President Obama’s Epically Botched Syria Policy


A couple of years ago Greg Djerejian sort of semi-quit blogging and he pretty much fell off my radar screen. But he still blogs. He just does it infrequently and I haven’t noticed it. But back in the day, there was no one better for firing off a memorable foreign policy rant when he had finally had enough and wasn’t going to take it anymore. Today, via Patrick Appel, it turns out that Djerejian has had quite enough of President Obama’s Syria policy:

The myriad leaks around what type of mission, the palpable trigger-happiness among some, the British debacle (they won’t even have their poodle this time, the cat-calls will ring!) and the ‘shot across the bow’ nonsense showcases an Administration unready for an invigorated course correction of its flailing Syria policy. Frankly, I am astonished by the lack of seriousness and mediocrity on display.

….The incredibly publicized, telegraphed theater around how this will be a deterrent mission to slap bad-boy Bashar’s wrist for his alleged use of CW (as we break international law ourselves via the putative response despite the typical legal mumbo-jumbo lawyers will be commandeered to produce) has been an epic embarrassment….If you mean it for real, however, you quietly go about your business planning a deterrent response that Bashar won’t simply hunker down through, you wait for the UN inspectors to issue their report on reasonable timing (would be graceful, no, at very least given the risks they undertook during their mission?), you at least try to have robust UNSC dialogue….In short, you quietly execute, lay groundwork and let your opponent wonder what the hell is coming after his ostensibly despicable actions, rather than this gussied-up R2P prom-night feel-good gesture. The benefits of protecting the norm are outweighed by the feeble lack of coherence of the contemplated response.

This past 72-96 hours have been a titanic embarrassment for anyone who cares about U.S. foreign policy. It appears a rush job to beat the St. Petersburg summitry on a quiet August weekend that everyone hopes will be quickly forgotten, except for the mighty ‘lesson’ learned. It’s worse than unprofessional and cowardly. It’s contemptible in the extreme. Make it stop. Declare the orgy of speculation and movement of naval carriers have already doubtless ensured the boy dictator will think more carefully in the future using such weaponry. Mission accomplished! Better than risking gross unintended consequences by a team that, alternatively, does not really have the stomach for the fight, or are simply not up to it strategy-wise, and in the President’s case, perhaps both.

That’s a righteous rant. Is it fair? Probably not entirely. There’s always a lot more messiness to these things than we think there should be, and often more messiness than we remember about similar episodes in the past.

Nonetheless, it seems mostly fair to me. It’s pretty plain that Obama has boxed himself in; is conflicted about what to do; has made that conflictedness all too public; has no real long-term strategy in mind; and flatly failed to realize that there would be any real opposition to intervening in Syria. Lack of strategic vision aside (America was firing a “shot across the bow”? Seriously?), it’s the last point that’s most mind-boggling. Obama seemingly didn’t realize that the American public wasn’t on board; Congress wasn’t on board; our allies weren’t all on board; and even his own administration wasn’t entirely on board. I’m not quite sure how a professional politician could have botched this so epically, but he did.

Obama never should have set a red line in Syria in the first place, and once he did he should simply have found a way to weasel out of it. It’s not that hard. Sure, the forever-hawks would have squealed, but they were going to squeal about anything short of Iraq 2.0 no matter what. So who cares what they think?

As near as I can tell, after five years Obama has been entirely captured by the national security establishment. It’s a damn shame. The elite consensus on overseas intervention—and national security more broadly—desperately needed to be challenged after a decade of the Bush/Cheney administration, but after a few nods in the right direction during his early days, he’s mostly just caved in to it. What a wasted opportunity.

POSTSCRIPT: Just for the record, Congress hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory on Syria either. As usual, most members want to retain their freedom to criticize whatever happens while desperately trying to avoid taking any actual responsibility for U.S. military action. It’s pathetic.

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