The Road Not Taken – Obama’s Syrian Mistake

Tired Obama

If you want to understand the deep disfunction of President Obama’s policy in Syria, consider the following: in a September 7, 2014 interview with Meet the Press, Mr. Obama said that putting US troops on the ground in Syria would be “a profound mistake”. Last week, the White House approved the deployment of 50 special forces to the country.

That contradiction carries echoes of earlier policy reversals. In the early days of the fighting, President Obama explained his refusal to arm the opposition by dismissing them as mere “farmers and dentists”. But eventually the White House decided to pass on light arms and training anyway – though too little and too late to make much of a difference.

Similarly, when ISIS first turned up, the President wasn’t worried about them: ISIS wasn’t a serious threat, they were just the “JV team”. Now the Administration has been forced to go on the offensive, spearheading a bombing campaign in the region and once again deploying thousands of troops to bolster Iraqi security arrangements.

Perhaps most embarrassingly, President Obama drew a red line in the sand and warned Syria’s embattled strongman, Bashar al-Assad, not to use chemical weapons, only to redraw the line when Assad did just that.

From the beginning, President Obama’s foreign policy in the region has been an indecisive muddle. In retrospect, the reasons for the confusion are clear.

Obama came into office promising not to repeat the errors of the George W. Bush presidency, and by and large, he hasn’t. But he’s been so zealous in implementing the lessons of the Iraq War – “don’t do stupid stuff” – that he’s built his own trap by ignoring the fact that when you’re President of the United States, you don’t have the privilege of inaction.

The Obama Administration has acted as if they’re only responsible for the choices they make, but that’s not true. They’re also responsible for the choices they don’t make. Every road not taken removes a set of options from the table.

Now the proverbial chickens are coming home to roost. At the outset of violence in Syria, the White House assured us that the fighting going on far away didn’t really matter to American interests and that it could be contained. At the time, there were many people who argued for intervention on humanitarian grounds. Those voices were sidelined. There were also those who argued for intervention on strategic grounds: in the early days of conflict, when the structure of opposition is still emerging, there is the opportunity to shape the future landscape by empowering some actors and destabilizing others. But the people calling for that were sidelined as well.

International politics abhors a vacuum, and other countries were more than willing to step into the breach broadened by Obama’s dithering. Iran and Russia have steadily increased their support for the Syrian regime, while Turkey and a number of Sunni countries have been willing to fund volatile Islamists. All the while, the death toll has continued to rise and now a refugee crisis is straining the already-delicate politics of the European Union.

President Obama assured us that the Syrian conflict could be contained and could be ignored – neither has turned out to be true. Each step of the way, his inaction has led to a steadily deteriorating set of alternatives. Early decisiveness – which could have contained a mix of military and diplomatic initiatives – might have been instrumental in bringing the conflict to an end, but it might also have embroiled the United States in something messier. That was the road not taken, but the path we’re on seems headed in much the same direction, only without the possibility of an early or advantageous resolution.

The Syrian Civil War has given us ISIS, millions of refugees and displaced persons, as well as the harrowing prospect of a budding proxy fight between Russia and the United States. All of that to avoid American boots on the ground, but now we have those too.

You can find more discussion of the Syrian Civil War here.

Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.

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