On Syria, Has the Obama Doctrine Been Revealed?

Two people -- identified only as “Senior Administration Official One” (SAO I) and “Senior Administration Official Two” (SAO II) -- held a background briefing at the State Department on Friday to address Iran and Hezbollah’s worldwide terrorism. SAO I called Hezbollah a “criminal organization” that has “made an all-in commitment to defend and support the Assad regime,” “throwing whatever resources are required.” SAO II called Hezbollah a terrorist organization “morally bankrupt to its very core,” financed primarily by Iran, part of Iran’s strategy to commit “a significant amount of resources, both financial and otherwise, to the conflict within Syria.”

This produced a three-part question to the SAOs from Ilhan Tanir of BBC Turkish, worth reading in its entirety since it reflects what Tanir calls a “common theme now in the Middle East”:

First question is: Two days ago, State Department and the White House condemned in strongest terms Hezbollah duties in Syria and demand immediate withdrawal. Do you have any kind of news that they are heeding your demand?

Second question is: As far as we can see, they are still fighting fiercely. If they are not heeding your demands, what is your Plan B?

And the third: The common theme now in Middle East that Russia is taking care of its allies in Middle East, but U.S. is just basically talking the talk. But when it comes to supporting its allies and Syrian rebels, forces like Syrian rebels, it’s just giving advice and watching the situation unfolding. Syrian military -- head of Syrian Military Council Salim Idris has been giving interviews for the last two days and basically begging for some help. There are 30 to 40,000 people, according to different estimates, that if the town Qusayr falls to regime, they might be in danger of imminent massacre. What are you doing besides giving condemnation and talk? (Emphasis added)

SAO I responded that (1) he would defer to others “on the broader Syria questions”; (2) the U.S. condemned the escalation in Syria by both sides; and (3) Hezbollah’s involvement has turned the conflict in “a new, more dangerous direction.”

He could have shortened his answer to Tanir’s three questions to: “no, none, and nothing.”

President Obama reportedly regrets having set a red line for Assad, now that Assad has crossed it. At his May 16 press conference, after it was clear the red line had been crossed, Obama was asked whether the U.S. would now take “more initiative” to effectuate his policy that “Assad must go.” Obama made it clear Assad need not worry about any U.S. action:

With respect to what I've said in the past around red lines -- what I've said is that the use of chemical weapons are something that the civilized world has recognized should be out of bounds. And as we gather more evidence and work together, my intention is to make sure that we're presenting everything that we know to the international community … for the international community to put all the pressure that they can on the Assad regime, and to work with the opposition to bring about that political transition. … But it’s not going to be something that the United States does by itself.

So the U.S. is basically a red line information-gathering service for the international community, hoping the international community will use the information to cause a political transition. The U.S. is not actually going to do anything on its own. Obama ended his answer by asserting he didn’t think anyone in the region “would think that U.S. unilateral actions in and of themselves would bring about a better outcome inside of Syria.”

In other words, asked to comment on his red line, Obama effectively provided a green light to those who might have been worried the U.S. might act. In the two weeks following the May 16 press conference, Iran and Hezbollah have dramatically escalated their involvement in Syria on behalf of Assad.

The Obama administration has responded with a background briefing.

Perhaps Obama now regrets not only having set a red line, but having adopted an “Assad must go” policy in the first place. The Wall Street Journal and Max Boot suggest he has decided an Assad victory is a safer choice than backing rebels who may be aligned with al-Qaeda. But the key to Obama’s foreign policy may be simpler than that: he favors whatever policy will require no action on his part.

It is not simply that he is risk-averse, or that his evaluation of the risks has changed. As Aaron David Miller noted on ABC’s This Week on Sunday, Obama is interested in transforming America, not the world; he views anything that diverts American attention from domestic matters as a threat to his agenda. Inaction abroad is a feature, not a bug. So his overriding goal is to stay out of foreign matters and let the “international community” take care of them.