Machiavelli He Isn't

Obama's advisers are selling his Syria move as ice-cold realpolitik.

The Washington press corps has a tradition of doing postmortems of presidential decision making on major national-security issues. These pieces are supposed to exude the sense of drama and suspense of the history of the Cuban Missile Crisis—the clash of personalities, bureaucratic infighting and international intrigue that culminates in the supposedly historic choice made by the president. This reporting style was once again on display following President Obama's recent decision to provide U.S. military assistance to the antigovernment rebels in Syria, which was deconstructed by the New York Times and a few other elite newspapers that enjoy high levels of access to the White House. Yet notably, these most recent decision narratives—which administration officials presumably helped friendly reporters to draw up—lacked any serious effort to frame the U.S. plan to send weapons to the Syrian insurgents as a form of "humanitarian intervention."

In contrast, President Obama justified his decision to provide military support for a plan to oust Libya's Muammar el-Qaddafi as driven by the need to keep a "tyrant" from attacking civilians. "We are answering the calls of a threatened people," Obama declared after announcing the plans by NATO to establish a "no-fly" zone in Libya, which amounted to an intervention in civil strife in a sovereign foreign country whose government had not threatened any direct U.S. security interests.

Similarly, ex-president Bill Clinton's rationale for his military interventions in the civil wars in the former Yugoslavia reflected similar humanitarian considerations: in that case, to prevent the genocide of members of non-Serbian ethnic groups (Muslims and Croats in Bosnia, and later Albanians in Kosovo) by the forces representing the ruling Serbians.

When it came to Syria, Obama might have similarly blasted Syrian president Bashar al-Assad for his violations of human rights and called for his resignation at the start of the political unrest in Syria, in the same way that he had earlier pressed Egypt's president Hosni Mubarak to resign. But since the civil war in Syria entered into its bloodiest stage, administration officials have refrained from either placing the entire responsibility for the killing of civilians on the Assad regime or accusing it and its Alawites (and Christian allies) of committing a genocide of the Sunnis in the country.

It's true that President Obama did accuse President Assad of crossing "a red line" by the alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians. But it's difficult to explain why the use of chemical weapons "on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year" and killing of between one hundred and one hundred and fifty civilians provides justification for "humanitarian intervention," when the death of more than ninety thousand civilians during conventional warfare didn't. After all, was there really any moral distinction between the act of killing German civilians by air bombardment in Dresden and that of Japanese civilians by weapons of mass destruction in Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II?

Instead of spinning the decision to scale up military support for the Syrian rebels as a "humanitarian intervention," the unnamed sources in the Obama administration seemed to promoting it as a demonstration of sensible of Realpolitik-style considerations. In fact, examining the postmortem narratives about President Obama raising the ante in Syria, one might get the impression that the Obama administration's national-security team is a not a bastion of Samantha Power's liberal interventionists—but that of Henry Kissinger-like hard-core realists. Forget humanitarian intervention: It's the balance of power, stupid!

Hence, according to the Syria narrative that seemed to be favored by the White House, the goal of the administration all along has been to force the two warring camps in the country into a military stalemate which would leave them no choice but to negotiate a diplomatic settlement based on some arrangement of power sharing.

But after President Assad's troops, joined by a large contingency of fighters from Lebanon's Hezbollah militias, won control of the strategic city of Qusayr, the balance of power in the fighting shifted in the direction of the Assad regime and its allies—and by extension its regional backer, Iran. That development seemed to create the conditions for an Assad military victory and doom the chances for negotiations. From that perspective, arming the anti-Assad fighters might help tilt the balance in the other direction, producing the much-needed military stalemate and an ensuing diplomatic agreement. Or at least that is the White House's line.

In a way, one could make the argument that a similar kind of U.S. military intervention worked in Yugoslavia. There it deprived the Serbs led by Slobodan Milosevic of military victories against the Croats and the Muslim Bosnians and later against the Albanians in Kosovo. This helped produce a diplomatic agreement, the Dayton Accords, that brought about independent Bosnia and Kosovo.

Pages