more involved have become irrelevant.
At a rhetorical level, at least, Mr Obama has tried to have it both ways on Syria. In his inaugural address three weeks ago, he promised “a decade of war is ending”. But as far back as August 2011, he called for Mr Assad to step aside.
Last April at the Holocaust Memorial Museum, he was asked by Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate: “How is it that Assad is still in power?” Mr Obama responded that “preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national-security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States”.
How to square that circle, to be against both intervention and atrocity?
For months, the administration threw its weight behind a negotiated political transition to a new government, an effort that has seemed stillborn since the collapse of Kofi Annan’s UN-Arab League diplomatic initiative last summer. American officials once argued that throwing more arms into the conflict would only accelerate the dominance of local warlords and close all options other than victory by the gun. Yet that is now the reality on the ground.
The Obama administration feared that its greater involvement would help turn the conflict into a proxy war for outside powers, but the Syrian conflict is now a battle with Iran supporting one side, Qatar and Saudi Arabia the other. For all the risk that arming the rebels could aggravate regional spillover, Turkey is already drowning in refugees and Israel has recently bombed a convoy in Syria to prevent more weapons leaking into Lebanon.
Even the one “red line” for intervention established by the administration – the use of chemical weapons – has come perilously close to being breached with the mysterious gas that was reportedly released in Homs in December. One by one, the reasons given for not getting involved have withered.
Of course, just because one strategy has failed does not make the alternatives any better. The Obama administration is right to fear that the Syrian conflict could develop into a quagmire. Washington would not be able to prevent American weapons from ending up in the hands of Jihadis. It is not too hard to imagine the same arms used against the Assad regime today being turned against Israel in the future. There are plenty of good reasons for caution.
Yet Mr Panetta has exposed the uncomfortable choice that the administration faces. Either Mr Obama turns his back on Syria, humanitarian assistance aside, or he starts to back some of the men with weapons who will determine the result of the war. There is no longer a middle ground.
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