Last week's revelations that Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey had supported a proposal by then CIA Director David Petraeus and outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to arm moderate Syrian rebels have galvanized the Syria policy debate. The Syria policy community, which for the most part these days yearns for more aggressive American action, is outraged that the White House overruled this plan. But the real story is that, for once, the inter-agency process actually worked: It vetted and discarded a scheme which rigorous analysis concluded wouldn't work.
The failure of American diplomacy to end Syria's parade of horrors has rightfully driven the policy community to search for a useful alternative. But arming the rebels was always a classic "Option C." Every bureaucrat knows the trick of offering three options -- one to do nothing, one so outlandish that it is easily rejected, and then one that takes the seemingly sensible middle ground, allowing the decision-maker the illusion that they are resolving the problem.
Whether or not Option C has any chance of actually working is almost an afterthought. For an example of how this works, see "the Afghan Surge," which lacked even a plausible theory of how it might work. In Syria, the most likely effect of arming the rebels is simply to set up the president for another decision point six months later as the battle rages and the rebels seem unable to close the deal. And at that point, the president would face an even starker decision: Option A, give up and be tarred forever for cutting and running; Option B, full-scale military intervention, which of course would be rejected; and Option C, escalation through some combination of no-fly zones, a bombing campaign, and safe areas.
When this debate began in earnest one year ago, I predicted that policy would move toward arming the rebels as the easiest way to appear to be "doing something" -- even if nobody really believed that it would work. It does not surprise me that Petraeus, Clinton, or Panetta would gravitate toward this option. It surprises me even less to find their preferred policy stance, once it was thwarted, would magically appear in the media. What does surprise me is that the White House managed to cut off this option at the pass.
And don't get it twisted -- arming the rebels was "Option C." Sen. John McCain, who has been leading the charge to intervene in Syria, said this summer that arming the rebels was a good step, but "this alone will not be decisive." In fact, he went on to warn that providing weapons "may even just prolong [the conflict]."
McCain's preference was to "make U.S. airpower available, along with that of our allies, as part of an international effort to defend safe areas in Syria and to prevent Assad's forces from harassing [the rebels]." Air power, he believed, could carve out an area inside Syria where the opposition could organize itself, and then use it as a staging area to expand opposition control across the country -- much like how the Libyan rebels used the eastern city of Benghazi as their base. The Pentagon, however, had little interest in such a scheme.
Michael Doran and Salman Shaikh last week in FP put forward the strongest case to arm the rebels, which is well worth the read. But even for them, was this really their first, best option -- the one they believe will meet with the greatest chance of success? Along with two colleagues from Brookings, this is what Doran and Shaikh had to say 11 months ago:
While history is replete with states arming opposition groups to weaken their rivals, the precedents for the opposition succeeding quickly in regime change are fewer.... In most cases, supporting an opposition ties down a country's forces and fosters instability but does not topple the regime.... The United States might still arm the opposition even knowing they will probably never have sufficient power, on their own, to dislodge the Asad network. Washington might choose to do so simply in the belief that at least providing an oppressed people with some ability to resist their oppressors is better than doing nothing at all, even if the support provided has little chance of turning defeat into victory.
Alternatively, the United States might calculate that it is still worthwhile to pin down the Asad regime and bleed it, keeping a regional adversary weak, while avoiding the costs of direct intervention.... [T]he U.S. and allied association with the opposition would make it difficult to walk away from them and from Syria if, as is likely, they continue to suffer set-backs or slaughter at the hands of regime forces. Thus pressure to adopt more costly options would grow.