What's Really Wrong with Obama's Syria Approach, and Why His Critics' Approach is Worse

Doing something for no good reason isn't a viable policy doctrine.


Judging from his actions, one could surmise that Barack Obama views the Syrian civil war as a classic no-win situation: a devilish cauldron of warring factions, shifting allegiances, and horrific destruction on all sides. And, if that is what he believes, then he's exactly right.

But now some are using Russia's decision to try to prop up Bashar al-Assad's teetering regime as a justification for renewed U.S. involvement. They claim that it proves Obama's approach—not just for Syria, but for the whole world—has failed. Richard Cohen castigates the president for his excessive caution, and speaks of the high costs of avoiding war. The Washington Post calls on Obama to "carve out safe zones. Destroy the helicopter fleet Mr. Assad uses for his war crimes. Provide aid to the battle-hardened force of 25,000 fighters."

Surely all of these critics know that there is little that the United States can do alone. And it is difficult to work with allies and sometime partners in the region because they have competing goals—with us, and with each other. Even if we could intervene constructively, it's not clear that we should. The risks of inaction seem preferable to those of action.

But the president's unwillingness to say these things reflects a major foreign policy divide in the country at large. On one side are those who believe that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were tragic errors, never to be repeated. On the other are those who argue that both wars were mishandled, but are still confident that the United States can and should intervene in foreign disputes and topple unsavory dictators. They still want to try to arrest the collapse of failing states, and believe that they have the power to do so. We saw those debates play out over what to do in Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Egypt, and, of course, Syria.

It appears that the president is at war with himself. No one can dispute that the Syrian civil war is a tragedy. But no one can credibly claim that there are vital American security interests at stake in Syria. Who rules Damascus, and whether they rule it poorly or well, will not materially affect the safety of the average American.

A misguided few might manage to leave their homes and families, get to the fight, survive the war, and return to their country of origin with a newfound enthusiasm for wreaking destruction there—but they could just as easily come from dozens of other places around the world. For now, it appears, most foreign fighters drawn to Syria have merely served as cannon fodder for Al Nusra, ISIS, and other extremist groups.

Americans are willing to support U.S. military missions abroad when this nation's security is at risk. Some are even willing to countenance the use of force to advance humanitarian ends—including protecting refugees or halting gross human rights abuses—but only when it is obvious that the mission is attainable at reasonable cost.

That has never been the case in Syria. The situation on the ground is too fluid. The partners that we might find tolerable are few and far between, and, it turns out, unreliable. But because Obama and the rest of his administration are unwilling to state that explicitly, they try a bunch of half measures, saying they're doing something, without ever believing anything will actually work.

Occasionally, discipline breaks down. Thus you had White House spokesman Josh Earnest found guilty of a classic Washington, DC gaffe—speaking the truth, inadvertently—that they did the whole training thing to silence the critics. When pressed by reporters about the failure of the Syrian rebel training program, Earnest reiterated the administration's position that "this was a more difficult endeavor than we assumed" and that it's "time for our critics to 'fess up in this regard as well. They were wrong." But when the dust over that admission settles, we are back to where we started: a muddle. A disconnect between rhetoric and reality.

It is time for the president to forcefully state what everyone knows to be true: the United States has no magic formula for solving the Syrian conflict. Neither does Vladimir Putin. Outside involvement has fueled the multisided civil war, but failed to deliver a decisive victory for any one faction. Russian arms are unlikely to tip the scales. It appears to be a classic case of misplaced optimism on Putin's part, or an act of desperation. That is not an argument for greater U.S. involvement, and President Obama should say that.

If the president's critics disagree, let them make the case to the American people that it is again time for the United States to become embroiled in another civil war in the Middle East. Emotional calls to "do something" or vague invocations of the importance of American leadership, are no more useful than Obama's half measures.

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  1. Saying they were training the rebels to silence the critics isn’t the truth, it’s deflecting blame. For Christ’s sake, the Obama administration was trying to force bombing Assad down the American people’s throats not long ago at all.

    I guess it’s just Obama playing 12th dimensional chess again. Well, that and gullibility on the author’s part (or maybe he’s just picking up the lie and running with it).

    1. The author has demonstrated an ability to string sentences together, and the history of Obama’s positions and actions on Syria are hardly ancient, or secret, so the question of gullibility is out the window.

      Mendacity, on the other hand…

  2. “War substitutes a herd mentality and blind obedience for the normal propensity to question authority and to demand good and proper reasons for government actions,” Ronald Hamowy

    Why not create safe-zones as many have called for?? Areas that refugees could escape to instead of Europe, it may turn into a united states of ethnic minorities…

  3. “The risks of inaction seem preferable to those of action.” The problem is with Obama is he is half in and half out, the most dangerous place to be. going all in or all out prior to Russia going in was what was needed. Now Obama should get completely out, it’ll be imbarrasing for the U.S. but we should be used to that since thats what we’ve done every time since after Korea. I’m amazed that anybody bothers to side with us considering our past of unfinished help

    1. Obama is not concerned with the risks associated with inaction, precisely because he is confident that his inaction will not result in him being blamed.

      IOW, he’s voting present.

      Who ever could have seen that coming?

  4. Richard Cohen and like minded folks should get together and form a private army.

    If they feel Syria needs assistance, they should have the courage of their own convictions and do what they believe needs to be done. Otherwise they are blowing hot air out of their assholes.

    1. In that case, the same should apply to open borders advocates.

      You house a family of illegal aliens. You support them and pay their bills, educate their children and give them healthcare, instead of wanting the government to.

      1. No libertarian who advocates open borders wants the government to pay their bills, teach their kids, or give them healthcare.

  5. We just need another red line.

    A red line and a law. A law against this would make it illegal.

    Obama should come out publicly and denounce this and have Michelle start a hash tag campaign.

    This issue is too serious to ignore and the government should take action to raise awareness of the seriousness of this situation.

  6. We just need another red line.

    A red line and a law. A law against this would make it illegal.

    Obama should come out publicly and denounce this and have Michelle start a hash tag campaign.

    This issue is too serious to ignore and the government should take action to raise awareness of the seriousness of this situation.

  7. If we don’t fight them Syrian boys over there we will fight them at home!

  8. When the anti-Assad rebels asked us for arms a while back, we turned them down. It seemed then and now that the reasons we gave for declining were not strong ones. This civil war did not come out of nowhere. It grew out of our involvement in Iraq. Is it helpful that we appear aimless – without aims? If we are deeply involved in a region, but have no aims, what does that communicate to our opponents? If we say we intend to destroy the Islamic State, then don’t follow up with effective action, doesn’t that affect our long-term interests? How weak do we want to look? Obama has tested the limits of that question.

    If we start a war in the region, then do almost nothing to help millions of refugees, how does that look?

    These are scattered questions. I actually don’t think we can do much at this point. Once we set the place ablaze in 2003, the most we could do is watch it burn. Many predicted the outcome of the Iraq war would be horrible. We are twelve years in to the horror, and it’s going to get worse.

    1. Do you really think the problems started in 2003?

      1. ^Right. 2003 was the beginning of the fourth quarter. Maybe later even.

        How about when Lawrence of Arabia organized the Wahabi Salafists to rise up against the secular, liberal Ottoman Empire. Carving out an Islamic nation for the throwback Saudi’s.

  9. Google pay 97$ per hour my last pay check was $8500 working 1o hours a week online. My younger brother friend has been averaging 12k for months now and he works about 22 hours a week. I cant believe how easy it was once I tried it out.
    This is wha- I do…… ??????

  10. Russia, Shiite Islamists, and Sunni Islamists are arguably America’s primary geo-political foes. They are now fighting each other, weakening each other, all without a single American life or dollar having to be spent.

    It’s a National Security free-lunch.

  11. “But the president’s unwillingness to say these things reflects a major foreign policy divide in the country at large. ”

    Bizarre. So Obama should announce that the US won’t be getting involved, giving up that leverage, even if he’s committed to noninvolvement?

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