Philip Gordon, Middle East coordinator at the National Security Council, painted as a significant achievement the Russian-brokered agreement subsequently reached under which President Bashar Assad pledged to surrender his chemical weapons stocks.
“I don’t think it’s right to suggest somehow that the president drew a red line and then casually walked away from it,” he said. “On the contrary, we’ve actually achieved the goal.”
Gordon was responding during a U.S.-Islamic World Forum panel discussion to trenchant criticism from Al Arabiya television’s Washington bureau chief, Hisham Melhem.
When it came to Obama’s handing of Syria, Melhem said, “I have to give him C-minus, if not worse.”
“Last summer, I’ve never seen a performance like this, to be blunt about it,” he said. “The president of the United States issues a declaration that he’s going to punish Syria militarily. And then [Russian President] Vladimir Putin threw him a lifeline. And then we ended up with an agreement on the chemical arsenal.”
“I think Syria really damaged the credibility of the president of the United States,” Melhem said. “In the Arab world we say, you don’t unsheathe your sword unless you intend to use it.”
Later, he added that in 35 years of covering the U.S.-Arab relationship he had never heard Arab officials, including those from Gulf state allies, privately criticize an American president in the ways that he has of late.
Gordon acknowledged that the situation in Syria was “deplorable.”
He said Obama had made clear that the chemical weapon attack near Damascus last August – in which more than 1,400 people died, according to the administration – had crossed his red line, “and he prepared a significant military action to deal with it.”
“He asked Congress, and the response from Congress and the American public was overwhelmingly, we don’t want you to get involved in that way,” Gordon said.