Stephen M. Walt

What Is Obama REALLY Doing in Syria?

I’m in Oslo to give a seminar and a public lecture at the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies, and I’m looking forward to hearing how world politics looks from a Nordic perspective. I haven’t been to Norway since 2009, when my visit coincided with the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s surprising (and with the passage of time, ...

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

I’m in Oslo to give a seminar and a public lecture at the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies, and I’m looking forward to hearing how world politics looks from a Nordic perspective. I haven’t been to Norway since 2009, when my visit coincided with the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s surprising (and with the passage of time, disappointing) decision to award U.S. President Barack Obama the Nobel Peace Prize before he’d barely finished arranging the furniture in the Oval Office.

It was probably the only time the prize was given to someone in anticipation of he or she might accomplish, and I suspect the prize committee does not look back on that decision with great pride. Obama has shown many virtues as president, but actively promoting peace hasn’t been one of them. As in some other areas, he talks a better game than he delivers.

Consider Syria, for example. A few weeks ago I posted an entry suggesting Obama is a "buck-passer" whose foreign policy is most clearly defined by his effort to shift costs onto others wherever possible. I still think that characterization is accurate, but my friend Alan Berger (formerly of the Boston Globe) has gone me one better. In a brilliant piece published two days ago in the Globe, Berger suggests that Obama may be playing a very hard-nosed and quintessentially realist game in Syria. Obama recognizes the dangers of deep U.S. involvement, but he also recognizes the potential gains from a long war run on the cheap. Specifically, the civil war in Syria is draining Iranian resources and tarnishing Iran’s and Hezbollah’s image as staunch and principled resisters of American imperialism and/or Zionism. Backing Bashar al-Assad isn’t helping Russia’s or China’s global image much either. So why not let it continue to burn, especially if you can get the Qataris and Saudis to foot most of the bill? Obama’s reluctance to intervene more energetically also defuses the usual accusations about U.S. imperialism; by playing hard to get, Obama’s approach actually gets other countries to start pleading for more U.S. involvement.

The downside is that it is imposing a frightful cost on the Syrian people and could easily lead to the formation of a failed state there. But a fractured and quarreling Middle East is something that the United States can deal with — among other things, it will make a number of states even more eager for U.S. help — provided that Washington doesn’t send ground troops to try to occupy, govern, and reorganize the region. Been there, done that (badly).

Berger doesn’t claim that this strategy is a conscious ploy on Obama’s part, and it is hard to feel good about a policy that helps prolong the suffering of so many people. And the history of both Lebanon and Afghanistan warns that letting a country burn for years can have far-reaching consequences. But Berger’s interpretation of Obama’s Syria policy supports the idea that the president has a pretty strong realpolitik gene. And as the president’s policies have shown, when forced to choose between peace and the chance to undermine an adversary at low cost, political leaders normally choose the latter course.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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