Speaking from a refugee camp in Turkey last year, Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami told CNN that, like Bill Clinton, who felt ashamed for not intervening to stop the Rwandan genocide, Barack Obama will look back with regret at his refusal to use American power in Syria.
By any standard, Syria is a disaster.
But it's not Rwanda, where 800,000 Tutsis were massacred within a period of eight months. Nor is it Obama's disaster in the sense that he's responsible for what has transpired there by not intervening.
Obama has avoided intervention not because he's insensitive, incompetent, or even uninterested. He has done so because his options aren't just bad, they're terrible. Syria is already a disaster, but a ham-handed intervention could make matters worse, certainly for America.
The commentariat is looking for ways to press the administration to act. Their arguments are largely correct: Syria is indeed a moral, humanitarian, and strategic disaster. But their prescription for action is long on generalities and short on specifics, and even fuzzier on how the United States could stabilize the country and then extract itself from yet another entanglement in the Middle East. No analogy is all that relevant here -- not Rwanda, not Libya, not Bosnia. The Syrian calamity is unique.
The American experience in Afghanistan and Iraq looms large over the Syrian conflict. The parallel that's worth paying attention to isn't boots on the ground -- it's the question of connecting means to ends. In the Syrian case, the central question is: How does militarizing the American role -- through providing arms to the rebels, creating a no-fly zone, or even launching military strikes -- pave the way for a successful outcome?
None of the incremental steps that have been proposed so far have answered the following questions: Can these actions degrade Syria's military power so that President Bashar al-Assad's regime collapses? Or, alternatively, can they produce a stalemate that would force the regime, the Russians, and Iran to accept a negotiated transition?
Even if Assad falls, why do we believe that the battle in Syria will end? In the wake of the regime's collapse, the Syrian war may well expand -- Alawite militias will continue the fight, opposition groups will struggle among themselves for control, and foreign powers will continue to meddle in the hopes of emerging on top of the new Syrian political order. If America wants to play in this war, so be it -- but experience suggests it's the kind of arena in which we can't win.
It's not that America can't intervene militarily in Syria, or even that the options on the table are too risky. The problem is that the incremental steps being considered probably won't work without a much more sustained and aggressive military intervention. And after America's baby steps into the Syrian war don't resolve it, Obama will face a choice: He can either stand down and reveal we don't have the will to stand up, or he can escalate. On this front, I agree with my former colleague Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who argued that being heartless is better than being mindless.
Those are all good reasons to avoid intervening in Syria -- but I doubt they will carry the day. By the end of the summer, more than 100,000 Syrians are likely to have died in a calamitous civil war that shows no signs of abating. As a result, the pressure to intervene will mount on the risk-averse Obama administration. Here's why we are headed for a militarization of the U.S. role in Syria.