Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

The Damascus road not traveled

A perpetual concern of policymakers is to learn from the purported "lessons of the past," and in particular to avoid the alleged mistakes of their predecessors. This mentality characterizes almost all presidential administrations that assume power following a presidency by the other party, and was especially explicit in the Obama White House as it took ...

MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP/Getty Images
MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP/Getty Images

A perpetual concern of policymakers is to learn from the purported "lessons of the past," and in particular to avoid the alleged mistakes of their predecessors. This mentality characterizes almost all presidential administrations that assume power following a presidency by the other party, and was especially explicit in the Obama White House as it took office determined to be the "un-Bush." Exhibit A in this paradigm was the Iraq War, and among the lessons that the Obama team took from Iraq were the profound risks and unintended consequences of American interventions in troubled Middle Eastern countries. These negative outcomes included sectarian strife, the strengthening of extremist elements, regional conflict and instability, massive civilian suffering, and loss of American prestige and influence. 

Yet here is the problem. Now that a year and a half has elapsed in the war in Syria, and the Obama administration's non-involvement has resulted in ... sectarian strife, the strengthening of extremist elements, regional conflict and instability, massive civilian suffering, and loss of American prestige and influence.  

Consider this grim assessment from today's New York Times article by David Sanger (a reporter generally quite sympathetic to the Obama administration). Reporting on how the arms being supplied to Syrian rebels by Saudi Arabia and Qatar are ending up in the hands of the most virulent Islamic extremists, Sanger observes this "casts into doubt whether the White House's strategy of minimal and indirect intervention in the Syrian conflict is accomplishing its intended purpose of helping a democratic-minded opposition topple an oppressive government, or is instead sowing the seeds of future insurgencies hostile to the United States." 

A perpetual concern of policymakers is to learn from the purported "lessons of the past," and in particular to avoid the alleged mistakes of their predecessors. This mentality characterizes almost all presidential administrations that assume power following a presidency by the other party, and was especially explicit in the Obama White House as it took office determined to be the "un-Bush." Exhibit A in this paradigm was the Iraq War, and among the lessons that the Obama team took from Iraq were the profound risks and unintended consequences of American interventions in troubled Middle Eastern countries. These negative outcomes included sectarian strife, the strengthening of extremist elements, regional conflict and instability, massive civilian suffering, and loss of American prestige and influence. 

Yet here is the problem. Now that a year and a half has elapsed in the war in Syria, and the Obama administration’s non-involvement has resulted in … sectarian strife, the strengthening of extremist elements, regional conflict and instability, massive civilian suffering, and loss of American prestige and influence.  

Consider this grim assessment from today’s New York Times article by David Sanger (a reporter generally quite sympathetic to the Obama administration). Reporting on how the arms being supplied to Syrian rebels by Saudi Arabia and Qatar are ending up in the hands of the most virulent Islamic extremists, Sanger observes this "casts into doubt whether the White House’s strategy of minimal and indirect intervention in the Syrian conflict is accomplishing its intended purpose of helping a democratic-minded opposition topple an oppressive government, or is instead sowing the seeds of future insurgencies hostile to the United States." 

Jackson Diehl renders an even more caustic verdict in today’s Washington Post. President Obama’s posture on Syria "exemplifies every weakness in his foreign policy — from his excessive faith in "engaging" troublesome foreign leaders to his insistence on multilateralism as an end in itself to his self-defeating caution in asserting American power. The result is not a painful but isolated setback, but an emerging strategic disaster: a war in the heart of the Middle East that is steadily spilling over to vital U.S. allies, such as Turkey and Jordan, and to volatile neighbors, such as Iraq and Lebanon."

In other words, the Obama administration’s hands-off approach has contributed to the very outcomes that the White House presumably wanted to avoid, and thought it could avoid by "learning from Iraq." 

This does not mean that a more assertive American role — whether directly supplying arms to the rebels, or more active covert support, or enforcing a no-fly zone, or even stronger measures — would have been cost-free or even successful.  Policymaking is inherently uncertain, with risks, trade-offs, and potential downsides for just about any action taken or not taken.  We can’t know for sure that an American intervention of some sort would have produced a substantially better outcome.  But we can (and do) know that the Obama administration’s approach has been disastrous. 

What are some potential implications of all this? First, learning from history does not mean rigidly applying the template of the past to the present — in other words, don’t assume that just because one previous intervention turned out one way, any future intervention is bound to turn out the same way. Dissimilarities matter as much as similarities. Second, consider the past alternatives. When assessing a historical episode, don’t just look at how it played out, but consider also how alternative courses of action might have transpired. In the case of learning the lessons of Iraq, this means not only examining the many mistakes made by the Bush administration, but also examining how if at all the past containment and sanctions regime could have been maintained, or what the consequences of a Saddam Hussein still in power might be. Third, when weighing the costs of any particular action, consider the costs of inaction as well. In the case of Syria, those latter costs are becoming sadly and regrettably clear. 

Will Inboden is the executive director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and as a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.

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