Obama’s Box Canyon

by Victor Davis Hanson
Our Hamlet-in-chief wanted simultaneously to act and not act.

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.

How could eleventh-hour Russian proposals ever solve Obama’s original paradox? Tragically, they can only make it worse, as was Putin’s intent.

Yes, the Russians are terrified of radical Islamists’ gaining power in the Middle East. They share our own opposition to Islamic terrorism.

Ostensibly they might wish to see America as an occasional ally. But those concerns are outweighed by the fact that the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis is both useful to Russia and bothersome to the United States. In terms of raw emotion, Obama’s sermonizing without muscularity irritates Putin to the point of wanting to gratuitously disabuse the U.S. of its bottled piety.

When the Russian Cheshire cat is finally through — after weeks of breakthroughs, impasses, promised and pseudo-inspections, delays and deadlines, open and shut doors with Iran and Syria — Obama will be back to his original dilemma, which was not over 1,000 killed by WMD at all, but over 99,000 slaughtered in a civil war.

WMD use, remember, was the first straw that Obama grabbed to mitigate criticism that he sighed while thousands died; the second straw he snatched to save himself was Putin’s ludicrous offer of negotiations to round up WMD.  Yet even if Obama is lucky and Assad/Putin do not deliberately test him by again using WMD, Obama will still have taken us 360 degrees back to zero: once again agonizing over wishing to stop the non-WMD mass killing and not wishing to use force or polarize Congress, the American people, and our allies.

As for the absurd White House spin that Russia now “owns” Syria, Putin never owns anything, much less owns up to anything. To the degree that we are weakened, Assad strengthened, Iran empowered, and the insurgents discredited, Putin prances about the world stage. But if things get even worse in Syria, and if the U.S. is forced to make a messy intervention to save face, then Putin will be happy to walk away, lament the fate of his barnacle Assad, welcome another American entanglement, congratulate himself on the cost/benefit calculus of making Obama look inconsistent and weak — and strut off in pride, quite willing to restart the melodrama with a post-Assad Syria or a soon-to-be nuclear Iran, and to advise plenty of others how it is all done.

Is there any escape from Obama’s box canyon?

Only in the sense that just as there was once a way not to go in, there is also a way to get out: Keep quiet and our powder dry, vet the Syrian opposition, determine to what degree it includes non-Islamist groups that would be better than Assad, and then quietly support them. Doing no more harm is about all that is left.

In theory (and it is a long shot), the victory of the Syrian Free Army would both end the violence and weaken the Iranians and Hezbollah — while adding anxiety for Putin as comeuppance for his machinations. Yet at this point, I doubt that any of those agendas can be realized, or matter much if they were. More likely, the Syrian finale is going to resemble Somalia or the Sudan, perhaps Libya, or what Afghanistan may become after we leave. We, not Putin, will own the embarrassment as the world’s inept and fossilized superpower.

We hope the Iranians do not wish to enter Putin’s negotiating circus. But they already sense that Obama really does want them to cease enrichment and really does not wish to use force to stop them. Our Hamlet-in-chief could get very old fast.

Even such an embarrassing backout assumes that Assad won’t use WMD again just to embarrass the U.S., that the endless negotiations over WMD will eventually take world attention away from Obama’s empty bluster, that Americans can stomach the endless back and forth between savage insurgents and Assad’s vicious security forces on the premise that the violence is something that we had no part in and cannot fix — even as the dare-not-speak-their-name realists whisper that it might be in our long-term interests to see our pro-Hezbollah enemies duke it out with pro-al-Qaeda insurgents.

To paraphrase Tacitus, when they make a mess, they call it diplomacy.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. His latest book is The Savior Generals, published this spring by Bloomsbury Books.