Lee Smith, writing in Defining Ideas:
Editor’s note: The following article is an excerpt from The Great Unraveling: The Remaking of the Middle East (Hoover), a series of essays by several distinguished Middle Eastern experts.
Since August 2011 when he demanded that Bashar al-Assad step aside, the president of the United States has refused to make good on his own professed policy of regime change in Syria. Barack Obama has ignored both domestic critics of his position on Syria as well as Washington’s traditional regional partners clamoring for American leadership. In failing to intervene in the Syrian civil war for humanitarian reasons while also seizing a strategic opportunity to topple Assad, Obama has had to face down even members of his own administration, virtually all of whom, including cabinet officials and some of his closest aides, eventually came to argue for arming the anti-Assad rebels. Although Obama contends that he has on his side the vast majority of a war-weary America, an electorate that loathes the idea of yet another entanglement in the Middle East, the reality is that it was Obama himself who consistently undercut any alternatives. The US public, never eager for foreign adventures in the first place, was simply following the lead of a president who never made the case for a policy that could advance American interests and help save those destined for Assad’s meat grinder, without having to land tens of thousands of US troops.
The many apparent turns, nuances, and shifts in the administration’s Syria policy—for instance, repeated promises of enhanced military aid to the rebels, the red line drawn over Assad’s use of chemical weapons, the threat to strike regime targets after Assad used his unconventional arsenal, and the decision not to—were parts of a messaging campaign intended to further protect Obama’s steel-like determination to stay out of the Syrian conflict no matter what. Regardless of what one may think of his policy, the fact that Obama deflected every argument, entreaty, enticement, and forecast of impending doom to preserve that policy cannot fail to impress. However, history offers conflicting evidence as to whether single-mindedness and obstinacy are necessarily desirable character traits in a man whose job also requires flexibility, the willingness to listen to seasoned advisers, and the ability to change course—in short, the practical talent of democratic politics. He owns his decisions on the Syrian conflict so singly and so starkly that perhaps the judgment on his policy can only be equally absolute: either he was right and kept the United States clear of a prolonged conflict in Syria and built the foundations of a new Middle East; or he was wrong and in ruining Washington’s decades-long position in the region ushered in an era of instability whose ripples will reach far past the Persian Gulf littoral and affect all the world.
What is difficult about assessing the president’s Syria policy is that there is not much evidence of how Obama sees the Middle East in general and America’s role there. Compare Obama’s regional strategy, for instance, to that of his predecessor. Shortly after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, George W. Bush laid out his freedom agenda for the Middle East in a series of speeches that made a clear case for why promoting democracy was not only good for Arab societies but also in the American national interest. In contrast, Obama’s speeches, starting with his June 2009 Cairo address, have been vague on specifics. To be sure, his speeches and official statements have touched on various priorities—like Arab-Israeli peace, as he explained in his 2013 address to the UN General Assembly, and Iran’s nuclear program—but they lack an integrated vision of the region and America’s purpose there. Accordingly, it’s been difficult for many observers to discern whether this White House has a coherent Middle East policy or if it is simply improvising on the fly.
Whole thing here.