A Rare But Unsurprising Protest
Maybe State Department insurgents can catalyze new debate over Obama's Syria policy.
It is fairly common for mid-ranking foreign policy and national security professionals to lament a president’s failing policies. It is even fairly common for a handful of professionals to raise their objections within the chain of command, or through official channels, as in the case of the letter that 51 U.S. diplomats submitted internally earlier this week. And, of course, it is very common for internal protests, when they do happen, to leak. What is rare and quite newsworthy is for so many diplomats to join in a common protest, and more rare still, to protest the policies of a Democratic president. State Department officials skew Democratic and are usually loathe to undermine a Democrat in the White House. However, the costs of President Barack Obama’s Syria policy are so great, and the consequences for American national security policy so profound, that this rare event is not, in context, all that surprising. There are three features of the Syria crisis that have collectively made this protest nearly inevitable.
First, the mistakes in Obama’s Syria policy have been mistakes of choice. The president has had a remarkably free hand to respond to the Syria crisis. While polling results jump around depending on the wording of survey questions, the underlying politics are very permissive. A determined Obama could have pursued a more decisive policy. As it happened, a determined Obama was able to pursue the policy he chose without facing a significant political backlash. Neither Congress, nor public opinion, nor international pressures have dictated events. Obama owns the Syria policy and its consequences as much as any president has ever owned a policy and its consequences.
Second, the consequences of Obama’s Syria policy are not limited to the region. On the contrary, the repercussions can be traced rather directly to immigration policy, and thus to the EU and Brexit crises. Similarly, America’s struggles in the Middle East have undermined U.S. interests in the Baltics, vis-à-vis an aggressive Russia, and in Asia, vis-à-vis an assertive China. For that matter, the rise of the Islamic State, and the associated threat to the U.S. homeland, is linked to the Syria crisis. Officials who are not directly interested or involved in U.S. Middle East policy are obliged to confront its implications anyway.
Third, Obama’s Syria policy has been an exceedingly slow-motion train wreck. The pattern is now very well established. It starts with a politically motivated policy choice by the United States (e.g. the decision to abandon Iraq in 2011). Critics warn about the consequences and recommend alternative policies. Senior Obama administration officials denounce those critics and claim that the alternative policies will fail and/or are tantamount to advocating for global war. Over the next months and years, the deficiencies of the original policy become undeniable and a struggling Obama administration grudgingly changes its policy to be more like what the critics recommended originally, but without crediting the critics. Of course, by this point, the problems are much larger than they were originally, so the alternative policy may not be as effective as it could have been if implemented early. But the real obstacle is that the Obama administration will once again compromise its approach in some way, often for a politically motivated reason (e.g. mandating a sunset provision tied to the electoral calendar). So the policy struggles, and critics warn of the consequences and recommend fixes. Senior Obama officials denounce those critics, and the cycle repeats itself. This has played out over the past half-decade now, long enough for frustration on the part of those inside the system to reach the boiling point.
In sum, the protest is noteworthy but unsurprising, and it’s not likely to shift actual policy. Obama has many strengths, but thoughtfully engaging his critics is not one of them. The more important consequence may not be a shift in Obama’s policy, but rather the revival of serious debate about Syria in the presidential campaigns. Neither campaign seems to want to debate Syria policy with the level of candor that the crisis demands. Maybe the State Department insurgents can catalyze such a debate.
Photo credit: PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images