Syria is a tragedy. Too much blood has flowed to imagine a negotiated transition and apparently not enough to warrant an effective intervention by a divided, cautious, and self-interested international community. And it may well be that the real struggle for Syria -- the one that determines its future character -- has yet to begin.
But to lay this bloody mess at President Barack Obama's doorstep, as John Hannah (a guy I respect and admire) does in his recent post for FP, is both wrong and unfair.
I write this not so much in defense of Obama's policies as in recognition of the cruel reality and terrible choices the United States has faced with regards to the Syrian uprising and civil war.
During this entire two-year debate on what Obama should or shouldn't have done on Syria, I have yet to hear a single military strategy that the administration could have adopted that would have been feasible, effective, and consequential in altering the bloody arc of this crisis for the better
Real game-changing moves -- weeks of air and missile strikes on Syrian military assets and leadership targets, a no-fly zone, and a sustained effort to provide the fragmented opposition with lethal weapons -- were rightly deemed too risky, too uncertain, and too open-ended to be viable. At the end of the day, Syria hawks simply could not assure Americans that they wouldn't be stuck with yet another Middle East quagmire.
The less risky steps -- sending in humanitarian assistance and non-lethal aid to the opposition, positioning Patriot missile batteries in Turkey, and launching political efforts to coordinate the opposition -- carried little risk. Admittedly, they have not had much real consequence in altering the course of the conflict. But that doesn't mean that taking more aggressive measures would be good for the United States. And at the end of the day, that's what U.S. foreign policy has to be about.
We will never know about the what-ifs, of course. In the world of counterfactuals, the what-might-have-beens can never be fact checked, let alone held to any kind of empirical standard. And there are risks to everything in life -- action and inaction. Some argue that trying more ambitious policies -- even if they failed -- would have been better than not trying at all. But they haven't persuaded me, or too many others.