Shadow Government

Confronting Syria with the commander in chief we have

These have been tough weeks for the Obama administration on foreign policy. On so many issues of consequence, the trajectories of real-world events have been running decidedly against the Obama policy line. If you had to pick a major foreign-policy issue where the United States is in better shape today than it was six months ...

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

These have been tough weeks for the Obama administration on foreign policy. On so many issues of consequence, the trajectories of real-world events have been running decidedly against the Obama policy line. If you had to pick a major foreign-policy issue where the United States is in better shape today than it was six months ago, which one would you pick? I am hard-pressed to think of one. When the brightest foreign-policy story is a trip to Latin America, you know the White House is struggling.

Some of my Shadow Government colleagues have responded to the spiraling chaos by urging President Barack Obama to face facts and change his policies, particularly with respect to Syria.

The same news headlines have elicited a different reaction from me, however. I am not entirely comfortable with my reaction, so I post it here in the hopes that someone will persuade me that I am wrong.

When I read stories like this one, which outlines how careless the president was in setting up the Syrian "red line" on chemical weapons use, or this one, which raises serious questions about whether the administration’s handling of Benghazi amounted to a politicized coverup, or this one, which details the extent to which partisan political considerations have shaped national security decision-making in the White House, it undermines my confidence that this administration could intervene effectively in Syria.

In other words, recent events and revelations have made me less inclined to support a robust intervention in Syria, not more inclined. I have reached this tentative conclusion not because the hawks are wrong and the doves are right about the stakes. My colleagues who are pushing for a military intervention are probably right about the negative consequences that are heading our way because of Obama’s Syria policy (see Inboden’s version here, and Zakheim’s version here).

And those who downplay the costs of nonintervention must rely on cherry-picked analogies and dubious wishful thinking to bolster their conclusions (see Fareed Zakaria’s version here, which ignores how regional adversaries interpreted the U.S. withdrawal from Lebanon, or Stephen Walt’s version here, which ignores the extent to which U.S. interests are affected by adverse global developments).

Rather, I am sliding toward nonintervention because, as I argued before, any U.S. military intervention will be led by the commander in chief we have, not the commander in chief we might wish we had. Obama has many strengths, but among them is not martial resolve in the face of wartime adversity.

Yes, he authorized a military surge in Afghanistan, but he did not back it up with a civilian/diplomatic surge — instead, he undercut it with the strategic blunder of the arbitrary withdrawal timeline dictated by the domestic political calendar. And as doubts about Afghanistan mount, he has done almost nothing to mobilize public support for his own surge. Yes, he reluctantly went along with the British-French initiative to intervene in Libya, but he has subsequently tried to wash America’s hands of responsibility for the aftermath. And, so far as I can see, he has not done much to back up his boast that the terrorists who attacked the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi would be held accountable.

In other words, Obama is a buck-passer, as Walt has pointed out with approval. You may or may not want a buck-passer conducting your foreign policy — it matters greatly whether you have significant interests at stake (Walt explicitly claims America does not) and whether someone else is there to receive the buck (Walt is silent on this question, but if he pursued it he might realize that a sustained strategy of buck-passing creates the conditions for the emergence of a hostile peer rival, which even Walt acknowledges would be an adverse development).

But you surely do not want to go to war with a buck-passer. Not as your ally, which helps explain why Obama’s declared policy of building an international coalition on Syria has failed. And not as your commander — recognition that Obama’s heart is not in the wars he already is leading reinforces the military’s natural reluctance to intervene in any new conflict.

There were more promising options that may have been less demanding of presidential resolve earlier in the crisis. A more forward-leaning intelligence and rebel-support operation earlier on might have produced better rebel groups to support now. Perhaps it is fair of the hawks to criticize the president for missed earlier opportunities.

But because he missed those opportunities, we are where we are, and from here the options look exceptionally bleak. A robust policy today would certainly require a leader as committed to winning wars as he is to ending them.

So I would like those who are recommending that the United States take a more robust interventionist stance on Syria to tell me how they think Obama would lead such an intervention when, as seems likely, it will demand more political-military resolve than a drone strike. Without a more satisfying answer to that question, I am left with the unfortunate conclusion that the only thing worse than the current policy of halfhearted nonintervention could be a policy of halfhearted intervention. Perhaps Obama’s preferred policy of not intervening decisively is the least worst of a very bad menu of choices.

And we at Shadow Government should acknowledge the theoretical possibility that Obama has been right all along on Syria and the rest of us have been wrong. In this hypothetical universe, Obama would appear almost a profile in presidential resolve, albeit resolve to do nothing as opposed to doing something. In the face of mounting evidence that his Syria policy might not be working, Obama nevertheless doubled and tripled down on the policy. It would be like the resolve that produced the Iraq surge, but in reverse. I do not think this theoretical possibility is likely, but it is imaginable, and those of us critiquing the policy should have the humility to acknowledge it.

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