By the admittedly low standards of his profession, Barack
Obama is an intellectually honest man. I was first drawn to him in early 2007
when I read Dreams from My Father, a
pitilessly self-scrutinizing memoir. Five years in the White House have not
made him less introspective: earlier this year, he told
David Remnick of the New Yorker that "there's
going to be tragedy out there and, by occupying this office, I am part of that
tragedy occasionally," but that he believed that "at the end of the day" he
would make things "better rather than worse."
Yet there is one subject on which the president's rueful
self-awareness gives way to utter hypocrisy: Syria.
Obama reminded us once again of this strange twitch when he insisted
in a press conference in Manila earlier this week that his critics are yearning
for "military adventures." Once they concede that a "land war" in Syria is off
the table, he said mockingly, their argument "trails off."
How many times have we watched Obama stand up this straw
man? He told Remnick that the only alternative to his risk-averse policy on
Syria was "an effort in size and scope similar to what we did in Iraq" -- a
revival of the Powell Doctrine, whose premise is that the United States must
either deploy massive force or not use force at all. He tried to stymie the
editors of the New Republic with a
rhetorical question: "How do I weigh tens of thousands who have been killed in
Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the
Congo?" Obama is a law professor; in a previous life he would have thoroughly dismantled
anyone self-serving enough to claim that that if you can't do everything you
must do nothing.
In a general sense, though, I get where Obama is coming from.
Many of his detractors, as he said in Manila, seem to want him to use military
force everywhere, including Ukraine. I'm with him on that. Every time I watch Morning Joe I think: Television news -- the
home of armchair heroism. The people who have sat in Obama's chair, as opposed
to the anchor desk, have had their hand stayed, again and again, by an acute
awareness of the consequences of the use of force -- and thank God they have.
Yes, it's complicated. All the questions on Syria are hard,
and all the choices are bad. Yet Obama is unable to even honestly present those
choices anymore. No one is suggesting an all-out or even limited land war in
Syria; the outer limit of his critics' proposals is an air campaign comparable
to the one mounted against Libya. (See the most recent column
by Frederic Hof, Obama's former special advisor for the transition in Syria and
now one of his most persistent and eloquent critics.) Obama's own senior staff
argued in 2012 for a more aggressive campaign of arming moderate rebels. How
can he keep declaring that on Syria, it's all or next-to-nothing?
It doesn't take much psychological insight to suggest that
Obama is trying to obscure a painful truth from himself. This would be easy
enough if he had the gift for believing whatever was useful for him to believe,
a trait which George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan had in spades. Barack Obama does
not; he must recognize how incongruous it is that the most powerful man in the
world, a man sworn to the principle of "the responsibility to protect," has
chosen not to act to stop a mass slaughter whose death toll has now topped
Obama must find a complicated and convincing story in order
to explain his inaction to himself, and to the American people. The public
narrative is that he faces a Hobson's choice
between prudent restraint and reckless activism. Perhaps the private narrative,
as I suggested in an earlier
column is that a president must have the courage to accept the tragic
limits on his power, and do what he can to make things better rather that worse
-- by, in this case, eliminating Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons, even if
doing so has no bearing on the regime's capacity or propensity to kill its own
What lies beneath the flimsy tissue of these stories?
Republican hawks like John McCain claim
that Obama is squeamish about the use of force, in Syria and elsewhere. That's
the armchair belligerence Obama was mocking in Manila. You would think the president's
aggressive use of drones would put that argument to rest. If there is an
ignoble explanation for Obama's persistent choice of the "do-less" option in
Syria, it's that he fears that the American people just want awful problems abroad
to go away, and would never forgive him if, say, an American plane went down
and Syrian president Bashar al-Assad got to brandish a U.S. pilot before the
Whatever the case, Obama appears to have persuaded himself
of the tragic premise that whatever actions the United States takes (beyond providing
training and very modest equipment to non-radical insurgents) will do more harm
than good. Even so, if he actually wanted to tip the balance of force in Syria,
the president plainly should have authorized the provision of more weapons to
more fighters at an earlier stage. Now those moderate insurgents are barely
hanging on, while the lunatic-fringe jihadists known as Islamic State of Iraq
and al-Sham (ISIS) are seizing territory. Assad, meanwhile, is proceeding with
an election, or a kind of ritual coronation, which he imagines, not without
reason, will augment his threadbare credibility. Obama's policy, whatever it
is, is failing.
What now? Some of the pundits Obama ridiculed in Manila would
like to see him assemble an international air campaign to destroy the planes,
helicopters, and artillery formations which Assad is now using to carry out his
slaughter. I'm one of them, though I recognize that that's not going to happen.
Yet opportunities, however slim, may lie elsewhere. There are now modest signs
of life among the moderates whom Obama professedly wishes to support. A new
"Southern Front" allegedly including 30,000 fighters has
formed along the Jordanian border; its leaders say they reject al Qaeda and
other extremists, and are now waiting for the heavy weapons which they need to
take on regime troops.
The Obama administration has also taken tentative steps to supply
such weapons to vetted rebels units. According to a recent
account in the Washington Post, Harakat
Hazm, a disciplined and effective fighting force operating in northwestern
Idlib province, has received a shipment of 20 American anti-tank missiles,
apparently from one of the Gulf states, acting with U.S. consent. The shipment,
said the group's commander, "suggests a change in the U.S. attitude."
That's an optimistic assessment. There is no sign of any
change in Obama's risk-averse policy. Nevertheless, it has become impossible to
sustain the fiction that Assad and his cronies will leave pursuant to a
negotiated solution -- unless a drastic change occurs on the battlefield. A
civil war within the civil war now pits ISIS against both less extreme insurgents
and some Kurdish forces. If outsiders don't step up their support for rebels
deemed acceptable -- and if the United States doesn't organize and coordinate
that support -- those rebels will be crushed to a powder between Assad on the
one side and ISIS on the other. Syria will become precisely the cockpit of
chaos and extremism which the White House has long feared it would be.
The time has come for Obama to stop protecting himself from
the risk of failure and reproach, and to stop shooting uncontested lay-ups
against talking heads. These rhetorical games should be beneath his dignity.
And the consequences of inaction -- for Syria, for the United States and for
Obama's own legacy -- are much too grave.