Obama’s Policy Blindsides Friends; Encourages Enemies
After President Obama chose to ask for Congressional approval for any military action against Syria, NBC reported The White House walk-and-talk that changed Obama’s mind on Syria:
The plan was immediately met with robust resistance from a whiplashed Obama team who had listened to Kerry lay out the administration’s strongest case yet for action against Assad. “My friends, it matters here if nothing is done,” Kerry had argued. “It matters if the world speaks out in condemnation and then nothing happens.”
Yesterday, The Wall Street Journal added more details of the reversal, Inside White House, a Head-Spinning Reversal on Chemical Weapons (Google Search here):
When President Barack Obama decided he wanted congressional approval to strike Syria, he received swift—and negative—responses from his staff. National Security Adviser Susan Rice warned he risked undermining his powers as commander in chief. Senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer pegged the chances of Congress balking at 40%. His defense secretary also raised concerns. …
Not everyone is pleased. Mr. Obama infuriated allies who lined up against Mr. Assad and his regional backers Iran and Hezbollah. French officials, who were more aggressive than the U.S. in urging a strike, feel they have been left out on a limb.
It can’t be good when the people you confuse and blindside are your domestic and foreign allies. At the time President Obama decided to go to Congress, the Wall Street Journal reported that the military was poised to strike at Syria and was just awaiting the President’s command.
While I don’t believe that the president was indecisive – he never intended to attack Syria – the way he publicly came to his eventual policy was unplanned. In the words of the Wall Street Journal’s sub-headline, “How the U.S. Stumbled Into an International Crisis and Then Stumbled Out of It.”
The Journal also reported the “stumbling out” part of the President’s policy:
The way out of the impasse came by accident during a news conference in London on Sept. 9. Secretary of State Kerry, in response to a question, ad libbed that Syria could avert a U.S. attack if it gave up its chemical weapons.
Minutes later, his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, called him. “I’d like to talk to you about your initiative,” Mr. Lavrov said from Moscow, where he was hosting a delegation of Syrian diplomats.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the American diplomat jokingly replied.
The country appears leaderless, and there are consequences.
The Washington Post reported During talks on Syria’s chemical weapons, fighting on the ground escalated:
At the close of a week hailed in Moscow and Washington as a triumph of diplomacy over war, more than 1,000 people died in the fighting in Syria, the latest casualties in a conflict that has killed more than 100,000 people and can be expected to claim many more.
The training of thousands of fighters is an outgrowth of Iran’s decision last year to immerse itself in the Syrian civil war on behalf of its struggling ally, the Assad regime, in an effort to shift the balance of power in the Middle East. Syria’s bloodshed is shaping into more than a civil war: It is now a proxy war among regional powers jockeying for influence in the wake of the Arab Spring revolutions.
On one side of this proxy war is Mr. Assad, backed by Iran, Russia and Shiite militias. On the other side, the rebels, backed by Saudi Arabia, Arab states and the U.S.
As far as the American backed rebels, The New York Times reports Deal Represents Turn for Syria; Rebels Deflated:
Rebels who had hoped to capitalize on a military strike to regain momentum in the fighting are now bracing for the opposite, expecting Mr. Assad to press the battle more aggressively with conventional weapons, which they bitterly note have killed scores of times as many civilians as chemical weapons have.
Rebels and analysts critical of Mr. Assad’s government say he has a well-established pattern of agreeing to diplomatic initiatives to buy time, only to go on escalating the fighting.
For example, when Mr. Assad accepted Arab League monitors in the country in late 2011 and early 2012, he also intensified his crackdown on opponents, and shortly afterward he began the large-scale bombardments of rebel-held areas, like the Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs, that have since become daily occurrences.
Even as negotiations were pursued for an unenforceable agreement, the fighting increased and Syrias fortunes improved. If there was a message sent it wasn’t: don’t dare test me.
If Syria and its patrons are now encouraged that there are no consequences to their actions, will Syria abide by the chemical weapons agreement sponsored by Russia? More generally, will Iran believe that it can get away stalling with talks as it obtains nuclear weapons?
These are results not of President Obama’s (in)decisiveness, but of his philosophy.
When President Obama spoke to the nation about Syria, he said:
After all, I’ve spent four and a half years working to end wars, not to start them. Our troops are out of Iraq. Our troops are coming home from Afghanistan. And I know Americans want all of us in Washington.
This is President Obama’s belief. Wars are ended by retreating and with pieces of paper; not by defeating one’s enemy on the battlefield. Or as Barry Rubin put it:
There is one other important consideration: the Obama administration does not accept the traditional diplomatic and great power strategies. It believes that it can reconcile with Islamist states, it does not comprehend deterrents, it does not keep faith with allies, and it does not believe in credibility, the belief that only power exerted can convince a foe of seriousness.
Syria, Iran and Russia know that President Obama has not interest in using force. They couldn’t be happier.