Daniel W. Drezner

On Syria, You Say Bureaucratic Politics, I Say Realism — Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off

Your humble blogger has been banging on for well over a year that a very brutal form of realpolitik was guiding the Obama administration’s Syria policy.  For example, I wrote the following back in June of this year when the administration announced a plan to arm the Syrian rebels:  To your humble blogger, this is ...

Your humble blogger has been banging on for well over a year that a very brutal form of realpolitik was guiding the Obama administration’s Syria policy.  For example, I wrote the following back in June of this year when the administration announced a plan to arm the Syrian rebels: 

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. 

When I blogged this, I got a fair amount of pushback, arguing that this overestimated the Obama administration’s coherence on foreign policy and underestimated the bureaucratic politics going on.

As a useful study aid, Mark Mazzetti, Robert Worth, and Michael Gordon have a pretty well-sourced story in the New York Times that looks at the administration’s thinking on Syria over the past few years.  Looking over the story, there’s clearly some healthy support for the bureaucratic politics narrative:

[A]fter hours of debate in which top advisers considered a range of options, including military strikes and increased support to the rebels, the [June 2013] meeting ended the way so many attempts to define a Syrian strategy had ended in the past, with the president’s aides deeply divided over how to respond to a civil war that had already claimed 100,000 lives….

A close examination of how the Obama administration finds itself at this point — based on interviews with dozens of current and former members of the administration, foreign diplomats and Congressional officials — starts with a deeply ambivalent president who has presided over a far more contentious debate among his advisers than previously known. Those advisers reflected Mr. Obama’s own conflicting impulses on how to respond to the forces unleashed by the Arab Spring: whether to side with those battling authoritarian governments or to avoid the risk of becoming enmeshed in another messy war in the Middle East….

In the first high-level discussion about wading into the conflict a few days later, the C.I.A. director, David H. Petraeus, presented a plan to begin arming and training small groups of rebel forces at secret bases in Jordan. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton backed Mr. Petraeus’s plan. She said it was time for the United States to get “skin in the game.” Mr. Obama went around the table asking what his aides thought about the C.I.A. plan.

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and General Dempsey backed it. But others thought the proposal by Mr. Petraeus, a former four-star general who championed covert paramilitary operations, offered high risks with few rewards. Susan E. Rice, the American ambassador to the United Nations, spoke up by videophone, warning that arming the rebels would draw the United States into a murky conflict that could consume the agenda of the president’s second term and would probably make little difference on the chaotic battlefield.

So, score one for the bureaucratic politics crowd.  But I think there’s some support for my argument as well:

In private conversations with aides, Mr. Obama described Syria as one of those hellish problems every president faces, where the risks are endless and all the options are bad. Those views would then be reflected in larger groups by Tom Donilon, the national security adviser, and Mr. McDonough.

“You could read the president’s position through Tom and Denis,” one former senior White House official said….

By April, senior officials said, one of the major skeptics, Mr. Donilon, had shifted in favor of arming the rebels. Another strong opponent in the fall, Ms. Rice, had also shifted her position, partly because of the alarming intelligence about the state of the rebellion.

Mr. McDonough, who had perhaps the closest ties to Mr. Obama, remained skeptical. He questioned how much it was in America’s interest to tamp down the violence in Syria. Accompanying a group of senior lawmakers on a day trip to the Guantánamo Bay naval base in early June, Mr. McDonough argued that the status quo in Syria could keep Iran pinned down for years. In later discussions, he also suggested that a fight in Syria between Hezbollah and Al Qaeda would work to America’s advantage, according to Congressional officials. (emphasis added)

Reviewing the evidence from this story, I don’t see a monocausal story here.  Clearly, a lack of consensus among Obama’s top foreign policymakers buttressed his own stated reluctance to get too deeply involved in Syria.  That said, the policymakers with the most influence over the president were articulating a rationale for why continued conflict might not be a bad thing.  It’s also not a coincidence that a bureaucratic consensus emerged as it became clear that the rebel movement was faltering.  These two causal logics complement rather than contradict each other. 

[OK, but what about the chemical weapons deal?  Doesn’t that signal a shift in strategy that binds the Obama administration to the Assad regime?–ed.  So long as the chemical weapons removal is proceeding, yes, this is true.  But I do wonder about the time inconsistency problem.  Once the chemical weapons infrastructure is removed — and the evidence to date suggests that this is proceeding apace — then I don’t see what keeps the administration from ratcheting up pressure on the Syrian regime. If Assad can’t secure his position over the next 3-6 months, then he’s facing a more potentially more precarious situation afterwards.]

What do you think?   

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

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