President Barack Obama’s declaration that a Syrian use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line” was a mistake, according to two veteran U.S. foreign policy leaders who warned against deeper U.S. engagement there.
Obama’s setting of a “red line” if Bashar al-Assad’s regime used chemical weapons was made “without too much thought,” Zbigniew K. Brzezinski, a former national security adviser, said in an interview on Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt,” airing this weekend.
Former Senator Richard Lugar, who for years was a leader of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in a separate interview cited the danger that increased U.S. military involvement would inadvertently bolster extremists in the Syrian opposition.
Last week, U.S. intelligence agencies said “with varying degrees of confidence” that small amounts of the nerve gas sarin were used in Syria. Obama has said more evidence is needed.
Brzezinski, who served under Democratic President Jimmy Carter, warned that U.S. military involvement in Syria would risk “a large-scale disaster for the United States.”
While some in Congress are urging the administration to do more, Lugar, a Republican from Indiana, said the risks are great.
“It’s all well and good to talk about the no-fly zone, but that really does put American people at risk who are flying the planes, as well as the planes themselves, and that really oversteps the line,” he said.
Asked about China, Lugar said the administration will have to be wary of new, more aggressive leaders across Asia. Referring to Chinese President Xi Jinping, Lugar said: “Clearly the new president is indicating more aggressive posture, but we knew that was coming along.”
Brzezinski also warned of the dangers of a regional war in Asia that could rival the conflicts that tore apart Europe in the 20th century.
“There is a potential danger that Asia could unwittingly replicate the disasters that Europe experienced in the last century,” said Brzezinski, who is now a counselor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington policy group.
Citing the administration’s announced “pivot” to Asia, Brzezinski said, “We might have somewhat unintentionally signified to the Chinese that we want to organize some sort of a coalition against them.”
Brzezinski said the U.S. must have the capacity to credibly counterattack any cyberthreat from governments such as China or from hackers. Referring to the so-called Stuxnet virus that was deployed against Iran’s nuclear program, Brzezinski argued against the U.S. initiating such cyberattacks.
“If we start waging our own new cyberwars, we’re opening the door to them doing it to us,” he said.
As the administration reviews options that include arming the insurgents fighting Assad, Brzezinski said the U.S. is backing the weakest of the militants trying to oust Syria’s president. “What did we accomplish” if the result of deeper U.S. involvement bolsters “the more radical elements,” including those with ties to al-Qaeda, he said.
The U.S. must be careful “not to get engaged in such a way that we become the chief protagonist, and eventually not just in Syria, but in the region as a whole” Brzezinski said.
The Syria conflict, which began in March 2011, has killed “well over” 70,000 people, according to United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
Obama said at a news conference on May 2 in Mexico City that the U.S. will move carefully on any new action in Syria after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the administration is weighing all options, including whether to arm the opposition.
Asked about the threat posed by North Korea, Lugar said that the U.S. has demonstrated that it has “the airpower in the area, as well as the seapower, to make life very difficult for the new North Korean leader and his followers, for that matter.”
Discussing the Obama administration’s used of drones to kill suspected terrorists abroad, Brzezinski said “it’s a mistake for the president to be, so to speak, ‘signing off’ on what kind of missions to undertake and who as a result can be killed and how many collateral damages can be absorbed or tolerated.”
Instead, he said, decisions should be made by the president’s national security adviser “aided by some senior, highly respected judicial person and also a person with political sensitivity” for the region involved.
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