Syria War Tests Obama’s Security Doctrine - The lack of good options tails the president as he meets world leaders this week at the United Nations
Every president, it seems, gets one foreign-policy problem from hell, one that defies resolution, that refuses to be ignored, that tests the White House’s strategic theories—and that hangs over the presidential legacy.
Jimmy Carter had Iran, Ronald Reagan had Lebanon, Bill Clinton had the Balkans and George W. Bush had Iraq.
For President Barack Obama, it’s increasingly clear that his problem is Syria. The mess there tails him as he moves around the United Nations General Assembly in New York this week. It produced some tense moments when he met Monday with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is taking advantage of the chaos in Syria to establish a bigger foothold for himself in the Middle East.
Syria’s war rages on, 4 1/2 years after it began and two years after Mr. Obama made a conscious decision not to get directly involved. Since then, the conflict has spawned a growing Islamic extremist army, opened the door to establishment of Islamic State and touched off an international refugee crisis.
It isn’t clear, of course, how much, if any, of this calamitous situation could have been prevented with more direct American intervention. Certainly more than a decade’s worth of involvement on the ground next door in Iraq hasn’t produced a happy outcome, and at the cost of thousands of American lives and hundreds of billions of dollars.
Clearly, though, Mr. Obama’s gamble that the U.S. could steer Syria toward a better outcome without having to intervene directly hasn’t worked. Syria has become the insoluble problem, and along the way has tested some of the basic precepts of the Obama security doctrine.
In an address to the U.N. Monday, Mr. Obama acknowledged the intractability of the Syrian problem, saying that “nowhere is our commitment to international order more tested than in Syria.” And he said he is willing to work with “any nation, including Russia and Iran” to find a solution.
The Syrian war erupted in 2011, amid the Arab Spring revolts against established regimes, and immediately threatened Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In theory, the ouster of Mr. Assad would have been fine for American interests. He is no friend of the U.S., and the Arab Spring uprisings suggested history was turning against ruthless and undemocratic regimes such as his. Mr. Assad’s brutality in trying to put down the incipient rebellion only seemed to confirm that.
So the Obama administration declared that it was time for him to go. Behind that call, though, was a hope that the U.S. could call for his ouster without actually having to arrange it—and that it could somehow help from a distance to ensure that what followed would be better.
The crucial moment came in the late summer of 2013, when Mr. Obama walked to the edge of ordering American airstrikes in Syria in retaliation for the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons, and then backed away.
That fateful decision reflected many of the changes Mr. Obama has tried to bring to America’s strategic approach to international affairs. In part, it grew out of a belief that America was weary of intervention in the Middle East. In part it reflected a conviction that a new model could be—indeed, had to be—found in which the U.S. could help steer events without resorting reflexively to military action.
It also reflected a belief that the American foreign policy agenda needed to shift away from endless entanglements in the Middle East to focus more on the problems of tomorrow: the rising importance of Asia, international cooperation on climate change, economic globalization. Embedded in the decision was a desire for America’s allies, particularly those in the region, to step up to resolve their own problems.
The decision represented a calculation that a distant problem could remain exactly that—distant—and that it wouldn’t reach America’s shores. Now the original goal of getting rid of Mr. Assad without letting Islamic State extremists fill the vacuum is evaporating. Increasingly, it appears U.S. policy is faltering on both counts: Though Mr. Obama insisted again at the U.N. Monday that Mr. Assad must go, the most likely near-term prognosis is at least a temporary continuation of his rule without a serious rollback of Islamic State advances in his country.
The attempt to conjure up some moderate alternative in Syria has been an almost complete failure. Meanwhile the threat of Islamic State terrorism has brought the problem home.
Perhaps the increasingly active involvement of Russia and France may mean the hope for an international coalition to stop Islamic State is finally, belatedly being realized. But America’s ability to steer events is diminished and Iran’s influence in Syria persists. Maybe those results were inevitable, or maybe the lesson is that America, whether it likes it or not, remains the one indispensable power.