Obama’s Syria Policy Surrounded, Under Fire


President Barack Obama is taking a hellish political beating over his policy toward Syria. It’s not just John McCain and the usual suspects on the right who are calling him weak, and calling the policy an abject failure. It’s Democrats in Congress, ex-military people and former members of his own administration, most prominently Hillary Clinton.

They have some points, too. The air strikes have been ineffectual, as have attempts to train moderate rebels. (Looking for moderate revolutionaries is somewhat akin to a search for Sasquatch.) Into the void steps Russia, carrying out air strikes of its own in support of President Bashar al Assad, who, according to Obama, has to go. The Russian targets, however, are not ISIL, but other opponents of Assad—Obama’s “moderates.” It’s a mess.

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A couple of questions, though, for the critics: What did you expect? And what would have worked any better?

The president’s policy in the Middle East has satisfied almost no one and tempted many to suggest that he has none. He has, and its thrust is a gradual military disengagement from the region. That is the right idea. Juggling is one thing, but when it comes to juggling fireballs, as the country people used to say, there’s just no percentage in it.

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Such a policy will not look like a success in the short run. People are dying and we’re not doing much about it. Moreover, while pulling troops out of the region, we’re sending drones in, and that is a mistake. When, in one country after the next, a terrible regime takes over from another terrible regime, the American right wing will construe that as a new and powerful threat. The Russians have bought themselves a seat at the table where the near future of Syria and Iraq will be (sort of) settled.

History, as usual, has something to say about this. Here’s the broad brush: The old imperial powers of Europe, chiefly Great Britain, soaked themselves in the Mideastern morass for the better part of a century, fighting alongside Arab nationalists to dismantle the Ottoman Empire, then dividing the region into pieces that masquerade as nations and respect few borders. By the end of the Second World War, the Brits were more than happy to see another sucker give it a try. That would be the United States. (Great Britain gave up its last imperial pretensions in the region in 1968.) Here are some helpful maps.

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America has interests in the Middle East because the Middle East has oil. That fact, of course, could and should have been obviated long ago by a vigorous program of fuel conservation coupled with an all-out effort to phase out fossil fuel use. The failure to act on those needs has made us dependent on the most unstable area of the world, so we stay there. We complicate and probably doom our position by a slavish commitment to Israel, a bellicose little state not exactly built on American-style ideas of pluralism.

Middle East map 2002Of American presidents, only Jimmy Carter seemed to recognize all these facts and their linkages, and try to do something about each of them. It helped to buy him electoral defeat in 1980, a point not lost on his successors.

Obama recently warned Russian President Vladimir Putin that with his militarism in Syria, he was wading into a quagmire. That’s the voice of bitter experience. Obama himself has had to reverse himself in Afghanistan and leave more troops there, for a longer time than he promised. The sad truth is that it is like Iraq: when we leave there will be a bloodbath. It’s true now and it will be true later.

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Let’s grant that Clinton, McCain and the other war hawks are well and charitably motivated, that they want to stem the tide of refugees from Syria and see the kind of open, democratic societies and governments in the Mideast that American leaders always profess to support—notwithstanding the fact that Jordan, the most stable and rational country in the region, is a constitutional monarchy.

We’ll grant, too, the facts that the best equipped military in the world belongs to the United States, and that the war in Iraq and Syria needs to be stopped, and needs to be won by somebody.

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But let us also consider some countervailing facts, first concerning the United States. Despite having outsourced much of its grisly chore to contractors like Blackwater, the American military is exhausted from nearly two decades of constant, unwinnable wars in foreign lands. The American public can be relied upon to support every war with a fervor in its prospective stages, and to become disenchanted with the reality of war within 18 months. Concerning the Middle East, some of its conflicts date to the Arab Spring, some to the formation of Israel and some to the dawn of history. Peace there is not a norm, but an aberration, usually because of long-term domination by someone like the Turks. But America’s ambition has never been long-term domination, nor should it be. Some leading intellectuals have already grasped this idea.

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So again: What do you expect of Obama, and what do you think would work better than his policy of relative inaction? Really, now, what?