Obama's Dilemma: Arming The Syrian Rebels

The White House is taking its first tentative steps toward arming Syrian rebels. Host Jacki Lyden speaks with James Fallows, national correspondent with The Atlantic, about the U.S.' ongoing struggle to determine when is the right time to intercede. They also discuss moderate candidate Hasan Rowhani's victory in the Iranian presidential election.

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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

Coming up, the star of the social network and "Now You See Me," Jesse Eisenberg, on the movie he's seen a million times.

But first, President Obama's deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes announced this week that the U.S. will begin supplying unspecified military aid to Syrian opposition groups.

BEN RHODES: Those are decisions that he's made over the course of the last several weeks, particularly as our assessment of chemical weapons use firmed up and as we saw a deteriorating situation in general.

LYDEN: James Fallows of The Atlantic joins us, as he does most Saturdays. Hello there, Jim. Today, you're in Creve Coeur, Missouri.

JAMES FALLOWS: I am indeed, where there's a crop duster show going on about 100 feet from where I'm sitting. So if you hear these engines wind in and out, that's the reason.

LYDEN: All right. Very good. Well, let's begin with a very serious subject, Jim, and that's Syria. Obviously, the step the president has taken this week is important. It's also one about which he's had little choice given his commitment last year about the redline when it comes to chemical weapons. Still, the president has been very, very reluctant to do this.

FALLOWS: He has been. And I think we've seen in his temperament, both in the two big wars that he ran for office promising to contain and his approach to Libya, which was described either pejoratively as leading from behind or from the administration's term as sort of terms as controlling American exposure, you can see a temperamental even Eisenhower-like reluctance to get involved in these affairs. But as the reports of just atrocities and deaths in Syria have mounted, and as evidence has come up of the what he himself called the redline of using chemical warfare, I think he did have no alternative but to do something.

LYDEN: You know, it's worth noting that the president still hasn't specified what kind of military support we're talking about, whether it's small arms or something more powerful. Why is the administration so cautious when it comes to establishing something many people think could work, a no-fly zone?

FALLOWS: I think the reason is that a no-fly zone sounds a lot easier to implement than it means in practice, because essentially it means you're declaring war on the other country's air force. You're going to shoot down their planes from the sky, you're going to take out their air defense installations. You may actually attack some of their facilities on the ground. And so it sounds like this sort of no harm, no foul sanitary measure, but it actually is an act of war. And so I think the president, consistent with his previous promise, had to say he would do something, but he is understandably being vague for the moment about what exactly that will be.

LYDEN: Jim, does the United States appear to be as committed to a rebel victory as Russia and Iran do to keeping Bashar Assad in power?

FALLOWS: I think the interesting thing is the shift from expectations of rebel victory to commitment thereto. A year ago when President Obama said that one way or another President Assad had to go, I think the worldwide expectation and the administration's was that the rebels would have the upper hand, as has been the case in most of these uprisings we've seen through the Arab Spring era and in lots of other parts of the world. As it's become clearer that Assad is determined to stay in, that he has powerful overseas allies determined to back him up, I think the U.S. has calculated whether it has the same stakes there. And the answer to your question seems to be we are not as committed.

LYDEN: Washington journalists aren't asking to see the evidence of chemical weapons use. And, you know, given that we seem to know everything about everything now, it hasn't been requested.

FALLOWS: The reason for that may be the administration is sort of boxing itself in with its own evidence. So the expectation may be this is a step the Obama administration doesn't want to take or didn't want to take. And so they wouldn't be ginning up this evidence as we've seen in the past.

LYDEN: So, Jim, a bit of a surprise from Iran today. The election for president there is over and the reformers back candidate has trumped the others, and that would be Hassan Rouhani. What do you make of this?

FALLOWS: Well, I think, you know, it'll take a while to sort this out, but it's hard to see this as other than a positive development. One of the big arguments about Iran over the three decades of its extremist Islamic rule has been whether the population of Iran is really behind that kind of rule or whether it is enduring it. And the fact that there was a surprising victory for the most moderate of all the candidates, it does seem to be at least an interim positive step of the - the people were willing to turn out and vote for the most moderate of the choices.

LYDEN: James Fallows is national correspondent with The Atlantic. And you can read his blog at jamesfallows.theatlantic.com. Jim, thanks so much for taking the extra effort to be with us today.

FALLOWS: My pleasure, Jacki.

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