Shadow Government

What if Obama’s Reliance on Offshore Balancing in Syria Fails?

President Barack Obama’s Syria policy is best described as a policy of halfhearted offshore balancing, as I have argued before. Offshore balancing, because Obama has hoped to prop up opponents of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and check the rising tide of Iranian regional influence while also resolutely resisting direct U.S. intervention in the form of boots on the ...

AHMAD ABOUD/AFP/Getty Images
AHMAD ABOUD/AFP/Getty Images

President Barack Obama’s Syria policy is best described as a policy of halfhearted offshore balancing, as I have argued before.

  • Offshore balancing, because Obama has hoped to prop up opponents of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and check the rising tide of Iranian regional influence while also resolutely resisting direct U.S. intervention in the form of boots on the ground; indeed, the only clear and explicit aspects of his Syria policy are (a) Obama’s expressed wish that Assad depart and Iranian meddling recede and (b) Obama’s determination not to have the U.S. role in Syria look like the U.S. role in Iraq or Afghanistan.
  • Halfhearted, because Obama has been slow to authorize the principal tools of offshore balancing — covert assistance and arms supply; indeed, the pattern appears to be to wait until the rebel situation has gotten quite dire and then escalate gradually, always picking the lower end of the spectrum of offshore balancing tools, e.g. small arms vs. heavy arms.

So far, the prospects for success for Obama’s offshore balancing strategy look bleak, and recent reports suggest that the window for success may be closing within weeks if not days. This is not too surprising since Obama’s halfhearted offshore balancing strategy is matched against Iran’s wholehearted onshore intervention strategy. 

Let us be clear. The dismal trajectory of the current strategy is not by itself proof that Obama should switch to a more robust interventionist position now. As I argued before, such a U.S. intervention is likely to fail if Obama is reluctantly dragged by events into that approach. Everything I have seen suggests the president would continue to be halfhearted about intervention, even if he authorized it. So while a resolved, robust U.S. intervention might hold some prospects of changing the trajectory of events — and, counterfactually, would have had even better prospects earlier in the crisis — it would demand of Obama a commitment to the region that he has hitherto been unwilling to show.

So what then? The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey, suggests one possible answer: try to contain the damage by doubling down on the offshore balancing approach. Specifically, he says the United States would consider stepping up military training efforts to bolster Lebanon’s and Iraq’s armed forces (and presumably Jordan’s as well). The United States already has invested substantially in such regional military assistance, but more assistance would probably be welcome. Whether it would be enough to contain the rapidly escalating sectarian war is more doubtful.

Opponents of robust U.S. intervention have an effective rhetorical weapon that they use to discredit proposals for greater U.S. involvement: asking, "If that doesn’t work, then what?" It is a reasonable question, but it is one that is rarely asked by the intervention opponents of their own favored policy. If the current halfhearted offshore balancing strategy doesn’t work, then what?  

I do not know the answer to that question, but I suspect it will soon shift from being rhetorical to being real and unavoidable.

Peter 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.
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