September 4, 2013

Obama Across the Red Line

English: Brasilia - The president of the Syria...
It's abundantly clear that Obama did NOT want to intervene militarily in Syria in a manner that would radically alter the balance of power in the conflict towards toppling Assad. Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya show deposing one regime means living with a successor regime that may be worse. In each of those cases, changing the regime stuck us in the middle of civil wars, and the outcomes in all three of those cases have not been worth the price we paid. 

Add to that the fact that Americans are pretty fed up with Middle East military adventures, especially when there is no discernible national interest. There is no compelling national interest in affirmatively creating regime change in Syria. Most of the hue and cry for doing so are based on humanitarian rationales.  The sad fact and reality is that frankly, there are no good outcomes in Syria from the US point of view, so why get mixed up in it if we don't have to? And you better believe that the people who are most emphatic that something be done to stop the killings will be the first to condemn the United States when its starts killing people to stop the killings. There is no clean way to end a civil war, certainly not one as brutal as Syria's.

We can debate the wisdom of Obama's unilateral red line on chemical weapons.  I'd argue that it was a reasonable approach given that the US was trying to avoid being drawn into the conflict.  Obama sent a clear signal to the Assad regime " we want to stay out of it.  If you want us to stay out of it too, don't use chemical weapons".  That was communicated with great clarity. It's hard to understand why Assad didn't heed that message.

Assad is ruthless.  If he thought he needed to use the weapons he would.  He's also very rational, so he wouldn't use them if he had other options, and given the state of the conflict and his ongoing support from Russia and Iran, its hard to see what would have compelled him to run the risk now.  His enemies are just as ruthless and are entirely capable of using chemical weapons to provoke US intervention. But how they would have gotten them is pretty uncertain, and if they were found out, all Western support would likely get cut. Assad's access to chemical weapons is certain. But be clear about this: it no longer matters whether Assad did it or the rebels did.  Its politicized now. The dominant story is that it was Assad, with major western governments staking out that position. 

Obama's red line rhetoric has backed him into a corner. His political opponents who already despise the man will make that about him being an inept president. I think the realty is not nearly that simple, but you can interpret it that way.  Getting rid of Assad and keeping the regime to block the jihadists would have been the best outcome in all of this for the US.  Obama has been trying to find a policy approach that would give him that. 

The problem now is that this isn't just about Syria anymore.  I'ts about US credibility.  The US has stated a condition that commits it to an intervention. If we don't act in the face of a clear violation, then other countries like N. Korea and Iran may be prone to call our bluff about nuclear weapons for example. 

 I guarantee you that after Congress votes to support Obama (I'm predicting they will), no matter who else says they are coming along (the French) this will be Obama's deal alone. If we strike Syria, we'll have to worry about Russian reprisals and Iranian ones as well. And the reality is that there is no clean way to strike this regime.  On the ground, innocents are going to die due to US military action and Obama will be crucified for the very intervention people like McCain or the human rights interventionist faction in his administration (Susan Rice, others) are clamoring for him to take. Whether its too little or too great an expenditure of effort, the consequences are all bad.  There are no good options here politically for Obama or geopolitically for the United States.

His political foes will make this only about Obama being a lousy president, but in my view that's an analysis of a very complicated world from the level of a 4th grader.  It would be nice if the world just operated the way the US president wants. It does not. Obama is now stuck with nothing but a bunch of bad options, from which he must try to pick the least worst. Instead of crowing over how lousy a guy he is, his friends and foes alike better hope he finds a way to thread this needle in a fashion that burns us the least.

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