mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
The Syria Nightmare
Obama's Choices Getting Uglier

The President’s national security team begged him to do something about Syria back when the United States still had options. He turned them down flat, and the US and the world now face a problem for which few answers exist—and all of them are ugly. The New York Times has more:

The violence has underscored the continuing disarray across the Middle East in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. Above all, it is the chaos of Syria, where foreign jihadis appear to be building to a critical mass and have overwhelmed the Western strategy of support for the moderate opposition, that could drive the Obama administration toward greater involvement, analysts say.

But it is not at all clear what form that involvement might take. American officials are unlikely to open a new front of drone strikes in Syria. Other options carry large risks. In early October, American commandos carried out raids in Libya and Somalia aimed at capturing terrorist suspects. The Libya raid was successful; the one in Somalia was not.

To some extent, infighting among the jihadist groups in Syria has recently mitigated the threat there, but it is not clear how long that will last. Mr. Zawahri sent an envoy, Abu Khalid al-Suri, in an effort to resolve disputes between the two main factions, the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

Meanwhile, because the Saudis are so furious with the administration over its Iran policy, we must expect more money from the Gulf to go to the bad guys.

Future historians will struggle to find kind words to say about President Obama’s handling of the worst humanitarian disaster of his time in office but one suspects that many of the people now working for him understand exactly what a mess he has made of what, long ago and far away, was a significant political opportunity for the United States.

Features Icon
show comments
  • Corlyss

    “Future historians will struggle to find kind words”

    Why would they have to say kind things about it, any more than they would have to say kind things about Pres. Buchanan? Why wouldn’t they want to tell the truth? Are they as reluctant as CFR academics and wonks are to call ’em as the sees ’em?

    “one suspects that many of the people now working for him understand exactly what a mess he has made of what, long ago and far away, was a significant political opportunity for the United States.”
    Anyone remember all those beards he brought in to his administration in late 2008 to disguise what a corrupt ideologue he really is? I image there are a lot of people feeling foolish, as well they should, and as well everyone who voted for the cretin should.

    • Boritz

      The struggle to find words will be no more difficult than was the struggle to say if you like your plan you can keep your plan. Do you imagine a future that is somehow more accurate and honest than the present?

      • Boritz

        Clarification: This is directed at Via Meadia.

  • qet

    I, for one, would like to know exactly what options were available. Providing moral support (e.g., speeches at the UN) to the regime out of a sense of realpolitik would have been political suicide, and providing it to the rebels would have been useless. Obtaining a Security Council resolution condemning the regime for its atrocities either (a) could not have been secured at all owing to Russia or China veto, or (b) would have cost the US far too much in policy bribes of one sort or another. Applying any US force directly, drones or otherwise, to assist either side would have made it into a(nother) war between the US and Islam, denounced publicly even by the Saudis even if unofficially they approved of it. That may have been the adult thing to do, even if it cost Obama political points here at home, but the problem is that once you start the shooting you can’t foresee where it will end up. Our drones already kill children in Pakistan and Afghannistan. Would it have been the correct policy to kill them in Syria as well? Providing weapons to the rebels on the quiet through third parties (like the Saudis), as in Nicaragua and El Salvador, would have gained the US not one whit of goodwill from the Islamists who will take over or already have taken over leadership of the rebellion. There is no way we could have limited receipt of those weapons to only the “moderates.” Regardless of the war’s outcome, a great many of those weapons would have found their way into terrorists’ hands and used against the US.

    The real problem, one we discovered (again) in Iraq and Afghanistan, is that we cannot ever win a “limited war.”

    So what am I missing here?

    • Kavanna

      Giving early support to the Syrian rebels would not have been useless. It would have killed three birds with one stone: a moral purpose, a realpolitik purpose, and a pre-emptive purpose (to keep the Sunni jihadis out).

      My suspicion is the Obama was captured some time in his first term by the petro-dollar oil “realists” like James Baker (via Chuck Hagel). They’ve long wanted to get into Iran to capture some of that oil revenue for the Carlyle Group, Bechtel, or whatever. The fact that Obama went after Libya, but not Syria (a much bigger problem and a much stronger case), strongy hints that oil$$ (not oil per se, but the revenue it generates) are at work here. (Syria has no oil.)

      • Kavanna

        I don’t mean to belittle classical realism à la Disraeli, Bismarck, and Kissinger. It was an important school of foreign policy thought, although of limited relevance today.

        The oil$$ “realists” are not operating at that level. For them, it’s about lucrative petro-dollar — or petro-[insert-currency-here] — contracts.

  • lukelea

    This is Syria’s nightmare, not Obama’s. And hopefully not America’s. The Serenity Prayer is in order here.

    • rheddles

      WRM has been right on this one for a long time. There was a time when Obama could have changed things but hadn’t the courage. Now that he can’t he still seems not to have the wisdom to know the difference. But he has the serenity to continue to lecture his enemies, the Republicans.

  • f1b0nacc1

    WRM seems to have an obsession with Syria, a fixation that the administration simply MUST do ‘something’ about this sad situation. The fact of the matter is that there is nothing that can be done, and (quite frankly) nothing that should be done. These people are our enemies, and the best possible outcome is that they will kill each other. Assad and his band of murderers are in league with some of our most unpleasant enemies (Iran) and some of the more subtle ones (China), and just some plain thugs (Russia), while the rebels run the gamut from outright jihadis to the pathetic ‘moderates’ (defined as those who merely want to expel jews rather than kill them, and beat women more circumspectly than the outright radicals), none of whom is worthy of any support whatsoever. Most of the civilians caught up in this mess hate us anyway, and would blame us for anything bad that happens no matter what we do or what our intentions.
    Rubble don’t make trouble…a policy to live by

    • rheddles

      I agree that there never were any good outcomes available. But some were worse than others. Having Iran hold an axis from Tehran to Baghdad to Damascus is the worst. Obama did nothing to avoid it.

      • f1b0nacc1

        Your point is well taken, but the solution there is to deal with Iran (and by ‘deal with’ I mean that we should introduce them to the ‘Rubble don’t make trouble’ school of thought), not to engage in fruitless pandering on the periphery. Obama has failed there too (perhaps the Israelis will bail us out, but I am not holding my breath), but none of this justifies involvement in Syria.

        • rheddles

          We’re on different paths here. Because the Iranians have proceeded cleverly through puppets on the periphery, the American people are not yet ready for the rubble option. So that leaves only the periphery for engagement. There we should reduce the Iranian factions to rubble. It’s called containment and while unsatisfying in the moment, it’s worked before.

          • f1b0nacc1

            It (containment) worked when we had a different set of leaders (our political class has decayed), and when we were dealing with an adversary that was at least semi-civilized. Want to wager the risk of a major confrontation in the middle east on the mullahs taking Barry O seriously?
            A quiet word to the Israelis might help matters along…no need to rubble the whole place (though that might be a bonus), simply destroy enough expensive facilities that set things back a few more years…rinse and repeat as necessary.

          • rheddles

            I suspect the Saudis have uttered that quiet word. Or more.

          • f1b0nacc1

            You are absolutely correct.

    • Pete

      ” ….. and the best possible outcome is that they will kill each other. ”
      Yes, this is the best outcome.

      • Kavanna

        Too bad both sides can’t lose, as Kissinger said of the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.

    • Corlyss

      I still say everyone here should read the Economist’s analysis of American foreign policy in its 23 Nov issue. It sheds some light on the Syria business and asks some pointed questions about whether America is up to the role that it used to play (guarantor of the international system) and, even if it is, can it manage the diverse emerging regional power centers effectively. The imprecations to “do something!” about Syria issue from those who still want the international system cosseted and administered by the US, even as regional players are preparing for US absence so clearly signaled by Dear Leader.

  • J R Yankovic

    “. . . it is the chaos of Syria, where foreign jihadis appear to be building to a critical mass and have overwhelmed the Western strategy of support for the moderate opposition, that could drive the Obama administration toward greater involvement, analysts say.”

    Gosh. Far be it from me to suggest we couldn’t have done SOMETHING – by now – to divert events towards an outcome more favorable to moderates. Frankly I’m not sure what, but . . .

    So where might we have started? At very
    least it would have presupposed the serious input of – what’s the best we can hope for? – two, maybe three? trustworthy specialists with a better-than-competent mastery of both the Arabic language and Syrian/Ottoman history. Plus a seriously hands-on, or rather, on-your-knees-and-elbows approach to working with (and around) the various rebel factions. Both of which factors are, as I understand it, all but impossible in our present (Neo- Jacksonian?) climate of opinion. One in which you don’t even pretend to respect cultures deemed unworthy of your American time and attention, or ready for the historical dungheap. Just let them go out in a blaze of glory or ignominy or whatever. And if their last agonies are accompanied by a brief, weird surge of life – religio-military extremism or whatnot (most exciting of all, the kind that spreads to and incubates in more robust, “healthier” societies; maybe even opens a WHOLE NEW CHAPTER of global history) – hey, that’s just life in the dynamically Bold New World we’ve been forging these past 20-odd years.
    (Thundering Whig chorus: “It was INEVITABLE, you lunkhead: it’s called the
    IRRESISTIBLE Tide of Human Progress!”)

    And where all else fails, use Iraqlogic: The fact that something has been done in a (near-criminally) bad way means it shouldn’t have been done PERIOD. I mean, why try anything at all in this stupid, ungrateful World Beyond America if you can’t do it ignorantly and
    arrogantly? Besides, any fool knows we could have appeased, assimilated, domesticated the Saddam dynasty in no time flat. I tell you those boys could have been WORKED with . . . All we had to do was help them find their Inner American . . . Just ask any good Trilateralist: In today’s globe it’s not trustworthiness (who cares for Brits and Canadians?) but TRADEworthiness that counts . . . Case in point: The Chinese. Not to mention those ever-reliable Saudis. Speaking of which latter . . .

    “Meanwhile, because the Saudis are so furious with the administration over its Iran policy, we must expect more money from the Gulf to go to the bad guys.”

    As I see it, a very legitimate concern. On the one hand they got a bad enough stink in their nostrils from MB rule in Egypt. Which suggests Saudi may have had just enough residual rationality – and uneasiness with its own Wahhabi establishment – to turn, on a dime, from its three-decades-old patronage of extremism. No doubt we in the West also could have done more to turn them. Now it’s probably too late. The world may never know what bright new page Saudi sponsorhip of moderation (talk about a spot-changing leopard) might have opened. Even as the extremist torch passes to Qatar and other points slightly east. Still, I remain uneasy.

    One more time, though:

    “. . . the Western strategy of support for the moderate opposition . . .”

    It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry. To me nothing can change so long as we wallow in our usual American oil and vinegar: Timidity vs overconfidence. A timid yet clueless and arrogant Wilsonian president engaged in the usual non-debate with overconfident, yet – best I can tell – equally clueless and arrogant Neocon (Neo-Jacksonian?) critics. As I see it, somewhere between the Two Falls (1989 and 2001) the American clay, so to speak, rigidified into a particular “universal” mold that we imagined (wished?) to be permanent. And whatever its flaws, it did offer a certain intoxicating picture
    of the future globe. Russia would continue to atrophy in silence; Iran would go on being villainous, hated and marginal; Saudi’s Middle Eastern leverage would go on expanding; a Sinocentric East Asia could expect limitless growth, cheapness of labor, and across-the-board appeasement; a Germanocentric united Europe would keep moving eastwards from strength to strength. And presiding over it all, a globally enlightened post-Western America would go on commanding the world’s worship, however sullen or grudging. From where I stand that is the American civilization (I won’t pay it the compliment of calling it a country or a nation) we’ve inherited. In a different America – one, say, less rigidly infatuated with End-of-History molds (thanks to WRM, by the way, for an outstanding long essay) – the above “Western strategy” might have had some chance of success. But given the mold we’ve been stuck in, what were the real odds?

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    “Divide and Conquer” is a time honored successful strategy. While the Shiites and Sunnis are focused on killing each other they will have fewer resources with which to attack us.

    To make the strategy as efficient as possible, we should take no action except to damage whichever side looks like it is “close” to winning. We don’t help either side, only damage the side close to winning with sabotage to logistical necessities like fuel, ammo, food, water. Hiring criminals to put LSD in the water or to lite fuel supplies on fire is a cheap, and efficient way to maintain the strategy.

  • Torestin

    The incompetence of Barack Hussein Obama was as easy to read as clouds bring rain. Now he is f-ing up everything he touches, people act surprised. Time to end this mistake that is BHO!

  • gabrielsyme

    This may be a humanitarian disaster, but given the current conditions, it will get far worse if Assad doesn’t triumph. A regime collapse will no longer end the civil war- it will shift to a jihadi vs. moderate Sunni conflict, with both sides taking vengeance on the Alawites, Druze and Christians.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service