For some, the president is simply being prudent, especially if the evidence presented so far is “inconclusive,” as a number of senior administration officials, including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, have said. Obama, they add, wants to avoid a rush to judgment that turns out to be mistaken – and which could appear to the world like a repeat of the 2003 US decision to invade Iraq over weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday that the US is being “extremely deliberate” in investigating and evaluating the reports of chemical weapons use. And on Wednesday in Cairo, Secretary Hagel suggested the US would not be rushed to judgment by allies, saying, “Suspicions are one thing. Evidence is another.” He then added, “I think we have to be very careful here before we make any conclusions.”
But for others, the reason Obama is setting the bar high – in a situation where incontrovertible evidence could remain very difficult to come by – is because he has no desire to ratchet up US involvement in the Syrian conflict unless forced to.
The danger of this approach, critics say, is that it encourages an increasingly desperate President Assad to test the limits of US reluctance – perhaps even with limited, hard-to-prove use of some chemical weapons.
And even if some isolated use of chemical weapons is proved, some analysts say, Obama is still unlikely to intervene in Syria in a manner that could tip the scales in the conflict.