Jackson Doughart
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Obama’s disastrous Syria policy

Prince Arthur Herald, 15 July 2013

When U.S. President Barack Obama declared in August 2011 that Bashar al-Assad “must go”, he could not have understood what that declaration meant, coming as it was from the commander-in-chief of the most powerful country in the world. Either that, or he had no idea that such a pronouncement would require supplementary action if it were to bring about the result that he had in mind. Instead, Obama has combined the rhetoric of liberal humanitarianism with the practice of pacifistic or reactionary isolationism, and to dire results.

People who are labelled foreign policy “hawks”, whether nominally associated with the political left or right, are accused by their opponents of many things — imperialism, hypocrisy, double standards, ineptitude, and so on — but what they cannot be accused of is elementary strategic naiveté. Namely, people who believe that the American military should be used outside of a strictly-defensive manner are under no illusion that their objectives will be met without employing actual force. They do not think that the president of the United States can just say a few magic words, thereby dazzling the ethnic cleansers, war criminals, and genocidaires of the world, and catastophes like Bosnia, Darfur, Rwanda, and Syria will suddenly be solved. Forgive the cliché, but “peace through strength” requires actual strength.

What would such strength look like (or have looked like) in the Syria case?: A no-fly zone to prevent the aerial bombardment by Assad of civilian targets; the coordination (and funding) of regional actors to properly aid refugees; and most importantly, the providing to Assad’s opposition with enough arms to actually defeat him and the offsetting of foreign support to the regime from Iran and Syria. What would such strength not require?: The deployment of American “boots on the ground” — the straw man that Obama has been attacking since Day One to shield his intention of not taking any intermediary steps whatsoever.

A person might agree or disagree with these modes of intervention on entirely legitimate grounds, be they principled or strategic in nature. At this point in the conflict, with the official death toll past 100,000 (not to mention the number of refugees and displaced persons) and with Assad seemingly gaining the upper hand, I find it hard to believe that any consequential calculation could be devised that would make a substantial American intervention worse than the inaction we have witnessed. But people who believed from the beginning that the U.S. should have no involvement are due the credit of their convictions, and the credit of supporting a course of action that would actually be better than Obama’s.

Critically, a “middle ground” position, for which liberals have been endlessly searching, cannot be found in scepticism about America’s potential influence. Despite being unorganized, underarmed, and without substantial support, the various rebel groups have collectively held off the highly-organized, superiorly-armed, and internationally-aided Assad regime for over two years. With the help of a no-fly zone and enough American arms, Assad’s government could be defeated and the man himself could be standing at the gallows if that is what the Obama Administration wanted. And judging from his rhetoric, from the calls for Assad to step down to the drawing of a chemical-weapons “red line”, one would be led to believe that such a result was what Obama wanted and was what he was prepared to actualize. But his actions tell a different tale. Time and again, the President has pronounced against the regime and the war it is conducting without walking the proverbial walk.

These empty words are not without consequence, as they damage America’s reputation as an international actor whose words (i.e., threats) are linked to a willingness to act. What Obama has been doing is the metaphorical equivalent of driving on a busy highway while keeping his turn signal on indefinitely. Eventually, the signal ceases to have meaning. And things are made even worse by Obama’s belated decision to send a few bullets to the rebels and to train some of them on the Jordanian border. To continue the highway metaphor, Obama has now moved the car about a third of the way into the next lane, practically asking for a collision.

It is strategic, humanitarian, and perhaps even geopolitical consequences that constitute this proverbial collision. And these go beyond the damage to the nation’s international reputation. If you thought that the authoritarianism of Assad’s government was bad before, just wait until you see its handiwork in the war-torn mass of ruins that will be post-conflict Syria. Ethnoreligious score settling, totalitarian means of political repression, overt funnelling of weapons from Iran to Hezbollah, and destabilizing neighbouring countries (some of which are actually less capable of handling this than Syria itself) are all in our future.

More importantly, though, is that if Assad wins — which seems probable at present — the United States will have officially supported the losing side in what may be an epochal Middle East war. And the Russians, who don’t even pretend to be in the business of promoting liberal democracies, will have supported the victor and become the dominant foreign presence in the region. One imagines that if Rand Paul were commander-in-chief — scary as that thought is — he would at least withdraw without committing this kind of blunder.

The President only deserves part of the blame here. The other part goes to the American electorate that chose to elect a man whose primary foreign policy message was that America’s influence on the world was pernicious, and to reelect a man who had cut and run from Iraq without negotiating a post-withdrawl force, thereby abandoning the small but important progress that had been made since the 2007 troop surge. Now, the consequences of this foreign policy — namely, a humanitarian disaster in Syria and a probable enlargement of direct Iranian influence from the Afghan to the Israeli borders — have been realized. Whatever comes next, this is not going to end well.

Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com