Three lessons from Obama's Syria missteps

26 September 2013

The American Conservative

By Tom Switzer

Whether the deal to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles is enforceable and verifiable is an open question. But what is clear is that some cautionary lessons have already emerged from this crisis. Here are three of them.

First, be wary of the injunction “Don’t just stand there; do something.”

Since Syria erupted into civil war in mid-2011, commentators left and right have called for the United States to attack the Assad regime as well as to provide arms to its opponents.

But contrary to what many liberal hawks and neoconservatives claim, the violence in Syria is no worse than what Washington has been able to bear with comparative equanimity in Rwanda, Sudan, and Congo. On what moral grounds should one decide that one war is intolerable while another can be ignored?


In the field of foreign policy, the most famous advice offered to practitioners—the French statesman Talleyrand’s “Above all, not too much zeal”—showed a profound distaste for “busyness.” It’s both wise and routinely ignored advice. Remember how can-do, hands-on liberal hawks (Rusk, McNamara) screwed things up in Vietnam or how hyperactive neoconservatives (Wolfowitz, Feith) proved to be incompetent and ineffective in Iraq.

None of this is to imply that forceful action is never justified: it is in the right circumstances and when the right conditions are met. But the national interest did not require a major U.S. intervention in Syria, the political support for it did not exist and could not be mobilized, and the conflict itself has been morally ambiguous: a brutal dictatorship, backed by Shiite Iran and its Lebanon-based proxy, Hezbollah, versus a largely Islamist rebellion supported by Sunni powers as well as al-Qaeda-aligned extremist fighters.

Given that the political objective was perilously unclear, there has been much to be said for a policy of restraint and caution. As even President Obama warned as recently as last month: “Sometimes what we’ve seen is that folks will call for immediate action, jumping into stuff that does not turn out well, gets us mired in very difficult situations, can result in us being drawn into very expensive, difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment in the region.”

A second lesson: Don’t make threats or commitments lightly; make them only if you’re prepared and able to honor them.

Two years ago, the president called for regime change in Damascus. In August last year, he warned that the use or even mere movement of chemical weapons was a “red line” that “would change my calculus.” And last month he called on the U.S. Congress to give him authorization to use force against the Syrian dictatorship in response to the chemical weapons attack.

Far from following through on his threat of limited U.S. military strikes, however, Obama leapt at Russia’s diplomatic offer for the Assad regime to dismantle its chemical stockpiles.

In so doing, he failed to set and keep priorities and to steer a steady course. The result is that American credibility and prestige have been dissipated and squandered, with potential U.S. adversaries emboldened and allies dejected.

The episode is a salutary reminder that he who wills the ends must also will the means, that aspirations should match resources, and that commitments and power should be brought into balance in foreign-policy deliberations.

Call it the Walter Lippmann rule, and it is a truth of which Americans—more apt to focus on ends than means when it comes to dealing with the rest of the world—always need to be reminded.

A third lesson: get over the superpower syndrome. With the collapse of Soviet Communism and the end of the Cold War, the accepted wisdom held that Washington should adopt a policy of indiscriminate global intervention. “American global leadership,” an “American Century,” “indispensable notion,” “benign hegemony”—these became the new buzzwords of the U.S. foreign policy establishment.

The rhetoric became bellicose after 9/11, when American outrage over the terrorist attacks, taken together with the mental habits of global hegemony and American exceptionalism, gave U.S. leaders a clear, overriding sense of mission and purpose.

Consider the last two secretaries of state, who epitomized a belief in the virtues of uninhibited American interventionism. In 2008, Condoleezza Rice declared: “It is absolutely clear that we will be involved in nation building for years to come.” And in 2010, Hillary Clinton said “it is in our DNA” to believe “there are no limits on what is possible or what can be achieved.”

But although the United States possesses the military means to defeat any other country, there is not an American solution to every problem. In fact, there are a good many problems, such as Syria’s civil war, for which there may be no solution at all.

As realists from George Kennan to Henry Kissinger have argued, Americans do not have the understanding of other societies and people, the attention span or staying power, to engage in an active, interventionist policy of nation-building and democracy-promotion on a large scale.

This is especially evident at a time when a majority of Americans believes it is high time for the nation to concentrate on its own neglected internal problems. The defense budget has fallen and will continue to fall, and there is a strong aversion to seeing U.S. soldiers killed and wounded.

To the extent that such views prevail, they are inimical to the notion that that America has a special mission to impose its will and leadership across the globe.

Tom Switzer is editor of the Spectator Australia and a research associate at the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre.


This article originally appeared in The American Conservative.

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Tags: Foreign Policy, Realism, Syria, Tom Switzer

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