The Syrian fiasco arose from two mutually contradictory desires. Barack Obama sincerely wanted Bashar Assad to stop killing his own people. Barack Obama also really was not willing to use force to ensure that Assad would stop killing his own people. At Harvard, those desires would not be antithetical. Elsewhere they are.
The desire to avoid the use of force was understandable. Obama ran for president as an anti-war candidate. He damned Bush’s “bad war” in Iraq, while critiquing the conduct of the “good war” in Afghanistan. He had no success with his own bombing in Libya. And he was embarrassed by even a rhetorical entry into the Egyptian quagmire. The president sensed rightly that the country was “tired” after Afghanistan and Iraq.
He knew that the American people, Congress, and our allies did not want to wade into the Syrian swamp. Privately, he accepted that the U.N. would be of no use (cf. “hocus pocus”); the veto-minded Russians remembered too well the administration’s prior subversion over Libya (obtaining resolutions for no fly-zones and humanitarian aid while bombing in support of ground troops).
So Obama for months on end did nothing about Syria. The piles of corpses mounted. The anguish of his critics grew. Yet that “nothing” was, at least privately, understood as the least objectionable of many objectionable alternatives.
Nonetheless, the inaction upset Obama and his humanitarian interventionist advisers no end. They felt that arming the insurgency, to the extent that we were actually doing that, was simply not enough to defeat and remove Assad. Certainly, indecision had placated neither their conservative critics, who wished to damage the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis, nor their progressive humanitarian supporters.
In attempting to square that circle of wanting to do something and not wishing to use force, Obama grew increasingly frustrated. Following Hillary Clinton’s lead, he blurted out that using WMD would be to cross a red line and “change my calculus.” To the extent that Obama was cognizant of the ramifications of such a red-line threat, he must have thought that it was a cheap way of pacifying his critics who were clamoring for action. He apparently assumed that Assad in no way would ever dare to use WMD, which heretofore had been largely irrelevant in the terrible lethal arithmetic of Syria.
Those suppositions were not necessarily idiotic. Even criminal dictators mostly do not wish to provoke a military response from the United States. Moreover, for the past 30 years a mellifluous Obama had found that his own rhetoric was as useful as concrete action. Few ever questioned whether what he had so elegantly asserted was ever really followed up. Ask the mesmerized Nobel Peace Prize committee.
So Obama would bluster about as is his wont. Assad would not dare test the credibility of a U.S. president. The interventionists in both camps would be somewhat placated. And the president could continue to deplore, but not have to intervene in, the Syrian civil war. Most of us Americans conceded that inaction was the wiser course.
Who knows who upset that calculus and why?
Maybe Assad wished to restore his eroding deterrence by a lethal display of WMD. Perhaps he deliberately set out to embarrass the U.S. and was given assurances by Vladimir Putin that it would be a good idea. He must have sensed U.S. confusion and may have sincerely thought that there was no real danger in using those weapons to restore momentum on the battlefield, only to be shocked when Obama finally took his own red line seriously. Or maybe it wasn’t Assad’s decision — maybe a rogue general was freelancing. Or maybe Islamists had a hand in the WMD attack, hoping to prompt our intervention. We still don’t know all the agendas involved, but the bottom line is that an American president was forced to show his cards.
The last two weeks have proved catastrophic to U.S. interests and security. Even the stylish Obama admits that his effort was non-linear diplomacy without style. The confusion again resulted from these irreconcilable facts that he wanted Assad to stop and did not want to force him to stop. So what followed was what only could follow.
Congress was and was not to be consulted; was to be on and off the hook; its vote no doubt supportive, no doubt obstructionist; its final say both binding and maybe not so binding. Killing tens of thousands with conventional weapons was awful, or rather not as awful as killing hundreds with WMD. Assad was to leave, or maybe not. WMD use was to be punished, or maybe WMD themselves destroyed. Insurgents were to be helped, or maybe just Assad was to be hurt. Russia was a partner or a conjurer of trouble, or now “owned” the Syrian mess. A pontificating Kerry, a comatose Hagel, a chagrined Dempsey, an embarrassed Power, a discomfited Rice, and a campaigning Hillary were force multipliers of the mess. There was no Ryan Crocker or Richard Holbrooke around to offer some adult advice.
Into that tar pit Putin himself stepped to extricate Obama in the short term in order to weaken him in the long term.