When President Obama addressed the nation two weeks ago, he explained his hesitancy in launching a punitive strike against Syria with his now common refrain: “I was elected to end wars, not to start them.” Joyce Karam already noted last June how this refrain appears increasingly as the central theme of Obama’s foreign-policy legacy.
President Obama certainly must have seen it that way when he ordered American airpower into action over Libyan skies in March 2011–and whatever the political outcomes of the Libyan civil war’s aftermath, Western airpower tilted the balance in the battlefield in such a dramatic way that it helped bring that war to an end.
There is only one problem: President Obama’s decision not to launch a strike against the Syrian regime contradicts, rather than flows, from his claim. An American intervention would, if anything, help end the war. By contrast, American inaction will prolong Syria’s civil war, and it will potentially make its outcomes worse for American interests.
One such outcome–the jihadi nature of part of the rebel forces–was routinely cited by administration officials as a reason for caution. And yet, it is increasingly obvious that there is a direct correlation between Western inaction and the rise of jihadis among the rebels.
Today, the Washington Post reports that the flow of weapons to Syria’s opposition is going mostly to Islamist rebels–thanks to a renewed commitment from Gulf donors not to let the Sunni rebellion lose out after America threatened and then cancelled a military strike.
Clearly, if there is no Western support for moderate forces, fears that aid to the rebels may end up strengthening jihadi elements will have become a self-fulfilling prophecy with far-reaching consequences. One will be that if Syria falls to the rebels, it will be a hub for jihadi activities. Another is that the more jihadi foreign fighters survive the war to return to their homes, the more jihadis will be ready for more action against the West in years to come. So much for defeating al-Qaeda and making it irrelevant, then–America’s choice of delegating a role in this conflict to regional powers will dilute American efforts to eradicate the al-Qaeda franchise from the region.
This is just one aspect of the Syria conundrum that clearly undermines the president’s rhetoric. It is not the only one, but it suffices to show that in fact, President Obama’s legacy will not be to end wars but only to ensure that America avoids them at all costs–whatever the long-term consequences for America and its vital interests.