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 in Atlantic Council by Frederic Hof, Obama’s former special adviser 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 150,000.
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 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 citizens.
What lies beneath the flimsy tissue of these stories? Republican hawks like John McCain, Ariz., 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 world.
Whatever the case, Obama appears to have convinced 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 that 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-Qaida 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.
James Traub is a fellow of the Center on International Cooperation. He writes the Terms of Engagement column for Foreign Policy magazine.
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