Will Obama's Aimless Drifting Lead to War in Syria?

President Barack Obama talks on the phone in the Oval Office. Flickr/The White House

His foreign-policy actions have gone in all kinds of different directions at different times.

The Washington Post headline on October 4 was stark: “Obama administration considering strikes on Assad, again.” The story under it, written by the peripatetic foreign-policy reporter Josh Rogin, was less stark. After the lede, which said military strikes in Syria soon would be “back on the table,” Rogin announced, “But there’s little prospect President Obama will ultimately approve them.”

This dichotomy reflects a central reality of America’s anguish over the tragic Syrian Civil War—and particularly, now, the heart-rending carnage in Aleppo, under siege from Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and his Russian allies. What we have is an increasingly urgent call for action based on a foreign-policy philosophy—humanitarian interventionism—versus a presidential reluctance to get involved based on political fear, bereft of any foreign policy philosophy at all.

Assad is going for a major strategic victory in Aleppo, and he doesn’t care what the ultimate human cost will be. That inevitably intensifies the call for action from governmental officials and opinion leaders who see a national imperative for action whenever prospects emerge to salve the wounds of humanity and to further the cause of democracy. This is understandable; humanitarian interventionism is a powerful impulse.

Thus do we see, as Rogin points out, officials from the White House, State Department, CIA and military Joint Chiefs of Staff engaging in a flurry of meetings aimed at forging military options to present to the president on how he might strike at the Assad regime and turn the tide of battle.

“There’s an increased mood in support of kinetic actions against the regime,” one senior administration official told Rogin. The reporter even added a humorous touch (though perhaps inadvertently) when he quoted another official as revealing that strategists were pondering ways to get around White House objections to striking Assad without a UN Security Council resolution. One possibility, revealed this official, would be to carry out the strikes covertly “and without public acknowledgement” (not counting, presumably, the prior revelation from this official that such an approach was being contemplated).

The Daily Beast reports that many administration officials are expressing concerns about the president’s unwillingness to take action in Syria. One unnamed official said he and his colleagues were worried about how far Russia will go in defending Assad’s regime but feared also “what this is doing to U.S. credibility.” Another official, also unnamed, explained that U.S. actions against Islamic State terrorist forces, or ISIS, would be undermined so long as Assad remained in power. “Anyone who thinks ISIS can be defeated without solving the failed state in Syria is ignoring the last 25 years of American foreign policy,” he said.

That analysis was echoed by Arizona Sen. John McCain in an anguished Wall Street Journal piece entitled “Stop Assad Now—Or Expect Years of War.” He advocated military action aimed at “grounding Mr. Assad’s air power.” And if Russia continued its bombing raids in Syria, added the senator, “we should make clear that we will take steps to hold its aircraft at greater risk.” In other words, McCain would have the United States attack a sovereign nation without international sanction and force a military confrontation with the nuclear-armed Russians, all in the interest in destroying a regime that poses no threat to the United States and is fighting one of America’s most threatening enemies, ISIS.

There is much to say in opposition to the impulse of humanitarian bellicosity of the kind expressed by McCain and so many anonymous governmental officials. But first let’s look at the most significant counterforce to that sentiment as applied to Syria: Barack Obama himself.

The president, as Rogin points out, clearly doesn’t want to get the United States mired in another Middle Eastern war, with all the prospects of it turning into the kind of raw chaos seen in Iraq and Libya following U.S. interventions there. Besides, the president knows that public sentiment, as reflected in opinion surveys, remains strongly opposed to more Middle East adventurism.

But Obama offers no philosophical argument in opposition to U.S. action in Syria, because he has no foreign-policy philosophy. His foreign-policy actions have gone in all kinds of different directions at different times. At the beginning of his presidency, he embraced the Pentagon’s recommendation for a troop “surge” in Afghanistan—but also announced a phased timetable for removing the troops, unrelated to whatever success or failure the surge might bring. This is not serious military planning or strategic thinking. Further, by opting for a “nation-building” strategy aimed at squeezing the indigenous Afghan Taliban, Obama embraced a fool’s mission and guaranteed failure. By January 2016, the Taliban controlled more Afghan territory than it had at any time since 2001.