Readers who came to David Remnick’s lengthy piece on President Obama in The New Yorker might be forgiven for thinking that the president had always been an opponent of military action in Syria. When Remnick asks him is he’s haunted by what’s happened there, he responds:
“I am haunted by what’s happened,” he said. “I am not haunted by my decision not to engage in another Middle Eastern war. It is very difficult to imagine a scenario in which our involvement in Syria would have led to a better outcome, short of us being willing to undertake an effort in size and scope similar to what we did in Iraq. And when I hear people suggesting that somehow if we had just financed and armed the opposition earlier, that somehow Assad would be gone by now and we’d have a peaceful transition, it’s magical thinking.”
While he’s clearly addressing critics who wanted to see a full-on military intervention in an attempt to shift the tide in the civil war, the criticisms could also apply to his unwise plan to use military force to deal with the use of chemical weapons. There’s an interventionist wing of the Democratic Party that wants to draw a distinction between limited interventions and full scale wars, without proving that limited military intervention is any more effective or less counterproductive. The US pulled back from the brink (it was close enough that French jets were preparing to take off) largely because the administration could not make a coherent case that military intervention was a smart approach.
I’m not convinced President Obama ever thought a military strike was a smart idea. He allowed himself to be boxed in by an imprudent statement about Syria’s “red line.” At no point did he explicitly state that crossing that line guaranteed a military response, but he left open a space that allowed people to define his expected reaction. He had months in which he could have clarified and laid out diplomatic approaches to the crisis, but he let those assumptions continue unanswered and was trapped by them.
I was on Capitol Hill lobbying against intervention the week the vote on authorizing force was supposed to happen, after President Obama shocked many by slowing down the march to a strike and ceding to calls for congressional debate. This may have been part of their buying time to look for the exit; it was clear they were doing a poor job selling the intervention to Congress.
Some Democrats came out early with principled opposition to an unwise military intervention. Some Republicans did the same, with others responding with a knee-jerk anti-Obama response that nonetheless helped slow the momentum toward war. But many Democrats also crossed their fingers and hoped they would never have to cast a vote that would put them in a position of choosing between the public and their president. I didn’t hear anyone mount a rousing defense of the efficacy of attacking Syria. And there was no question about where the American people stood. Everyone talked about an overwhelming ratio of calls and emails against intervention.
The Syrian and American peoples, as well as President Obama and Congress, all benefited from the hail mary diplomatic solution that brought us back from the brink of war. But it sadly appears that the president is once again ignoring his instincts–and all available evidence [emphasis mine].
“It’s not as if we didn’t discuss this extensively down in the Situation Room. It’s not as if we did not solicit—and continue to solicit—opinions from a wide range of folks. Very early in this process, I actually asked the C.I.A. to analyze examples of America financing and supplying arms to an insurgency in a country that actually worked out well. And they couldn’t come up with much. We have looked at this from every angle. And the truth is that the challenge there has been, and continues to be, that you have an authoritarian, brutal government who is willing to do anything to hang on to power, and you have an opposition that is disorganized, ill-equipped, ill-trained, and is self-divided.”
A sensible response, and yet it contradicts the Obama administration’s policy. Reuters reported earlier this month that Congress secretly approved supplying weapons to so-called “moderate” rebels in Syria, despite the risk that the weapons could proliferate and be used in human rights abuses, which have been reported on all sides of the conflict.
Good statements of foreign policy ring hollow when his administration is ignoring his own prudent advice.