Obama Stays Slippery on Syria

by Patrick Brennan

As Ian and Dimitrios noted below, the Obama administration announced yesterday that it believes the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on the opposition, killing 100 or 150 people. An administration official actively acknowledged that this means the president’s famous “red line” has been crossed, and stated that this will mean a change in policy, and an escalation in support for the rebels. But an extremely minor one — in fact, it’s almost impossible to think of how the administration could be making a more incremental, meaningless move on Syria while still making a move: 

The President has said that the use of chemical weapons would change his calculus, and it has.  Our decision making has already been guided by the April intelligence assessment and by the regime’s escalation of horrific violence against its citizens.  Following on the credible evidence that the regime has used chemical weapons against the Syrian people, the President has augmented the provision of non-lethal assistance to the civilian opposition, and also authorized the expansion of our assistance to the Supreme Military Council (SMC), and we will be consulting with Congress on these matters in the coming weeks.  This effort is aimed at strengthening the effectiveness of the SMC, and helping to coordinate the provision of assistance by the United States and other partners and allies.  Put simply, the Assad regime should know that its actions have led us to increase the scope and scale of assistance that we provide to the opposition, including direct support to the SMC.

Whatever the White House wants Assad to “know,” this doesn’t seem like a terribly powerful statement of it. The point here is not that the Obama administration should clearly be more aggressive in increasing its support for the rebels or take more aggressive actions against Assad (maybe it should, maybe it shouldn’t), but that they seem to be taking inordinate pains to postpone deciding whether they should do so or not, and that’s a derogation of duty. This would be a prime example of how this president’s foreign policy seems to be oriented around not letting it get in the way of his domestic and political priorities – more action in Syria will require expending political capital, risking mistakes, angering some of his domestic allies and some of his opponents, too, but there are also costs to inaction that starts to look impotent (and to letting Assad gain the upper hand again). So the administration tries to make it look like they’re doing something, without doing anything. They have some justifications for this behavior — in Libya, “leading from behind” fit with their emphasis on multilateral action and consensus-based diplomacy, and in Syria, they say their hesitancy is just about being careful and avoiding an Iraq-like bungle. But this is really about trying to avoid the domestic consequences of a difficult decision, and not caring about the international consequences. Note that the Obama administration actually used its non-announcement to defuse two issues that made their inaction look worse — the mounting consensus from foreign intelligence agencies that the regime has used some chemical weapons, and the U.N.’s announcement, which they presumably knew was coming, that 93,000 deaths have been confirmed in Syria (a number that actually is even more shocking than you’d think — see Armin Rosen’s explanation at The Atlantic). 

One can almost sympathize with the administration’s reluctance – at least they’re just selfish rather than malevolent – except that the credibility and international status of the United States demands better. Politico writes today, “the one thing all of Obama’s aides were concerned about was the perception that world’s sole superpower was standing by . . .” It’s fine to be worried about perception, but the Obama administration is looking at it only so far as perception hurts this administration and its ability to get things done at home. A superpower, if it’s to remain one, has to worry about its perception abroad, by enemies and allies alike, and our perceived credibility is being deeply damaged by the Obama administration’s political games (which probably won’t work forever at home, anyway, either).