Yesterday’s New York Times featured an article Obama’s Uncertain Path Amid Syria Bloodshed that is probably one of the most devastating indictments of the President’s Syria policy published. I don’t think that the reporters set out to critique the President and the tone of the article was always respectful.
Still there are two description that really stuck out. The first was a general critique.
As one former senior White House official put it, “We spent so much damn time navel gazing, and that’s the tragedy of it.”
Over the past two years the article describes the various rationales the administration had for not intervening and that sentence turns out to be a very apt theme for the way the administration acted, or, more precisely, chose not to act.
Then there was this:
Even as the debate about arming the rebels took on a new urgency, Mr. Obama rarely voiced strong opinions during senior staff meetings. But current and former officials said his body language was telling: he often appeared impatient or disengaged while listening to the debate, sometimes scrolling through messages on his BlackBerry or slouching and chewing gum.
One would have assumed that a Syria policy was one of the two most important foreign policy issues facing the President. (The other is the question of Iran’s nuclear policy.) Being “disengaged” during such momentous discussions is worse than being engaged but making bad decisions.
In Syria meetings, Obama "scrolling through messages on his BlackBerry or slouching & chewing gum"
— Toby Harnden (@tobyharnden) October 23, 2013
One of the themes that emerges from the article is that the President was greatly influenced by Denis McDonough. McDonough’s instincts were not to intervene. (It was McDonough who convinced the President not to order an attack on Syria even once his “red line” of chemical weapons use had been crossed.)
Another is that the President was bound by legal concerns. For example (emphasis added):
But debate had shifted from whether to arm Syrian rebels to how to do it. Discussions about putting the Pentagon in charge of the program — and publicly acknowledging the arming and training program — were eventually shelved when it was decided that too many legal hurdles stood in the way of the United States’ openly supporting the overthrow of a sovereign government.
I don’t know that it was legalisms that discouraged the administration from acting, or if they were a convenient pretext for the President’s preference for not intervening. (Similarly, I don’t know how much McDonough influenced the President and how much he simply reinforced the President’s own distaste for intervention.) Still it put the administration at a disadvantage by making decisions that were guided by “legal hurdles” when the regime it was responding too cared nothing for such niceties.
I don’t know that Fouad Ajami read the New York Times, but his indictment of the administration in A Lawyer Lost in a Region of Thugs would have been a great title. (Google search terms.) Ajami focused on Iran not on Syria, but still Syria played a role in his critique.
In a lawyerly way, the Obama administration has isolated the nuclear issue from the broader context of Iran’s behavior in the region. A new dawn in the history of the theocracy has been proclaimed, but we will ultimately discover that Iran’s rulers are hellbent on pursuing a nuclear-weapons program while trying to rid themselves of economic sanctions.
True, the sanctions have had their own power, but they haven’t stopped Iran from aiding the murderous Assad regime in Syria, or subsidizing Hezbollah in Beirut. And they will not dissuade this regime from its pursuit of nuclear weapons. In dictatorial regimes, the pain of sanctions is passed onto the underclass and the vulnerable.
Just as he has with Iran, President Obama now takes a lawyerly approach to Syria, isolating Assad’s use of chemical weapons from his slaughter of his own people by more conventional means. The president’s fecklessness regarding Syria—the weakness displayed when he disregarded his own “red line” on Assad’s use of chemical weapons—was a gift to the Iranian regime. The mullahs now know that their nuclear program, a quarter-century in the making, will not have to be surrendered in any set of negotiations. No American demand will be backed by force or even by force of will.
The President’s ongoing inaction regarding Syria not only encouraged Assad, but reassured Iran too, that it has nothing to fear from this administration.
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