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Is Doing Something in Syria Better than Nothing?

Why Obama’s small plan to send small arms to the Syrian rebels might fail on all counts.

This week, President Barack Obama finally reached the point where he had to decide between something and nothing on Syria -- between diplomacy which had reached a dead end and lethal assistance to the rebels which he had steadfastly refused to offer.

Apparently, he could not bring himself to choose nothing in the face of a savage campaign of violence which has claimed the lives of almost 100,000 people, and perhaps many more. But his choice of something is so modest that it's unlikely to change the increasingly one-sided battle between the Syrian regime and the rebels.

I happened to speak to a senior administration official who has been involved in the discussions of Syria policy a few hours before the White House announcement. He made a point of saying that "there's nothing that we can do in the next week or two that will tip the balance." But he also noted that the announcement that "help is on the way" could "change the emotional balance" by giving the rebels hope and making Syrian President Bashar al-Assad fear that his opposition will become a more formidable force. It's clear that the White House was contemplating much tougher measures, including a "stand-off" assault on Syrian aerial assets carried out by American ships and planes located beyond Syria's borders. But the course that Obama adopted -- supplying the rebels with small arms and possibly anti-tank weaponry -- might shift the emotional balance in the opposite direction, by convincing both sides that the United States would rather see the rebels lose than take the risks involved with more robust support.

Secretary of State John Kerry has long spoken of the need to "change Assad's calculus," but this is not the announced goal of the new policy. Rather, Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security advisor, explained that once intelligence analysts concluded that Syria had crossed the "red line" against the use of chemical weapons, the president felt bound to act. That's almost certainly not the actual rationale for the decision: administration officials have been holding urgent discussions on Syria policy since last week, when Assad's forces, along with perhaps 2,000 troops from Hezbollah, ousted the rebels from the strategic crossroads town of Al Qusayr. The regime is now organizing a much larger, and potentially far more devastating assault on Aleppo, Syria's largest city. The "now or never" moment for the administration had suddenly and unexpectedly arrived -- the Syrian equivalent of the moment in Libya when only foreign intervention could prevent a murderous government attack on civilians in Benghazi. But the public explanation matters: If the professed goal is to preserve the president's credibility, rather than to change the balance of power, then Obama has succeeded simply by doing something rather than nothing.

I don't think Obama is that kind of cynic, but I do think he has persuaded himself that, whatever may be good for Syria, getting involved with the rebels is bad for the United States, and bad for him politically. Bill Clinton, who knows a thing or two about ignoring atrocities for fear of the political consequences of action, put the matter bluntly earlier this week when he said, "If you refuse to act and you cause a calamity," you can't excuse yourself later by saying, "Oh my god, two years ago there was a poll that said 80 percent of you were against it."

Syria is of course a much tougher case than Rwanda, for all the reasons we know: Syria is a modern state with a modern army; what began as a civil war is rapidly expanding into a region-wide sectarian war; and the rebels the United States proposes to help include a sizeable and growing number of jihadists affiliated with al Qaeda. Obama has had innumerable good reasons to hesitate. But it is worth recalling that this is a president who devoted his Nobel Peace Prize speech to the theory of just war, and who has established an Atrocities Prevention Board. And the mass killing in Syria constitutes the gravest atrocities the world has seen since the ethnic cleansing in Darfur a decade ago. No, it's not Rwanda; but it is comparable to the violence in the Balkans, which Clinton did finally move to stop -- and succeeded.

It has become almost unseemly to use the explicitly moral language of "the responsibility to protect." I have been struck by the rising tide of world-weary realism which has governed public debate on Syria. Last week, my friend Martin Burcharth, U.S. correspondent for the Danish daily Information, asked me to contribute to a what-to-do-about-Syria survey of American pundits. When I argued for arming the rebels and degrading the Syrian Air Force with missile strikes, Martin told me that I was more "daring" -- i.e., reckless -- than any of his other correspondents. There has been a growing consensus among American pundits that Syria is a loser, a hopeless cause to which the United States should give the widest possible berth. I was talking about Syria with two foreign policy experts just before the White House announcement; both agreed that Syria was bound to fracture into ethnic cantons, that the United States could do nothing to halt the dynamic, and that Obama had been wise to steer clear of any military engagement in that woebegone country.

They may be right; and yet we have passed very suddenly from the argument that the United States need not intervene because the rebels are bound to win, to the argument that the United States should not intervene because the rebel cause is doomed. Had Obama agreed to arm the rebels last year, when senior officials including Hillary Clinton urged him to do so, he had a real chance of forcing Assad to "change his calculus." The bar is much higher today: Hezbollah's decision to throw its resources fully into the war has enormously emboldened Assad and demoralized the opposition. Critics who have long thought Washington has no dog in the Syrian fight now make the very plausible claim that nothing the administration is prepared to do could blunt Assad's growing military power.

Of course, if that's true, a Balkanized Syria might be a best-case scenario. The worst-case scenario is that Syrian forces would overrun rebel strongholds everywhere save a few pockets in the north, and exact a terrible vengeance on helpless civilians. In the face of such a possibility, helping right the balance between the two sides would itself constitute a humanitarian act. And Obama could have done that if he chose. He would not have needed to declare a no-fly-zone, as John McCain and Lindsey Graham have demanded, though doing so would certainly save the lives of thousands of civilians. Jeffrey White, a military analyst who spent his career with the Defense Intelligence Agency, told me that even in the absence of such a campaign, arming the rebels with 120 mm. mortars and surface-to-air missiles could help them weaken, if not neutralize, Assad's vast advantage in armor and aircraft.

Obama has now crossed a line that he had hoped not to cross. Those who wish he had not done even that much will say that a slippery slope leads to U.S. boots on Syrian soil. That's not a serious argument; this is a president who is focused on reducing American troop deployments, not finding new pretexts for combat. The real question is how much the United States and other outside actors can do to stop the killings, to force Assad to reconsider, to stabilize a region now facing the threat of sectarian war. You can't help feeling that Obama is trying to simultaneously satisfy incompatible moral and strategic calculations. There's a very real danger that he will fail on both counts.

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Terms of Engagement

The Combative Consigliere

Will Susan Rice bring out a more muscular side of Barack Obama?

After the White House announced that Susan Rice would be replacing Tom Donilon as the president's national security advisor, I asked a foreign policy analyst who is close to the White House if he thought the change in personnel portended a change in policy. "Sure," he said, sardonically. "Susan will bring her magic wand and solve every problem in the world through intervention." He was mocking not Rice herself, but naïve activists who imagine that a more idealistic national security advisor will forge a more idealistic approach to the world.

More than four years in, Barack Obama has figured out what kind of foreign-policy president he wants to be -- less the visionary of the 2008 campaign than the faithful steward of national interests who closes out the ruinous misadventures of the post-9/11 era and husbands, rather than recklessly spends, America's limited resources. And it is reasonable to assume that this strategic recoupment will necessarily define Rice's tenure, whatever her personal convictions.

But I wonder if that's so. At first, after all, Secretary of State John Kerry looked a lot like his predecessor. Someone -- me, actually -- called him "Hillary Clinton in pants." But that hasn't been true at all. Hillary was an icon, with an iconic sense of her own role as America's face to the world; Kerry is a private figure enamored of back channels and shuttle diplomacy. Hillary was preoccupied with "cross-cutting" issues like the status of women; Kerry is a throwback who yearns to broker deals among sovereign states. And so he has frontally attacked deadlocked situations in Syria, Pakistan, and Palestine which his predecessor largely left to others. Good for him, I say.

Rice and Donilon are more obviously dissimilar. Donilon is a political insider with a deep regard for process, a man committed more to the neutral principle of ensuring that all voices are heard than to any specific policy outcome. He is a cautious man who wins the plaudits of foreign-policy realists for helping Obama steer clear of reckless entanglements, in Syria and elsewhere. Rice is a foreign-policy professional with deep convictions and a blithe self-assurance about her own judgments. She is a morally driven figure who makes those same realists uncomfortable. Michele Flournoy, the former under secretary of defense, says that Rice "may be more willing to take action in support of our values than many others would be who are more realpolitik."

The distinction is meaningful, but easily overdrawn. I once asked Rice if she considered herself idealistic, and she bridled. "`Idealistic' to me connotes believing in things or wanting things that are not achievable," she said. She would accept "principled," but she was fine with "pragmatic." At the United Nations, where she has been the U.S. ambassador, she is known for aggressively pushing American interests, not global goods. Rice also has an extremely well-developed instinct for where the president wants to be on any given issue, and will not stray beyond his views. She will wave no magic wands of intervention. Yes, she pushed the president to intervene in Libya; but she has not done so with Syria. She did not, intriguingly, join Hillary and former CIA director David Petraeus and others in urging the president last year to arm the rebels.

So why does it matter that Susan Rice will be the next national security advisor rather than, say, the estimable Tony Blinken, the current deputy? Is it just a question of style -- of Rice's famously short fuse, her battle-tested skills as a turf warrior, her special relationship with the president as a fellow African-American superstar? All those things matter, and have already been subjected to a great deal of scrutiny (as in here, for example). But one senior administration official I spoke with said that the salient differences between Rice and Donilon are not in temperament but in outlook.

Again, think of the analogy with Kerry, whose travel schedule and pubic oratory give the impression that he is tugging the White House deeper into the Middle East at the very moment it is trying to leave the region's savage conflicts behind. Kerry isn't doing this because he's a lone wolf, but because he knows the region so well and is passionately committed to sorting out its problems. Susan Rice has a different, if overlapping, set of commitments. She spent much of the eight years between Democratic administrations at the Brookings Institution writing about the connection between weak and failing states and American national security -- and, yes, humanitarian intervention. The one issue she made her own as ambassador to the U.N. was nation-building and peacekeeping in Africa.

Both Rice and Kerry, in short, care deeply about the kind of intractable and generally unrewarding -- and morally urgent -- problems which have absorbed the energies of American statesmen since the end of the Cold War. The "pivot" to Asia, for which Donilon is given a good deal of credit, represents a recognition that the United States needs to prepare itself for both new opportunities and new threats in the region; but also a national exhaustion, even disgust, with the thankless task of peace-making, state-building, democracy promotion, and above all military intervention of the last generation. Americans don't want to meddle with the insides of countries any more.

But the Middle East is going to keep tugging at the American sleeve. What is Washington going to do if not just Syria, but also Lebanon and Iraq, slide deeper into sectarian warfare? What if declining oil prices destabilize Saudi Arabia, or a third intifada breaks out in Palestine? The African success story is real; but so, at the same time, is state failure in much of the continent. In Dispensable Nation, Vali Nasr harshly criticizes Obama for favoring drones and counterinsurgency over diplomacy and development, and mocks the pivot to Asia as a kind of escapist fantasy. It's a one-sided narrative, but there's a lot of merit in it.

So I wonder if Rice will rebalance the rebalancing, and remind Obama that America can not walk away from the world's weak and failing places. Egypt and Libya need the United States, no matter how vexing they are; and Washington needs to let Egypt's president, Mohammed Morsi, know that cracking down on Hamas will not be enough to buy American goodwill if he continues cracking down on his domestic opposition as well.

Meanwhile, the rebels in Syria need the United States as well. Kerry has done Obama a favor by arranging with Moscow to bring the two sides together in Geneva, and thus buy more time for U.S. inaction. But the conference is almost mathematically certain to fail -- if it is held at all -- and then Washington will have to choose between obviously futile diplomatic encouragement and some form of military assistance, whether facilitated or provided directly. Is it such a foregone conclusion that Obama will continue to stand by as the body count mounts towards 100,000? The wisdom of restraint may come to feel intolerably craven. And Rice -- and Kerry -- may wind up urging him to arm the rebels. They might even work together!

The Barack Obama we have come to know over the last four years is a deeply cautious man with an acute awareness of how noble-sounding missions can miscarry disastrously. And the economic failure he inherited has compelled him to argue for "nation-building at home" rather than abroad. But he is a complex man with an ambitious sense of his nation's destiny, and his own. Tom Donilon reinforced one side of Obama. Perhaps Susan Rice will reinforce the other.

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