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Obama's 'Alice in Wonderland' Syria Strategy

If you don't know where you are going, any road will take you there.

President Obama's decision to intervene more directly in Syria's civil war by providing limited lethal aid to certain members of the Syrian opposition is a significant foreign policy commitment. It is also a very confused one.

Forget for a moment that the case for Syria's chemical weapons use was based on unverifiable evidence, or that the administration had reportedly decided to arm Syrian rebels before it even had that evidence. Forget that the president himself reportedly does not think arming the rebels will achieve much, that only 11 percent or 20 percent of the American people endorse his decision, that analysts dismiss it as "too little, too late," and that even Capitol Hill supporters believe the move is insufficient. As Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez stated: "You can't just simply send them a pea shooter against a blunderbuss."

What was most troubling about this latest shift in U.S. policy was the absence of a speech or briefing by the president, or a cabinet official, to clearly articulate why America is deepening its involvement in this Middle East conflict, what U.S. interests are at stake in the civil war, and what strategic objective the United States hopes to achieve. When asked directly about his decision to provide lethal assistance, Obama stated: "I cannot and will not comment on specifics around our programs related to the Syrian opposition."

The cornerstone of holding public officials accountable by evaluating their policy choices is to first understand what those policies are, but since the June 13 announcement, Obama administration officials have offered the following reasons:

President Obama:

  • "[W]e want a Syria that is peaceful, non-sectarian, democratic, legitimate, tolerant. And that is our overriding goal. We want to end the bloodshed. We want to make sure that chemical weapons are not used, and that chemical weapons do not fall into the hands of people who would be willing to use them."

Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes:

  • "[T]o help build an opposition that can be broadly representative of the Syrian people."
  • "[T]o create a more moderate foundation for opponents of the regime so that we're marginalizing extremists and empowering people that we believe will respect the rights of the Syrian people."
  • "[S]ome type of transition that preserves state institutions."

State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki:

  • "[T]o strengthen the opposition on the ground, but also their political organization, increase their effectiveness and their cohesion."
  • "[T]he goal is for [the opposition] to expand.... They need to elect leadership."
  • "[A] political solution, a political transition.... [T]hat remains our focus."
  • "[I]mproving the ground situation for the opposition ... change the balance on the ground."

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel:

  • "To assure that this problem in Syria doesn't totally break down and we see the disintegration of Syria."

Secretary of State John Kerry:

  • "We do so not to seek a military solution; we do so to come to the table and find a political settlement." 

While some of these partially overlap, administration officials have put forth over a dozen objectives for the United States and its partners in Syria -- in just the last 12 days. Never in the history of third-party interventions in civil wars has so much been asked of so little. This combination of maximalist and minimalist goals without a single clearly articulated strategic objective, or any degree of prioritization, should be troubling to all Americans. The situation brings to mind the condensed quote from a conversation between Alice and the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland: "If you don't know where you are going, any road will take you there."

The practical effect of the policy shift is that America is now formally tied to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which is ostensibly commanded by the Supreme Military Council (SMC) and led by former Syrian army general Salim Idriss. Shortly before the White House announced Syria's chemical weapons use, Idriss warned: "If we don't receive ammunition and weapons ... to change the balance on the ground, very frankly I can say we will not go to Geneva." Rather than condition U.S. lethal assistance on Idriss's participation in the Geneva talks, the United States provided arms in the hopes that Idriss might decide to attend Geneva at some point in the future -- an early demonstration of who has leverage over whom.

When an outside power openly backs certain rebel groups in a civil war, it immediately becomes invested in their prestige and power vis-à-vis other groups and in their success against the ruling regime. The outside power can fail: 1) If the groups receiving support see their relative power reduced, either through battlefield failures or political incompetence; 2) If the groups that the outside power hopes to marginalize actually gain prestige or power; or 3) If the ruling regime survives. Therefore, the United States and its partners are not merely "picking sides" in Syria, but picking sides of sides, and doing so with conflicting goals. French President Francois Hollande recently called on the FSA to start fighting Islamist rebels to "push these groups out." This would be yet another objective.

A spokesperson for the FSA's Washington-based lobbying wing welcomed the White House's public commitment of support, noting: "Obama is now directly involved, so he has more of a stake in whether we win or lose." This is, of course, a strategic goal for the weaker party in any conflict: securing and then deepening the political and military support of outside third parties to help them win. Proponents of intervening in Syria claimed that U.S. credibility -- vis-a-vis Iran, the Middle East, the world, etc. -- was on the line. Having tied its fate to the FSA, U.S. credibility is arguably now at even greater risk. If the FSA fails on the battlefield, then it will claim that it didn't get enough weapons -- or powerful enough weapons. However, should the combined armed opposition groups believe they can "seek a military solution" over the Assad regime, then why engage in the Geneva diplomatic process at all?

Furthermore, it is difficult to see how arming certain rebel groups will achieve some of the Obama administration's objectives. For example, why would more weapons compel the Supreme Military Council to become more cohesive or broadly representative? The SMC could simply pocket the additional arsenal to bolster its power relative to other rebel groups. It could also sell them: The New York Times reported this weekend that SMC-backed groups have sold weapons to extremists who are purportedly blacklisted from receiving outside military assistance. Finally, the weapons could cause further rifts within the Free Syrian Army: After a shipment of advanced weaponry arrived in Syria recently, an FSA spokesperson complained, "The distribution was not fair. It was random, based on the people they know." A rebel commander in Aleppo asked: "Do [the Americans] not realize that they will prompt further infighting in rebel ranks?"

In discussing Syria, administration officials have repeated the post-Iraq interventionist mantra: "[A]ll options remain on the table" -- except "boots on the ground." Or, as a senior official put it: "We are looking for the best option with the least involvement." Rather than stating a strategic objective for Syria and developing a political-military campaign plan that could plausibly achieve it, the Obama administration's "strategy" is focused primarily on keeping the effort level down. If the White House has decided -- above all else -- to minimize America's commitments in Syria, then it should also markedly reduce its stated political and military objectives. President Obama acknowledges that, in Syria, "it is very easy to slip-slide your way into deeper and deeper commitments." That is especially true when the United States and its partners are so unclear and conflicted about why they are there.

DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images

National Security

To Protect and Defend...

No, Mr. President, your top job is not to 'keep the American people safe.'

When asked last September if he personally chose which individual terrorist suspects could be targeted with lethal force, President Barack Obama gave a response that would have astounded the founding fathers: "What is absolutely true is that my first job, my most sacred duty, as president and commander in chief, is to keep the American people safe." This is false. As the presidential "Oath or Affirmation" in the Constitution reads: "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of the President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

It is troubling that someone who lectured on constitutional law for a dozen years at the University of Chicago Law School would misidentify the president's primary pledge and obligation. To be fair, his predecessor was similarly guilty. George W. Bush told a cheering crowd at the 2004 Republican National Convention: "I believe the most solemn duty of the American president is to protect the American people." This interpretation was supposed to be corrected with the 2008 presidential election; then-Senator Obama had declared during the campaign: "I was a constitutional law professor, which means, unlike the current president, I actually respect the Constitution."

Now in his second term, President Obama insists that his counterterrorism policies differ markedly from Bush's. However, there are far more similarities than differences with regards to: non-battlefield targeted killings (an estimated 50 under Bush, and 387 under Obama); indefinite detention of suspected terrorists (approved by both through executive orders); broad surveillance authorities (as former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden admitted on Sunday, "NSA is actually empowered to do more things than I was empowered to do under President Bush's special authorization"); and overclassification of government information (largely unchanged). Ari Fleischer, Bush's former spokesperson and now public defender, recently tweeted: "Drone strikes. Wiretaps. Gitmo. O is carrying out Bush's 4th term. Yet he attacked Bush 4 violating Constitution. #hypocrisy."

The essential and enduring feature of both post-9/11 presidents has been their shared contention that their core objective -- and by extension, that of the executive branch -- is to protect U.S. citizens from one particular form of harm: terrorist violence. Both success and failure at achieving this objective have justified the expansion of additional authorities and tools. If there are no terrorist attacks, then all policies in place must remain, but when terrorist plots are revealed or the rare attack occurs, then additional tools and secrecy are mandated. Like a ratchet wrench, it only works in one direction. It does not matter if these presidential powers erode individual civil liberties or the ability of citizens to comprehend or evaluate the activities of the national security state. Again, the executive branch's obligation is less to protect citizens' constitutional rights than it is to protect citizens' lives, but only from terrorists.

The White House's response to the serial NSA revelations last week vividly showcased this mindset. Press secretary Josh Earnest declared: "The top priority of the president of the United States is the national security of the United States and protecting this homeland." The president, meanwhile, defended the status quo by making a classic straw-man argument: "If every step that we're taking to try to prevent a terrorist act is on the front page of the newspapers or on television, then presumably the people who are trying to do us harm are going to be able to get around our preventive measures." Obama also noted that if this information is "just dumped out willy-nilly, it's very hard for us to be effective." (This echoed his straw-man characterization of drone strikes: "There's this perception that we're just sending a whole bunch of strikes willy-nilly.")

Of course, nobody has argued that "every step" of every counterterrorism activity should be made public. Interestingly, the Obama administration makes the reverse argument that every activity it says should remain classified is nobody's business. Moreover, the revelations published in the Guardian and the Washington Post involved the collection of metadata of U.S. citizens' phone records, emails, website visits, and credit card transactions. The American public was never made aware of this monitoring of their personal activities, and when Sen. Ron Wyden asked James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, in March, "Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?" Clapper responded: "No, sir." It turns out they have been, for at least the past seven years.

Although Obama has yet to be asked if Clapper will be investigated for apparently lying to Congress under oath, the president further defended the NSA's surveillance programs by claiming, "Not only is Congress fully apprised of it, but what is also true is that the FISA [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] Court has to authorize it." Last week, when Attorney General Eric Holder attempted to make this same argument before a Senate appropriations subcommittee, Sen. Barbara Mikulski stopped him flat:

This "fully briefed" is something that drives us up the wall, because often "fully briefed" means a group of eight leadership. It does not necessarily mean relevant committees.… So "fully-briefed" doesn't mean we know what's going on.

Subsequent statements from senators and congressmen of both parties revealed that most elected representatives were -- like the general public -- unaware of the scope of data that was being collected, and disagreed about its effectiveness at disrupting terrorist plots. Meanwhile, the FISA Court has rejected only 11 of the more than 33,900 surveillance applications made by the federal government since 1979. Therefore, the congressional and judicial oversight of these only just-now-revealed NSA surveillance programs appears to be both confused and sparse. Obama claimed: "On balance, we have established a process and a procedure that the American people should feel comfortable about." Many Americans are not, because they were kept in the dark about what "telephony metadata" was being collected from them, and the processes and procedures are nearly as opaque.

Bush's and Obama's expansive executive branch powers and attendant secrecy are all allegedly in service of protecting the homeland from foreign terrorists. All the justifications provided by former and current government officials for maintaining every NSA program are centered on just one mission: countering terrorism. It is as if the NSA's collection priorities and programs -- detailed in the National Intelligence Priorities Framework that Obama signs every six months -- has the word "TERRORISM" stamped across it. Two months ago, Clapper claimed that cyber was the No. 1 "distinct threat area" facing the United States. However, officials did not mention cyberattacks -- or, for example, listening into Chinese military communications -- when defending the NSA, because public discourse privileges preventing terrorism over any other national security task.

You might notice that you never read on the front page of the Washington Post about an expansive and highly classified program to limit vaccine-preventable deaths, even though 1.5 million children under age 5 die each year. There are no investigative journalists who report from "inside the ultra-secret world" of the sprawling U.S. Agency for International Development. Likewise, you will never hear about a Department of Energy official who blows the whistle on a massive, multiyear effort to expand renewable energies or improve carbon-sequestration technologies. Or, of contractors in Virginia being showered with money for a crash program to answer all outstanding Freedom of Information Act requests. Or, of course, of a plan to reduce the 31,672 annual firearm deaths within the United States.

The president and executive branch are entrusted with secret sweeping authorities -- used with minimum oversight -- only to protect Americans from the minor and statistically insignificant threat of foreign terrorism. During his 2009 inaugural address, Obama claimed: "We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals." Given the continuation of the safety-first mindset and sustainment (or expansion) of counterterrorism programs from his predecessor, apparently there was precious little choice to be made.

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images