Don’t Blame Obama for Syria


What’s happening in Syria is a tragedy. But John Hannah needs to recognize that the civil war was never ours to win or lose.

Syria is a tragedy. Too much blood has flowed to imagine a negotiated transition and apparently not enough to warrant an effective intervention by a divided, cautious, and self-interested international community. And it may well be that the real struggle for Syria — the one that determines its future character — has yet to begin.

But to lay this bloody mess at President Barack Obama’s doorstep, as John Hannah (a guy I respect and admire) does in his recent post for FP, is both wrong and unfair.

I write this not so much in defense of Obama’s policies as in recognition of the cruel reality and terrible choices the United States has faced with regards to the Syrian uprising and civil war.

During this entire two-year debate on what Obama should or shouldn’t have done on Syria, I have yet to hear a single military strategy that the administration could have adopted that would have been feasible, effective, and consequential in altering the bloody arc of this crisis for the better

Real game-changing moves — weeks of air and missile strikes on Syrian military assets and leadership targets, a no-fly zone, and a sustained effort to provide the fragmented opposition with lethal weapons — were rightly deemed too risky, too uncertain, and too open-ended to be viable. At the end of the day, Syria hawks simply could not assure Americans that they wouldn’t be stuck with yet another Middle East quagmire.

The less risky steps — sending in humanitarian assistance and non-lethal aid to the opposition, positioning Patriot missile batteries in Turkey, and launching political efforts to coordinate the opposition — carried little risk. Admittedly, they have not had much real consequence in altering the course of the conflict. But that doesn’t mean that taking more aggressive measures would be good for the United States. And at the end of the day, that’s what U.S. foreign policy has to be about.

We will never know about the what-ifs, of course. In the world of counterfactuals, the what-might-have-beens can never be fact checked, let alone held to any kind of empirical standard. And there are risks to everything in life — action and inaction. Some argue that trying more ambitious policies — even if they failed — would have been better than not trying at all. But they haven’t persuaded me, or too many others.

Hannah’s critique — the first of many, I suppose, in the renewed “who lost Syria” debate — is somewhat overwrought. That is perhaps consistent with the understandable and emotional urge to have prevented the thousands of lost lives, undermine Iran, and reverse America’s declining relevance in the Middle East — the most common knock on the president’s foreign policy.

But it’s no substitute for a workable plan. The critique really does lack context: Hannah blames the White House for “put[ting] its faith in Vladimir Putin” and engaging in the “indulgence” of U.N. diplomacy, but nobody I know in the administration ever believed that these steps would actually solve this thing.

There were never any good or easy options in Syria. All involved risk, and there was no guarantee any U.S. moves would stop what became a civil war — or even ameliorate the situation. What’s more, they all held the very real prospect of a slippery slope into military intervention, as failed half-measures would have required additional steps to preserve U.S. credibility.

Nor did our supposed allies in the region — the Turks in particular — seem particularly interested in a muscular response. (Turkey was always ambivalent about a more active policy, including a no-fly zone. That it’s taken the Turks this long to request Patriot missiles from NATO — for defensive purposes only — reflects that ambivalence.) Iraqis worked actively against us, and the Israelis rightly watched from the sidelines. We sell sophisticated aircraft to the Saudis and others — where were they when it came to organizing a coordinated Arab military response? I think I know the answer.

Let’s face the facts: The United States can’t determine the outcome in Syria — at least not at a cost that makes any sense. Syria isn’t Libya, where Muammar al-Qaddafi’s weakness, along with regional and international circumstances, made an effective and relatively-cost free NATO intervention possible. It also isn’t Egypt, where, even though we send a billion dollars plus a year to Cairo and enjoy a long relationship with the Egyptian military, we can’t seem to influence the course of its political future.

And thank God it isn’t Afghanistan or Iraq where, despite years of effort, billions of dollars, and thousands of lives lost, we have not achieved anything commensurate to the level of the sacrifice.

Yes, Syria is important. But like the Arab Spring itself, it was never ours to win or lose. We may yet be drawn in, but our caution and reserve there — given its complexities, the limitations of our leverage, and our own priorities — was warranted. We aren’t the world’s top cop nor its primary case worker. And it’s about time we realized it.

Foreign Policy


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