How Obama is fail­ing Syria

The Pak Banker - - OPINION - Fouad Ajami

IN the mat­ter of the Syr­ian re­bel­lion, the U.S. hasn't even "led from be­hind." The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has pi­o­neered a new role for a great power: We are now the traf­fic con­trollers, di­rect­ing the flow of weapons to the rebels. The money isn't ours; it is Qatari and Saudi and Libyan. The planes haul­ing the weapons are Jor­da­nian, Qatari and Saudi. And the risks are run by Syria's neigh­bors, prin­ci­pally Jor­dan, Turkey and Le­banon. Our of­fi­cials have opin­ions on Syria, but no one in the Greater Mid­dle East can di­vine them. We want Bashar al-As­sad gone -- our pres­i­dent said so in Au­gust 2011 - - a full five months into a bru­tal war. Then again, through winks and nods, we sug­gest that the alternative to As­sad might be worse than his despo­tism.

No sooner do we make one de­fin­i­tive state­ment against the dic­ta­tor than we hedge it with an in­vi­ta­tion to both the dic­ta­tor­ship and the op­po­si­tion to come to the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble. Great crimes are com­mit­ted by the Syr­ian regime, but we are full of wor­ries about the ji­hadis who have con­verged on that coun­try. For Amer­i­can of­fi­cials, the lengths of the fight­ers' beards, one Syr­ian op­po­si­tion leader lamented, are more im­por­tant than the mas­sacres.

Barack Obama is a cool, cere­bral man. It is his defin­ing im­age. His­tory won't rush him or force his hand. If Ge­orge W. Bush was the "de­cider," his suc­ces­sor is the ques­tioner who "wres­tles" with de­ci­sions.

The ground burns in Syria, a strate­gi­cally placed coun­try on the Mediter­ranean, with ex­plo­sive bor­ders, that un­rav­els be­fore our eyes -- be­fore his eyes. Yet a full two years into the slaugh­ter, the ques­tions keep coming.

"In a sit­u­a­tion like Syria," Obama said to the New Repub­lic in Jan­uary, "I have to ask, can we make a dif­fer­ence in that sit­u­a­tion? Would a mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion have an im­pact? How would it af­fect our abil­ity to sup­port troops who are still in Afghanistan? What would be the af­ter­math of our involvement on the ground? Could it trig­ger even worse vi­o­lence or the use of chem­i­cal weapons? What of­fers the best prospect of a sta­ble post-As­sad regime? And how do I weigh tens of thou­sands who have been killed in Syria ver­sus the tens of thou­sands who are cur­rently be­ing killed in the Congo?"

In other words, the cavalry will have to turn up ev­ery­where if it is to turn up any­where. Congo to the res­cue; the Syr­i­ans will have to take their turn. In truth, it isn't the Congo that weighs on Obama's Syr­ian pol­icy. It is the specter of Iraq. The Iraq War is, of course, canon­i­cal to Obama. He was, bless­edly for him, in the Illi­nois Leg­is­la­ture when the vote to au­tho­rize the use of force against Sad­dam Hus­sein was passed by the U.S. Se­nate. There was a wide­spread sense of in­jury in the coun­try when that vote was cast in 2002. Three of four Amer­i­cans fa­vored up­end­ing the Hus­sein regime.

Obama's rise in na­tional pol­i­tics dove­tailed with the Amer­i­can dis­ap­point­ment with the Iraq War. His was an easy task: He would make that po­lit­i­cally use­ful dis­tinc­tion be­tween the "war of choice" in Iraq and the "war of ne­ces­sity" in Afghanistan. He isn't a paci­fist, he would pro­claim. He didn't op­pose all wars, only "stupid" ones. He made a soli­tary voy­age as a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date to Iraq in July 2008. He came, he saw, and Iraq con­firmed the ver­dict he had brought with him: The war had to be scaled down so that the troops would be there to sus­tain a big­ger fight in Afghanistan. This wasn't his war, and he en­vis­aged a big draw­down in Iraq. He had his pri­or­i­ties. Afghanistan was the cen­tral front in the war on ter­ror­ism.

The war for Syria be­gan in earnest in 2011, the year that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion was pre­par­ing for a full with­drawal from Iraq. Iraq was the prism through which Syria was seen. A great sec­tar­ian fault line ran through Syria be­tween Sun­nis and Alaw­ites, and there was an eth­nic Arab-Kur­dish di­vide as well. This was evoca­tive of Iraq.

As is the way of­ten in sear­ing his­toric con­flicts, Amer­i­can of­fi­cials over­read the lessons of Iraq. In Iraq, the U.S. had rushed into war. In Syria, cau­tion, par­a­lyz­ing cau­tion, would carry the day. It was telling that the Libyan ven­ture that top­pled Muam­mar Qaddafi never emerged as a tem­plate for a new U.S. role in Arab- Is­lamic lands. The U.S. had done well by that con­flict. A mon­strous dic­ta­tor was top­pled, we had "led from be­hind": The French and the Bri­tish had taken the lead, and the U.S. had pro­vided the lo­gis­ti­cal sup­port. But there was no cel­e­brat­ing, and Obama let it be known that it had been a close call on Libya, that that con­flict was sui generis and wouldn't be re­peated.

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