National Security & Defense

There’s Always an Excuse for Obama’s Failures in Syria

(Getty Images)

Goldfinger, he’s the man, the man with the Midas touch!

— Shirley Bassey, Goldfinger, 1964

When it comes to Syria, President Obama and his staff would have us believe he’s an infallible political Midas, a leader with golden policies who is never responsible for failure. In that regard, President Obama’s Syria strategy is similar to the golf strategy of another Midas: Goldfinger, the antagonist of the legendary James Bond movie. Just as Goldfinger drops another ball if his first shot fails, President Obama always has another excuse for his flailing Syria strategy. If one strategic gambit fails, he simply blames someone else and swings again, hoping for the best.

Consider, for example, how White House spokesman Josh Earnest reacted to last week’s implosion of the administration’s rebel-training program. Rather than accept responsibility, Earnest claimed that the rebels could never have been successful anyway. Reliance on the rebels, Earnest said, “is something that our critics will have to answer for.” Think on this petulant absurdity. The administration spent years of planning and hundreds of millions of dollars on a training program that, as of last week, was defined by “four or five” rebels. It’s as stark a failure as one might imagine, but in the administration’s eyes, its critics are to blame. Unfortunately, the “four or five” debacle is only the latest incarnation of President Obama’s long-running Syria tragedy. The round actually began in August 2013. Having prevaricated on the Syrian civil war for years, only in August 2013 was President Obama forced to act. And only when Bashar al-Assad was caught gassing his people and eviscerating an explicit American red line.

The administration’s strategic un-seriousness over Syria is now so profound that it has infected the U.S. military bureaucracy.

Except that President Obama didn’t act. Instead, he agreed to a WMD Ponzi deal brokered by President Putin. As I wrote at the time, the deal’s enforcement mechanism — the reprisal if Assad continued to use WMDs — was telling. “Measures: diplomatic speak for something short of something.” And since then, the “measures” for Assad’s noncompliance have been measured only in tens of thousands of dead Syrians.

Ultimately however, the real issue here isn’t that President Obama doesn’t have a Syria policy, but that his policy is one of defining drift and disinterest. I say defining, because the administration’s strategic unseriousness over Syria is now so profound that it has infected the U.S. military bureaucracy. As Sarah Westwood reports at the Washington Examiner, military whistleblowers are going public to air their concerns about politically sanitized intelligence. Moreover, as Eli Lake and Josh Rogin note at Bloomberg View, even President Obama’s Syria “czar,” retired general John Allen, has had enough of the White House’s dysfunction. Still, I suspect things will soon get worse in Syria. The Islamic State has metastasized from the Middle East to Asia to Africa. Today, Europe and America are at significant risk. But it gets worse. Sensing President Obama’s waltz of confusion over Syria — and his corollary unwillingness to confront their imperial agenda — Russia and Iran are throwing fuel on the sectarian fire of broader conflict in the Middle East. The chaos is spreading.

Of course, this isn’t to say that Republicans can simply criticize President Obama without offering their own alternative strategies to resolve the Syrian civil war. The need for realistic alternatives is crucial (here’s mine) for both intellectual and moral reasons. Nevertheless, President Obama and his staff must reflect on the limits of their Goldfinger strategy. After all, these days, it doesn’t take James Bond to recognize that the White House is trying to cheat reality.

Tom Rogan is a columnist for National Review Online, a contributor to the Washington Examiner, and a former panelist on The McLaughlin Group. Email him at

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