- By Peter FeaverPeter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.
Today’s New York Times details the horrifying evidence of mass atrocities allegedly inflicted by Bashar al-Assad’s regime during the bloody civil war in Syria. The reporter, David Kirkpatrick, asked me whether I thought this is a game-changer for U.S. policy. I said no, but then I went on to speculate on the ways the photographic evidence might change some staffers’ calculations:
Feaver imagined that the images might provide new ammunition to those who want "to go into the Oval Office, throw it down on the desk, and say, ‘If we don’t act, this is on us!’"
And, yes, in the Alice-in-Wonderland sense of imagining impossible things, I can imagine someone inside the administration doing this.
It is much easier to imagine someone wanting to do this. Surely someone like Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, must be tempted to confront the president in this way. It is not likely, however, because many people imagine themselves confronting the president before they walk into the Oval Office. Very few congratulate themselves for having done so after they walk out. As I have noted before, even very senior and experienced people who are essentially immune from being fired are reluctant to confront the president in this way.
Even if Power or someone else did raise the issue, doing so would be unlikely to produce a change in policy. President Barack Obama already knows that Assad has committed mass atrocities, but the president has decided not to act decisively regardless. On the contrary, the president has doubled down on the bet that the diplomatic track will yield results with the Assad regime. Back in August, then the administration was looking to mobilize public support for military action, photos like these would have fit that effort by helping stoke public outrage. Now, however, the president is faced with the daunting task of convincing other people — and perhaps convincing himself — that he can reach reasonable accommodations with Assad. The photographic evidence released this week makes it harder to believe that the administration can really deal with Assad, but the president is committed to that course, and it will probably take something more than horrifying evidence of Assad’s atrocities to shift Obama off that course.
It is always difficult to mobilize governmental support for military action. It is doubly difficult when the president has publicly committed himself to a different course and triply difficult when the president has landed on this path after flirting as extensively with military action as Obama did in August. The institutional bias against using the military in this way is always strong, and it is almost impossible to overcome once a president has reached the point Obama has reached today.
Obama is in a diplomatic quagmire. The photos released this week underscore the terrible human toll of that quagmire, but they are not likely to change the trajectory of U.S. policy or of the Syrian tragedy. Maybe if the Geneva process breaks down in a spectacular way, internal advocates for a new policy might have the ammunition they need to convince the president to try something else. Until then, this is likely just one more painful scene that will cause the administration anguish as it passes by on the other side, something to be reflected upon in the memoirs but not acted upon now.