Shadow Government

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

Obama’s Syria Policy Started with a Bang and Ends with a Whimper

Could the administration’s Syria strategy be any more astrategic? The events of the past few weeks would constitute a comedy of errors were it not for the fact that civilians being gassed with impunity is anything but funny. Nor is the prospect of a chaotic world in which American retreat creates a vacuum no other ...

Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Could the administration's Syria strategy be any more astrategic? The events of the past few weeks would constitute a comedy of errors were it not for the fact that civilians being gassed with impunity is anything but funny. Nor is the prospect of a chaotic world in which American retreat creates a vacuum no other power can fill.

First, President Barack Obama lost America's allies. Had he made a stronger case before American and global opinion as to why Bashar al-Assad's crossing of the chemical weapons red line required a swift and sure response, British Prime Minister David Cameron may have won rather than narrowly lost the vote in the House of Commons authorizing military action.

In France, as public support for a strike withers with each passing day, President François Hollande has been put in the impossible position of indefinitely awaiting the authorization of the U.S. Congress before France will wield military power in defense of its national interests. Poor Paris: It gets punished for opposing the United States over Iraq in 2003, and it gets punished for supporting America today.

Could the administration’s Syria strategy be any more astrategic? The events of the past few weeks would constitute a comedy of errors were it not for the fact that civilians being gassed with impunity is anything but funny. Nor is the prospect of a chaotic world in which American retreat creates a vacuum no other power can fill.

First, President Barack Obama lost America’s allies. Had he made a stronger case before American and global opinion as to why Bashar al-Assad’s crossing of the chemical weapons red line required a swift and sure response, British Prime Minister David Cameron may have won rather than narrowly lost the vote in the House of Commons authorizing military action.

In France, as public support for a strike withers with each passing day, President François Hollande has been put in the impossible position of indefinitely awaiting the authorization of the U.S. Congress before France will wield military power in defense of its national interests. Poor Paris: It gets punished for opposing the United States over Iraq in 2003, and it gets punished for supporting America today.

Meanwhile, Arab leaders seeking American strength and resolve roll their eyes at the fecklessness of Obama’s Syria policy, in which he has appeared to be debating with himself over whether American military intervention will do more harm than good. Similarly, his administration has appeared to be debating with itself over whether military action will strike at the heart of Assad’s regime — or whether it will be "unbelievably small." Secretary of State John Kerry’s turn of phrase accomplished the neat trick of simultaneously reassuring the adversary, dispiriting the Free Syrian Army, and undercutting any rationale for America’s allies to take political risks to join the U.S. cause.

Second, Obama lost the American Congress and people, leading him to seize the Russian diplomatic lifeline in desperation rather than face near-certain defeat on Capitol Hill. Why support military action that may not decisively harm the enemy? Why rally behind a president who does not seem convinced his policy will accomplish its objective? Why trust a president whose total withdrawal of American forces from Iraq and accelerated drawdown from Afghanistan have squandered the hard-fought gains of a decade in both countries? And why put faith in a leader whose national security decision-making either ignores the advice of his secretary of state, secretary defense, and CIA director (as with Obama’s refusal last year to arm the Syrian rebels) or is made without them (as with his decision to put intervention in Syria to a vote in Congress)?

Third, Obama has perversely managed to turn the strategic setback that Russia and Iran would have suffered from punitive strikes against Assad’s forces into tangible strategic gains for Moscow and Tehran. Russia’s opportunistic decision to facilitate Syria’s chemical weapons disarmament through a U.N. Security Council-led process — after spending years arming Syria with some of the world’s most dangerous weapons and repeatedly vetoing initiatives in the council to pressure the Assad regime — is breathtakingly cynical.

But give Moscow credit: It turned a U.S. policy that would have punished its client state into one that now rewards it. Russian diplomacy simultaneously turned the tables on the world’s superpower, putting Russia in pole position. As the Financial Times put it, "Mr Obama’s fortunes are in Moscow’s hands." Can this possibly be in America’s interest? As a nation that has played a strong hand badly, the United States could learn from Russia how to play a weak hand well.

Meanwhile, the mullahs in Tehran are marveling at their unearned good luck. The United States has neutered itself from pursuing an effective policy to break the Syria-Iran axis. Rather than reassure Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other allies that U.S. red lines over Iran’s nuclear program are real, Washington’s reluctance to intervene against a much weaker Syrian army sets America up to fail the harder test of reining in the Iranian regime’s nuclear ambitions.

Back home, Obama risks squandering the advantages his national security policy has afforded the Democratic Party, which Americans had begun to rank more highly in foreign-policy competence than the Republican Party. Obama in 2012 campaigned for re-election on the strength of his statecraft, including America’s success in hunting down Osama bin Laden, decimating al Qaeda in Pakistan and Yemen with drone strikes, and otherwise pursuing a multilateral foreign policy of restraint that contrasted with the "reckless unilateralism" of the George W. Bush years. Yet Obama’s stumbling performance on Syria has made Bush-era diplomacy (construction of a 40-nation coalition against Iraq, an opening to India rivaling Richard Nixon’s to China in geopolitical ambition) look Metternichian by comparison.

Finally, the shambles of the president’s Syria policy have sent a broader message to the world that the United States is walking away from the role it has played for a century as chief enforcement officer of a liberal international order. This could have explosive consequences everywhere, but especially in Asia. There, worries that the U.S. "pivot" was little more than rhetoric are now compounded by the spectacle of an American president who seems self-deterred from enforcing his own ultimatum against a weak, isolated rogue state.

What will Obama do when a powerful and consequential state, such as China, crosses an American red line over the defense of Japanese territory or freedom of the seas? Let us hope that America’s friends and adversaries alike credit the nation with more resolve than that shown by its president these past few weeks.

Tag: Syria

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