The Syrian civil war has bedeviled the Obama administration from the beginning, creating sharp divisions among President Obamaís advisers and creating a prolonged period of presidential ambivalence. One consequence has been that early intervention by the United States failed to materialize and the Syrian rebellion faltered.
Of course, it will always be unknown whether early intervention would have helped the rebels bring down the regime of President Bashar Assad or would have escalated into another prolonged war drawing in U.S. forces.
Among the miscalculations shaping U.S. policy was the assessment by intelligence agencies that Assad would fall quickly to the rebellion, as leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya had done. Instead, Assad showed a degree of ruthlessness that allowed him to hold on, with the help of arms, guidance and manpower from Iran and from the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon.
Early on, some Obama advisers urged him to arm and train rebels at secret CIA camps in Jordan, but Obama was heedful of other advice he was receiving about the danger of getting sucked into the conflict or of making it worse.
It is possible to blame all the hideous developments of the last two years on Obamaís ambivalence, but it was an ambivalence founded on legitimate concerns. One was the reluctance of the American people to become involved in another war. Presidents have had to learn over and over again the lesson that it is difficult to fight a war without the support of the American people.
Another cause of Obamaís reluctance was uncertainty about the rebels. Whom would we be arming? U.S. policymakers were trying to map out a transition plan for a post-Assad Syria, mindful of the failure of the Bush administration to plan for a post-Saddam Iraq. It turned out Assad would not be leaving quickly after all, and transition was not in the offing. Meanwhile, during the long period of Obamaís ambivalence, radical Islamic groups had grown stronger within the rebellion, making it more difficult to support the rebels.
This tangled web of bad options and the conflict among Obamaís advisers was sketched out in a lengthy story in The New York Times on Wednesday. Among those pressing early for action on behalf of the rebels was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, CIA director David Petreaus and human rights adviser Samantha Power. Among those wary of involvement were National Security Advisers Susan Rice and Tom Donilon and Chief of Staff Denis McDonough.
The use of chemical weapons has forced the issue. It was not only the attack in August this year. U.S. officials knew about previous attacks. In fact, lack of response by the United States to those earlier attacks probably acted like a green light for Assad. But the August attack was so egregious it pushed Obama to threaten intervention.
Surprisingly, Obama sought the approval of Congress before attacking Syria. In fact, he was following the constitutional process and putting the notion of war to a democratic test. It turned out that Congressís cool reaction reflected lack of interest by the public about getting into a war with Syria. And yet Obamaís newly warlike stance persuaded Assad he needed to take some action to protect himself. Giving up his chemical weapons according to the plan suggested by Russian President Vladimir Putin was Assadís act of self-defense.
The failure of the Syrian rebels to overthrow Assad might be blamed on Obama because of his reluctance to embark on another Middle Eastern adventure, but it might as easily be blamed on the American people who have shared that reluctance. Mostly, it must be blamed on circumstances in Syria. These include the ruthlessness of Assad, the fractiousness of the rebellion and the intervention of Iran on Assadís behalf. Obama was not the author of events in Syria.
Ambivalence has its uses. It prevents hasty action that creates new catastrophes. Sometimes situations are not ripe for action. Then again, opportunities for creative action may be lost by excessive caution. These are the imponderables of history and the cause of lingering anguish on all sides. Meanwhile, Syria burns.
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