Last week began with certainty that an attack on Syria was inevitable and even imminent. It ended with the coalition supporting the attack somewhere between falling apart and not coming together, and with U.S. President Barack Obama making it clear that an attack was inevitable, maybe in a month or so, if Congress approves, after Sept. 9 when it reconvenes. This is a comedy in three parts: the reluctant warrior turning into the raging general and finding his followers drifting away, becoming the reluctant warrior again.
Begin with the fact that the United States was not the first country calling for military intervention in Syria after pictures of what appeared to be the dead from a chemical attack surfaced. That honor went to France, Turkey and Britain, each of whom called for action. Much as with Libya, where France and Italy were the first and most eager to intervene, the United States came late to the feast.
The United States did not have any overriding national interest in Syria. It has been hostile for a long time to Assad’s regime. It has sympathy for the Sunni insurgents but has drawn the conclusion that the collapse of Assad is not likely to lead to a democratic regime respecting human rights, but to an Islamist regime with links to al Qaeda. The United States is in the process of recovering from Iraq and Afghanistan, and is not eager to try its hand at nation building in Syria, especially given the players. Therefore the American attitude toward Syria has been to express deep concern while staying as far away as possible, much as the rest of the world has done.
What started to draw the United States into the matter was a statement made by the president in 2012, when he said that the use of chemical weapons would be a red line. He didn’t mean he wanted to intervene. He set the red line because he figured that it was the one thing Assad wouldn’t try. It was an attempt to stay out, not an announcement of interest. In fact, there had been previous evidence of small-scale chemical attacks, and the president had dodged commitment.
Washington’s Human Rights Faction
This time, with major foreign partners demanding action, the president felt he had no choice. A significant faction pressed him on this in his foreign policy apparatus. There were those, like National Security Adviser Susan Rice, who favored the use of military force in the events of war crimes and human rights violations on a major scale. One would have thought that she would have supported the war in Iraq against Saddam Hussein, the epitome of war crimes and human rights violations, but she didn’t, and that’s another matter. The point is that, leaving Iraq, this faction felt that the United States failed to carry out its moral obligations in Rwanda, and applauded the intervention in Kosovo.
This faction is not small and appeals to an important tendency in American political culture that sees World War II as the perfect war, because it was waged against an unspeakable evil, and not for strategic or material gain. That war was more complicated than that, but there was an element of truth to it. And the world, on the whole, approved of American involvement there. For them, this was the model of U.S. foreign policy. Secure behind distance and power, the United States ought not be a typical insecure political power, but should use its strength to prevent the more extreme injustices in the world.
For them, the suffering in the Syrian civil war was the result of the repressiveness of the Assad regime. This faction had an interesting perspective. It focused on the current injustice, not always aware, interested or believing that what came later would be worse. I remember arguing with academic colleagues before the fall of the Shah that while he was certainly a thug, we and the Iranian people would regret what came next. There was a romantic belief that the crowd in the street was always more virtuous than the tyrant in his palace. Sometimes they were right. It is not clear that the fall of the Shah reduced the sum total of human suffering.
Throughout the Arab Spring there has been a romanticizing of the crowd in the street, particularly when the crowd is seen through the lens of American exceptionalism. A belief was held, especially by those who saw the United States’ primary responsibility as promoting human rights, that the majority of those in the streets wanted to create American-style democracy. Ironically, two groups that despise each other — neo-conservatives and human rights activists — took the same view: that if you eliminate tyrants, what would emerge would be constitutional democracies respecting human rights. Obama’s Rice in 2013 assumed the same role as Bush’s Paul Wolfowitz in 2003.
Thus the removal of Assad became a foreign policy goal of the human rights faction deeply embedded in the ideology of the Obama administration. They were disappointed when, instead of intervening, he set the red line. When the red line appeared to be crossed, they pressed for action.
Obama had learned a thing or two about the crowd, Arab and otherwise. He was far less romantic about their intent, particularly after Libya. After Libya he was also aware that after the self-congratulations, the United States would have to live with the chaos or new tyranny. He didn’t want to attack, and that was clear in the first days after the affair.
There were two reasons. First, he had lost confidence in the crowd. Second, he had vowed not to go to war as Bush had, without international support validated by the United Nations, and with the burden of war leadership shared by other allies. In Libya the war started under French leadership, and over time the fact that the United States had the force needed and France didn’t pushed the United States to the front, a position Obama didn’t want to take again.
Pressed by the human rights faction in his administration to take action in Syria, he was also under pressure from three key countries: Britain, France and Turkey. Turkey in particular was important to him. Relations had been strained since 2003, when Turkey refused to let American troops attack Iraq from its soil. Agreeing to help in Turkey’s call for intervention appealed to him, but not to the point where he was prepared to do more than a symbolic strike using only cruise missiles directed against uncertain targets, perhaps primarily missiles that could carry chemicals. Turkey demanded a Kosovo-type attack that was designed to loosen the regime’s hold on the country. Obama resisted not the principle of attack but the scale Turkey wanted.
The Reluctant Coalition Leader
Then something interesting happened. Over the course of the week, rather than the United States’ following other countries call for action, Washington turned into the main advocate for intervention. The United States is the major global power. Its mere presence in the coalition focuses the coalition on the United States. In part, this is military; the United States has capabilities others don’t. In part, it is political; the United States might be able to organize a global coalition while no one else can.
Obama was prepared, given his red line and given pressure from key advisers, to participate in a coalition. He was, I think, surprised when the United States stopped being part of the coalition, but its leader and instigator, and then further, when others became disillusioned with its leadership. The whole idea had become his. He wasn’t quite sure what to do with the honor.
Then the British Parliament voted against going to war, and Prime Minister David Cameron, an advocate from the beginning, now had to bow out. The British had been part of wars the Americans had dreamed up. This was one that the British had helped concoct, and the parliament voted against it, with many parliament members saying the United Kingdom was no longer the Americans’ lap dog. Obama, who had worked so hard to avoid leadership, had become George W. Bush to the British Parliament.
There was also behind the scenes diplomacy, as there always is. The focus was Russia. Russia had supported the Assad clan since Hafez al Assad’s coup in 1970, when the Soviet Union supported the coup and the regime. Their relationships in Syria went back a long way, and the Soviet (now Russian) influence in Syria had been institutionalized on a personal and institutional level. The Russians were completely committed to the survival of the regime.
The United States was less passionate, but Obama, while willing to do the minimum gesture possible to satisfy his human rights impulse, did think about what would come later and didn’t want to see the regime fall. In this, the Russians and Americans had common interests.
During the week the president began focusing his attention on Bashar al Assad, holding him personally responsible for the chemical attack even if he didn’t know of its planning and a junior officer had carried it out. His focus on Assad seemed to hint at a direction. If Assad and his closest supporters would step down, the regime could continue. The regime is a complex and enduring entity. It had survived two years of civil war. It was not simply a personal tyranny but a government with a lot of people with a stake in it. It would survive without him.
Getting rid of Assad and keeping the regime to block the jihadists would have been the best outcome in all of this. Of course while the Turks wanted more, the Russians didn’t want any of it. They were building credibility through the Middle East and Eastern Europe based on American weakness, and they saw no reason to bail Obama out. He wasn’t going to take the risks needed to take out the regime anyway.
The Russian calculations came down to its read of the United States, which is that it was not in a position to impose an international system in the region because of internal political weakness. Therefore the Russians had a rare opportunity to impose if not a system, then a presence. Most of all, the Russian view was that it had nothing to fear from the United States, in spite of its power imbalance. Obama was not likely to take action.
Others, like Poland, that had been with the Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan also bowed out. The Poles are interesting because they had been the most eager for collaboration with the Americans, but felt the most betrayed by not getting an American commitment for significant military aid and collaboration. They made it a point to tell the Americans that they would not support action in Syria — not because they cared about Syria, but to show the consequences of American policy even to a relatively minor player.
By the end of the week, the Russians were hurling insults at Obama, the British finally freed themselves from American domination, and the Turks were furious at American weakness. The French — and France’s interventionist flow is fascinating (Libya, Mali, now Syria) — stood with the United States. This is a tale to consider in itself, but not here. And the Canadians decided that much as they disliked chemical weapons use, they would not be available. The wheels just came off the strategy.
The U.S. Dilemma
It is easy to blame Obama for losing control of the situation, but that is too simple. Every administration has its ideologues, and every president wants allies and no one wants to go to war without those allies flying aircraft beside them. And it would be nice if the United States could be just another country, but it isn’t. The moment that it enters a coalition, it leads a coalition.
The United States had a strategic interest in neither faction taking power in Syria — its Lebanonization. That is brutal, but it is true, and the United States was not the only country with that interest. It also ran against the grain of the administration’s ideology and the passions of key members. The president tried to walk a tightrope between regime change and inaction (or a small action that left the regime in place). All of this is what presidents have to do.
The real problem is this: After the Islamist wars, the United States has, as happened before, sought to minimize its presence in the world and while enjoying the benefits of being the world’s leading economy, not pay any political or military price for it. It is a strategy that is impossible to maintain, as the United States learned after World War I, Vietnam and Desert Storm. It is a seductive vision but a fantasy. The world comes visiting.
Without a clear understanding of our strategy that goes beyond caution, it is impossible to clearly state the national interest or what things matter and what things don’t. Syria didn’t. But driven by an insufficient national strategy, the president was trapped by internal ideologies, the penchant of foreign allies and the temptation to do something, however ineffective. But as we know, the ineffective frequently becomes more expensive than the effective, and choosing where to be effective — and where to pass — is essential.
This is not over yet. If Congress votes for strikes, it is likely that Obama will do something. But at that point he will be doing it by himself, and the inevitable death of innocents in even the smallest attack will bring him under fire from some of those most insistent that he do something about the war crimes in Syria.
It is not easy to be president, nor is it easy to be the world’s leading power. It is nice to be able to sit in moral judgment of men like Assad, but sadly not have the power to do anything. Where life gets hard is when sitting in moral judgment forces you to do something because you can. It teaches you to be careful in judging, as the world will both demand that you do something and condemn you for doing it.