Over the weekend, the Washington Post’s editorial page editor Fred Hiatt argued that Syria may be “the most surprising of President Obama’s foreign-policy legacies: not just that he presided over a humanitarian and cultural disaster of epochal proportions, but that he soothed the American people into feeling no responsibility for the tragedy.”
Hiatt contends that Obama managed to convince the American public that doing nothing was “the smart and moral policy.” The way Obama sees it, the United States causes more problems than it solves, and besides there wasn’t much we could do anyway by backing a bunch of rag-tag rebels against Assad and his allies.
And, writes Hiatt:
On those rare occasions when political pressure or the horrors of Syrian suffering threatened to overwhelm any excuse for inaction, he promised action, in statements or White House leaks: training for the opposition, a safe zone on the Turkish border. Once public attention moved on, the plans were abandoned or scaled back to meaningless proportions (training 50 soldiers per year, no action on the Turkish border).
Hiatt also singles out two administration officials who previously advocated for military intervention on behalf of humanitarian principles and have now shown themselves to be hypocrites. “The fact that the woman who wrote the book on genocide, Samantha Power, and the woman who campaigned to bomb Sudan to save the people of Darfur, Susan Rice, could apparently in good conscience stay on as U.N. ambassador and national security adviser, respectively, lent further moral credibility to U.S. abdication.”
But the singularly gruesome achievement, argues Hiatt, is “the anesthetization of U.S. opinion”: Obama made Americans feel good about doing nothing—nothing to help bring down Assad, nothing to support Syrian rebels, nothing to prevent the rise of ISIS, and now nothing to stem the tide of refugees.
It’s a devastating article, and I’d only add to Hiatt’s argument that there is another component to Obama’s Syria policy. Obama decided to steer clear of the Syrian conflict not just to avoid doing anything, but just as importantly, to avoid damaging Iranian interests in Syria. As Obama wrote Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei, “the U.S.’s military operations inside Syria aren’t targeted at Mr. Assad or his security forces.” Obama didn’t do anything to bring down Assad because he was afraid it might anger the Syrian president’s patrons in Iran, and getting a nuclear deal with Iran was Obama’s foreign policy priority.
There is plenty that Obama might have done to support Syrian rebels— an opposition he derided as “former doctors, farmers, pharmacists”—without ever risking putting American forces on the ground in Syria. By 2013, all his national security cabinet officials—Leon Panetta, David Petraeus, Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, Thomas Donilon, et al.—argued for supporting Syrian rebel units.
Obama however kept his eyes on the prize: the Iran deal. Same when it came to enforcing the red line he drew against Assad’s use of chemical weapons. No one in their right mind believes that firing missiles on Assad regime facilities was likely to compel the White House to land forces in Syria. Obama’s concern rather was that if the United States signaled that it was no longer protecting Assad it might turn the balance of power against the Syrian regime. But that of course would anger the Iranians, and all Obama wanted was an accommodation with the regime—and now he has one in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.