Jacob Heilbrunn

Obama and the Failure of the Syria Debate

The Brandenburg Gate, where President Obama delivered a speech yesterday declaring, “the struggle for freedom and security and human dignity, that struggles goes on,” has become for many Americans a kind of symbol of triumphalism where good defeated evil. It is the scene where in 1987 President Reagan urged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” which didn’t exactly happen—it was opened up in November 1989 partly as a result of misunderstandings at the East German border and West German detente with Moscow and the East bloc had a lot to do with easing fears of a revanchist Germany—but the peaceful end to the cold war prompted a wave of hubris among both liberal hawks and neoconservatives that seems never to have gone away, despite the debacle in Iraq. The idea was that America had won the cold war singlehandedly, that it had implanted its democratic values in Central Europe, and that there was no reason not to try it all over again in the Middle East.

Obama has never really espoused this credo. His cold war days were spent complaining about the nuclear arms race, a theme he revisited in Berlin yesterday when he proposed reducing American and Russian nuclear arsenals by one-third, a measure that would allow him to claim progress towards his vision of the abolition of nuclear weapons—a vision, incidentally, that he shares with Reagan. This is the old Obama, the man of moral uplift and stirring rhetoric.

But Obama’s talk couldn’t conceal the fact that his presidency has taken directions that he never anticipated. In Iraq and Afghanistan he has managed to wind down inconclusive and seemingly interminable wars. But in Syria he is being lured, willy-nilly, into a foreign policy trap, one counter to everything that he has preached over the past years but appears unable to resist.

His resistance to intervention in Syria has been plain. Red lines, shmed lines, Obama seemed to indicate after he was caught out on his avowal that America would intervene in the Syrian civil war should Bashar al-Assad be caught out deploying chemical weapons. Apparently he was. Obama went into a funk. For weeks he prevaricated. Now, in the face of mounting calls from liberal hawks and neocons, he has agreed to supply rebels in Syria with weaponry.

It’s a move that, as widely noted, he didn’t even bother to announce personally. Instead, he deputed it to his deputy Ben Rhodes. Obama had more important things to do like attending a reception. The civil war could wait.

Obama’s moves on Syria have not failed to stir a debate among intellectuals and the press. Professor David Bromwich, one of our leading intellectuals, has written a masterful dissection of the Obama administration’s road to war in the New York Review of Books. One of the proximate causes of the renaissance of the de facto alliance between liberal hawks and neocons has been the sorry fact that there really is no accountability when it comes to American foreign policy. Its possible to make catastrophic predictions and decisions, as in Iraq, and then go on to make fresh and equally sweeping predictions with impunity. But it isn’t simply liberal hawks who are endorsing military strikes in Syria. As Bromwich notes, Carl Levin, a staunch liberal and head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, endorses them in limited (whatever that means) form.

Still, Syria may end up bearing out Karl Marx’s aphorism about history beginning as tragedy—Iraq—and ending as farce, though the consequences for the Syrians themselves are far from farcical. In America Syria has become an arena for moral posturing by the likes of Senator John McCain, a chance to try and avenge the ghosts of Iraq. But for Obama, who is palpably reluctant to engage, sending in arms may be a mere sop to his critics. How much further he is prepared to go, even with the ascension of Samantha Power and Susan Rice, is an open question. He surely finds the idea of mission creep pretty creepy. Nevertheless, he has crept into the conflict. And he may find it increasingly difficult to detach himself from it as critics warn of a wider Middle East war lest America fail to back a winning side. The darker interpretation, one forwarded by Daniel Drezner, is that Obama is simply trying to protract the conflict. Fareed Zakaria observes, “If this interpretation of the Obama administration’s behavior is correct, then the White House might well be playing a clever game—but it is Machiavellian rather than humanitarian.”

Even as the critics try to parse Obama’s motives, however, the absence of debate over intervention in Syria in Congress is striking.  Yes, Sen. Rand Paul, who is on the front-page of the Washington Post today, has blasted the idea of intervention as well as McCain’s trip to Syria. But his remains a distinctly lonely voice. As former Sen. James Webb recently wrote in the National Interest, Congress has largely become a doormat for the presidency when foreign affairs is the subject. As the White House becomes inexorably drawn into Syria, its abdication is a further sign of the corrosion of American democracy even as its champions urge exporting it abroad.