The Corner

Syria: A Case Study in Foreign-Policy Incoherence

Not sure what to think about the situation in Syria? Don’t feel guilty – I’m not sure either, despite following foreign affairs very closely. In my talks over the last few months with military folks, foreign-policy thinkers, and other experts, I’ve noticed a common theme: “There are no good options.”

But what’s alarming is that it doesn’t appear the people at the top of the decision-making chain—President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, or other members of the president’s vaunted national-security team—have much idea of what to make of this situation either. That’s a truly distressing and dispiriting realization, and more than a little frightening.

The indecision, dithering, and fecklessness that we’re seeing from the Obama administration is having real-world consequences. The Washington Post’s foreign-affairs observer David Ignatius notes in his column today that American credibility is at stake:

What does the world look like when people begin to doubt the credibility of U.S. power? Unfortunately, we’re finding that out in Syria and other nations where leaders have concluded they can defy a war-weary United States without paying a price.


Using military power to maintain a nation’s credibility may sound like an antiquated idea, but it’s all too relevant in the real world we inhabit. It has become obvious in recent weeks that President Obama, whose restrained and realistic foreign policy I generally admire, needs to demonstrate that there are consequences for crossing a U.S. “red line.” Otherwise, the coherence of the global system begins to dissolve.


Look around the world and you can see how unscrupulous leaders are trying to exploit Obama’s attempt to disentangle America from the tumult of the Middle East.

Ignatius lays out the stakes with clarity. But as an admitted Obama admirer, he’s too confident that the president’s action will “remind people that U.S. military power is not to be taken lightly.” I fear it’s too late for that.

The problem is that the Obama administration’s equivocation and vacillation go far beyond Syria. In Libya, Egypt, Iran, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, the president’s naïve and schizophrenic worldview—based on an apparent belief that the United States ought to withdraw from the world and negotiate unconditional, unilateral, and mythical peace—has sent signals of weakness.

That suggestion of weakness is now inviting provocation from Iran, Russia, and others, who don’t believe President Obama will follow through with hedged rhetorical threats. And thus we find ourselves in an increasingly more dangerous world.

In his first five years in office, President Obama has failed to articulate a clear direction for U.S. foreign policy and national security. The nebulous situation in Syria today is the result of that lackadaisical approach to policy-making.

The question is, is it too late for the president to correct the gathering perception that the United States’ future is to be a weak and ineffectual player on the world stage? I fear it might be.


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