Kofi Annan’s bitter resignation and the collapse of Obama’s Syria policy

Kofi Annan’s bitter resignation and the collapse of Obama’s Syria policy

Kofi Annan’s bitter resignation yesterday from his hopeless assignment as the UN’s Special Envoy for Syria merely confirms what has long been apparent: the Obama administration’s Syria policy has failed. The policy seems to have thus far consisted of a combination of sternly-worded denunciations, persistent outsourcing of international legitimacy to Russia and China, and belated, unenthusiastic, and possibly ineffective provisions of non-lethal aid to some Syria rebels for communications and logistics. As Peter Feaver has observed, this is not just "leading from behind" but rather "following from behind." Meanwhile, the fact that Syria represents a confluence of strategic interests and moral imperatives has not prompted a proportionate response from a White House wary of action in an election year.

Into this void comes a compelling op-ed by Anne-Marie Slaughter in the Financial Times. Slaughter, an eminent Princeton professor who served as Obama’s director of the Policy Planning Staff at the State Department during the first two years of the administration, makes an impassioned call for meaningful action. Specifically she urges that the United States lead a coalition of nations in providing "heavy weapons (and possibly air cover)" to all Syrian opposition leaders who show their commitment to democratic principles.

Though now returned to the halcyon groves of academe, Slaughter remains one of the more influential foreign policy voices today. Recall her New York Times op-ed shortly after she left the State Department urging American intervention in Libya, which anticipated (and very likely influenced) the Obama administration’s eventual decision to do just that.

Slaughter’s latest op-ed takes seriously the many factors and risks that argue against intervention, including the possibilities of arms ending up in the hands of jihadists, or of exacerbating the conflict and increasing tensions with Russia and China, not to mention the potential unintended consequences of taking sides in a civil war. It also contains a head-snapping concession when Slaughter admits that "sending arms without U.N. approval would put the U.S. on the wrong side of international law." The fact that one of the most eloquent proponents of international law and multilateral organizations is now channeling her inner John Bolton shows how grave the situation in Syria has become. One would hope that this point will also chasten some of the sanctimonious voices who are so quick to denounce any perceived violations of international law. International law’s many merits exist alongside ambiguities and cynical obstacles to actions that may be moral and strategic necessities.

Slaughter’s article reminds us that statecraft is rarely the art of choosing good policies, but rather involves choosing the least bad policy among an undesirable set of flawed options. The downsides to supporting the Free Syrian Army are many, and at this point can be cited ad nauseum by any foreign policy expert and probably even the average man on the street.

But there are also the downsides of inaction, and I share Slaughter’s worry that the White House has thus far not carefully assessed the costs of its own policy of restraint bordering on neglect. She cites several of these costs, most eloquently the opening words of her op-ed from the sister of a dead Syrian rebel soldier: "When we control Syria, we won’t forget that you forgot about us." In other words, staying out now seriously diminishes American influence in whatever emerges as the new Syria. To this downside can be added that passivity also limits American influence in shaping now what the new Syria will look like; creates an opening for a greater role for jihadists and other malevolent elements; diminishes our ability to monitor and secure Syria’s vast chemical weapons stockpiles; risks allowing the conflict to spill into neighboring countries such as Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq; removes one potent lever for cutting off Iran from its most important ally; and increases the perception in the region of American weakness. Most poignantly there is the humanitarian cost, the thousands of dead Syrians who perish each month while the State Department continues to "monitor the situation closely."

For these reasons I signed this letter organized by the redoubtable teams at the Foreign Policy Initiative and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, urging the White House to help create safe zones and provide arms to the rebels. Finding the best policy on Syria remains exceedingly difficult, but Kofi Annan’s resignation and Anne-Marie Slaughter’s op-ed together show that the White House’s current policy has not been it.