The Obama Administration and Syria: A Situation with No Good Choices Available

The administration finally acknowledged, in a press release issued by Deputy National Security Adviser for strategic communications Ben Rhodes, that the U.S. now believes that on two occasions Assad has used the chemical agent sarin on the civilian population. So the so-called “red line” that Barack Obama said Bashar Assad would not be permitted to cross has been crossed.


Some conservatives, like Max Boot, are not happy. “That’s it?,” he writes. “No announcement of air strikes on chemical-weapons stockpiles or other government targets. No imposition of a no-fly zone. Not even an announcement that emergency shipments of arms would be rushed to the rebels.”

The result will be—as we have seen—an increased level of rhetoric, plus skimpily promised statements that we will increase arms shipments to Syrian rebels. With over 90,000 dead (more by some estimates), the ranks of those clamoring for intervention to stop the Syrian regime from more slaughter are increasing.

Perhaps if Barack Obama had acted two years ago, when Syria’s rebels were spontaneously emerging from the oppressed populace and were not dominated by radical Islamists and the ranks of al-Qaeda, it might have done some good.  Now, when to give the rebels arms means backing one group of fanatical Islamists against another, a victory for the rebels would make things no better for the Syrian people than would the victory of Assad.

This is one of the rare times I agree with the political philosopher Michael Walzer, who said in an interview with The Times of Israel that “now you have jihadi fighters on the one hand and Hezbollah on the other, and it really doesn’t look like there’s much to choose between. It’s almost impossible to describe a desirable outcome in this civil war, and if you don’t have a desirable outcome — you can’t intervene.”


Walzer’s rules for intervening should be taken seriously by the likes of John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Joe Lieberman, who continue to advocate intervening on behalf of Assad’s opponents. Walzer argues that if the U.S. were to intervene, the following conditions should be prerequisites:

Firstly, the US must “pick a winner” and make sure he is capable of governing Syria; secondly, the US must secure Assad’s weapons arsenal and prevent it from leaking into neighboring countries; and finally the new (presumably) Sunni government must guarantee the physical safety of the country’s minorities: Alawites, Druze, Christians and Kurds.

And these conditions cannot be met simply by establishing no-fly zones. They require American and European troops, something that the American population will not support and that NATO will not back, unlike when Bill Clinton was president and the bombing campaign against the Serb government  took place to stop the slaughter of the Bosnian people by the Serbian military.

As for former President Clinton, he fired the first shot in his wife’s forthcoming presidential campaign when he told a conference organized by Senator McCain that Obama should act more forcefully to aid the anti-Assad rebels. He argued the American public elected presidents “to see down the road and to win.” Speaking at a closed event (Clinton said he did not realize his remarks were being recorded), he said Obama risked looking like a “total fool” if he listened too closely to public-opinion polls and acted too cautiously.

Now if you believe that in the times we live in Clinton did not know his remarks were being taped, you also believe that he did not inhale while a Rhodes scholar at Oxford. Speaking to Senator McCain, Clinton added: “Some people say, ‘Okay, see what a big mess it is? Stay out!’ I think that’s a big mistake. I agree with you about this,” he told McCain. “Sometimes it’s just best to get caught trying, as long as you don’t overcommit — like, as long as you don’t make an improvident commitment.”


On Friday morning, during an interview segment (beginning at 5:21 on the video) on Morning Joe, Clinton added that he thought Obama had done the right thing by announcing that he would supply arms to the rebels, and that he was rightfully being cautious about making public what exactly he would do while thinking through the problem. “We should support the rebel groups more vigorously,” Clinton said, adding that the administration
is “now exploring its options,” given that there are “logistical complications.” The administration, he argued, “is trending in the right direction now.” On balance, he said, “this should be seen as a positive story,” referring to the administration’s announcement about military aid to the rebels.

In his statement to the McCain conference, Clinton said that since the Russians, Iranians and Hezbollah are all in Syria “head over heels,” the U.S. has to act to slow their gains and give the rebels “a decent chance,” since they represent the majority of the Syrian people. Clinton warned that “we shouldn’t over-learn the lessons of the past,” and that unlike Iraq or Afghanistan, no one favored sending in troops. He compared the situation favorably to Reagan’s aid to the muhajadeen in Afghanistan when, he said, the U.S. “got an enormous amount of influence and gratitude by helping to topple the Soviet-backed regime” and failed to stay the course after the Soviet defeat.


Clinton warned, and here he was clearly distancing himself from the Obama policy, that if Obama did not act because polls showed the public did not want any kind of intervention, he would risk looking “like a total wuss.”  All the American people were saying, he argued, was that the U.S. should “be careful” before acting. The president, he argued, should try to sell the correct course of action to the people.

His implication was clear: Obama should have taken Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s advice when General Petraeus still was head of the CIA, and favored military aid to a pro-U.S. rebel group. His stance also allows his wife, should she choose to run for president, to publicly criticize Obama’s foreign policy and to advocate her own more activist position.

We now, given Obama’s “leading from behind” strategy the past few years, have reached the worst possible place to be in. Iran is gaining ground in the region and, with Russia’s support the aid of Hezbollah, has all but assured an Assad victory over the rebels.  Our secretary of State is running with hat in hand to Vladimir Putin, hoping to put together a conference to end the bloodshed on Russia’s terms, leading to a greater weakening of the U.S. position in the world. And the rebels we now say we will aid are as radical and bloodthirsty as the regime they seek to overthrow. Any outcome is likely to be anything but positive.


Let us hope the next few years move quickly and that the next commander-in-chief will act boldly to restore the reputation of the United States as a nation that uses its weight and power for good in the world.


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