Daniel W. Drezner

Why Obama needs to choose whether he’s a liberal or a realist on Syria

As BuzzFeed’s Miriam Elder has chronicled, the foreign policy community ain’t too happy with Obama right now.  Your humble blogger hasn’t been quite as unhappy, but that’s mostly because I’ve been distracted by conferences — and genuinely unsure about what the United States should do in Syria in the two weeks since blogging on it last.  This puts ...

As BuzzFeed’s Miriam Elder has chronicled, the foreign policy community ain’t too happy with Obama right now.  Your humble blogger hasn’t been quite as unhappy, but that’s mostly because I’ve been distracted by conferences — and genuinely unsure about what the United States should do in Syria in the two weeks since blogging on it last.  This puts me in a decided minority.   

But in honor of the traditional start-of-school day in the United States, it’s worth pointing out a hidden reason for why foreign policy wonks are so displeased with the Obama administration’s last two weeks on Syria.  And believe it or not, it has to do with international relations theory. 

As I’ve blogged previously, the Obama administration’s approach towards the Syrian civil war has been pretty realpolitik

To your humble blogger, this is simply the next iteration of the unspoken, brutally realpolitik policy towards Syria that’s been going on for the past two years.  To recap, the goal of that policy is to ensnare Iran and Hezbollah into a protracted, resource-draining civil war, with as minimal costs as possible.  This is exactly what the last two years have accomplished…. at an appalling toll in lives lost.   

This policy doesn’t require any course correction… so long as rebels are holding their own or winning. A faltering Assad simply forces Iran et al into doubling down and committing even more resources.  A faltering rebel movement, on the other hand, does require some external support, lest the Iranians actually win the conflict. 

So far, so understandable.  The thing is, the use of chemical weapons in Syria has triggered the liberal internationalist impulses inside of the Obama administration.  The taboo against the use of chemical weapons has strengthened over time.  This is a good thing.  Humans are a pretty barbaric species, so on the whole I tend to approve of any small step towards more civilized behavior.  The chemical weapons taboo is one such small step, so I value it a bit more than my FP colleague Stephen Walt

The Obama administration clearly wants to segment intervening in Syria to enforce the chemical weapons taboo from intervening in Syria to aid the rebels.  As both Charli Carpenter and Stephanie Carvin has pointed out, in theory these are different and separate policy goals. 

I thought Carvin and Carpenter’s distinction was an important one… until I read Adam Entous and Noru Malas’ Wall Street Journal story

In June, the White House authorized the Central Intelligence Agency to help arm moderate fighters battling the Assad regime, a signal to Syrian rebels that the cavalry was coming. Three months later, they are still waiting.

The delay, in part, reflects a broader U.S. approach rarely discussed publicly but that underpins its decision-making, according to former and current U.S. officials: The Obama administration doesn’t want to tip the balance in favor of the opposition for fear the outcome may be even worse for U.S. interests than the current stalemate….

The administration’s view can also be seen in White House planning for limited airstrikes—now awaiting congressional review—to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons.

Pentagon planners were instructed not to offer strike options that could help drive Mr. Assad from power: "The big concern is the wrong groups in the opposition would be able to take advantage of it," a senior military officer said. The CIA declined to comment.

The White House wants to strengthen the opposition but doesn’t want it to prevail, according to people who attended closed-door briefings by top administration officials over the past week. The administration doesn’t want U.S. airstrikes, for example, tipping the balance of the conflict because it fears Islamists will fill the void if the Assad regime falls, according to briefing participants, which included lawmakers and their aides….

Growing frustration with the slow pace of the CIA arming and training program has prompted calls from lawmakers and some Arab leaders to shift the effort to the Pentagon, said congressional officials who favor the move. White House and Pentagon officials had no immediate comment.

And here we get to the nub of the problem.  The trouble with Obama’s liberal desire to enforce the chemical weapons taboo is running up against his realist desire to make sure that Al Qaeda doesn’t have a friendly regime running Syria. 

The domestic politics of gaining congressional support make this even more complicated.  For Obama to secure support for his stance on chemical weapons, he needs the approval of full-throated neoconservatives like John McCain and Lindsey Graham.  They don’t want Obama to stop with enforcing the chemical weapons taboo — they want regime change in Syria on the table as well: 

The White House’s aggressive push for Congressional approval of an attack on Syria appeared to have won the tentative support of one of President Obama’s most hawkish critics, Senator John McCain, who said Monday that he would back a limited strike if the president did more to arm the Syrian rebels and the attack was punishing enough to weaken the Syrian military.

Except that, as previously noted, the Obama administration doesn’t want to weaken the Syrian military too much.  This is an awfully hard balance to strike. 

There are a lot of areas of foreign policy where different paradigms can offer the same policy recommendation, and there are a lot of foreign policy issue areas where presidents can just claim "pragmatism" and not worry about which international relations theory is guiding their actions.  I’m increasingly of the view, however, that Syria is one of those areas where Obama is gonna actually have to make a decision about what matters more — his realist desire to not get too deeply involved, or his liberal desire to punish the violation of a norm.  If he doesn’t decide, if he tries to half-ass his way through this muddle, I fear he’ll arrive at a policy that would actually be worse than either a straightforward realist or a straight liberal approach. 

[So which paradigm would you recommend that he choose?–ed.  I’m not completely sure yet, but I confess to be reluctantly leaning towards the realist play right now.]

What do you think?  Which paradigm will win out? 

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. He blogged regularly for Foreign Policy from 2009 to 2014. Twitter: @dandrezner