Obama's Empty Bluster on Syria

The administration’s lack of leadership, competence and resolve has made a bad situation worse.

With the defection of Syria’s prime minister, Syria’s military forced into increasingly heavy fighting and the United Nations General Assembly considering a resolution critical of the Syrian government’s disproportionate use of force, some may be tempted to think that the Obama administration’s Syria policy is “working.” It isn’t. On the contrary, the administration’s lack of leadership, competence and resolve has made a bad situation worse. Even if the Assad regime falls, U.S. national interests will suffer—and Syrians will have suffered far more than necessary.

The administration’s lack of leadership is apparent in its early decision to outsource the Syria problem to the United Nations Security Council. It should have been obvious in advance that China and Russia would oppose any UN action, particularly after Libya. Deferring to France and Britain in Libya was one thing, but putting Beijing and Moscow in the driver’s seat is something else entirely. The longer the administration looks to the Security Council to act, the more its sanctimonious public statements look like an effort to deflect the blame for its own shortcomings—especially as Russian officials have signaled that while they would not condone more direct and extensive U.S. involvement in Syria, they would not treat it as a defining issue in U.S.-Russia relations.

Administration officials likely would argue that they were not sitting idly and waiting for deal in the Security Council—after all, they also tried to rally support in “Friends of Syria” discussions and, according to widely publicized leaks, helped others to arm the Free Syrian Army. This case would be more persuasive if the administration had acted sooner and more effectively.

Others may take offense at the suggestion that working through the Security Council has been primarily an excuse rather than a policy. But if the administration was serious about winning a Security Council resolution, its inability to do so reflects a stunning lack of competence in developing and executing diplomatic strategy. In the post–Cold War era, the United States has generally succeeded in passing strong Security Council resolutions when it has persuaded Moscow either to support a particular measure or to abstain. In these cases, China has also acquiesced. With this in mind, the administration's effort to work through the Security Council was doomed to fail in the absence of a strategy to divide Moscow and Beijing. The administration’s inability to produce this strategy reflects major flaws in its “reset” policy and in its understanding of Russia’s position on Syria.

The central error of the reset policy was its reckless reliance on President Obama's personal relations with former President Dmitri Medvedev when it was clear that Medvedev could last in the long term only with the support of then prime minister Vladimir Putin. By trying to help Medvedev vis-à-vis Putin, the administration alienated Putin—whose help the United States now needs to pass a Security Council resolution.

Setting this aside, administration officials have mishandled signals from Moscow that the Kremlin could support a political process leading to Assad's ouster so long as the process would be a Syrian one and Russia was not required to call for Assad to go. Instead, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attempted to take public credit for securing Russia's agreement to Assad's departure, prompting frosty denials from Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov.

President Obama’s policy toward Syria has been lacking not only in leadership and competence but also in resolve. The president and senior officials are making the United States look weak and undermining their own efforts to get a Security Council resolution; why should Russia or China agree to a resolution it would prefer to avoid, absent a sense that America could otherwise act decisively on its own?

One year has passed since President Obama said that the time had come for Assad to "step aside.” After choosing to say that Assad should leave, Obama has failed to make it stick. That diminishes the United States and its president in the international arena and saps American credibility across the board. Secretary Clinton did the same in saying that China and Russia "should pay a price" for their positions on Syria and then taking no meaningful action. This is the opposite of Teddy Roosevelt's famous admonition to speak softly and carry a big stick. Administration officials talk big but don’t deliver.

The problem for the Obama administration, and for anyone who wants a U.S. foreign policy that successfully advances national interests, is that most people at home and abroad can tell the difference between rhetoric and reality—especially after four years. In Syria, this empty bluster actually encourages Assad and his supporters to hold out as long as possible. And leaders in Russia, China, Iran, North Korea and other places are learning that they can ignore categorical statements by the president and senior U.S. officials. The Obama administration’s foreign policy cannot continue this way, at least not without very dangerous consequences.

Paul J. Saunders is executive director of The Center for the National Interest and associate publisher of The National Interest. He served in the State Department from 2003 to 2005.

Image: Steve Jurvetson