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A Simple Question for Obama on Syria

Like Max, I couldn’t help but notice our president’s ambivalence about the Syrian civil war. But I was surprised to read this sentence, in the Times story that Max quotes: “Coming so late into the conflict, Mr. Obama expressed no confidence it would change the outcome, but privately expressed hope it might buy time to bring about a negotiated settlement.” This, to me, is a perfect example of how fetishizing diplomacy undermines it.

It is appropriate for that quote to appear in a story in the New York Times, because the Times has reported extensively on how diplomacy is probably President Obama’s most glaring weakness of statecraft. And they deserve credit for doing so, because it is rare for the mainstream media to report on domestic politics in ways that contradict their own narratives. Since the narrative on Obama is that he is a thoughtful proponent of engagement, it took some contrarian instincts for the Times to reveal what many of us already knew: no, he’s not. He’s an egotist who believes in the power of his own command, and the cult of personality that surrounded him for so long insulated him from the reality of his own limitations.

If Obama can’t fool the media into thinking he wants to win in Syria, what are the odds he can fool the Kremlin? One of the complaints about Obama from the right and from the interventionist center-left is that he avoids talk of victory–everything he does and says is about ending a given conflict, not winning the conflict. Telegraphing this substantially reduces his negotiating leverage. It’s ironic, but Obama’s obsession with engagement severely weakens his ability to engage.

That’s because negotiations aren’t the traditional goal in conflict; victory is. So Obama has it backwards: he wants to arm the rebels not because he thinks they can win but because perhaps it will bring everyone back to the negotiating table and end the slaughter. But in fact it is just as likely to do the opposite: if the U.S. more officially takes sides and then America’s “side” loses anyway, it will give Russia and Bashar al-Assad less reason to go looking for a deal. I’m not suggesting Obama should get even more involved on the side of the rebels–as I’ve said before, I think the window to empower more moderate elements among the rebels probably closed a long time ago, if it was ever open to begin with–but there isn’t much logic in taking action that won’t turn the tide.

Here’s a simple question to highlight the confusion of White House policy: Do they want the rebels to win? If the answer is yes, then they have a funny way of showing it. If the answer is no, then why help them at all or give them weapons they can’t be trusted with? Of course, there’s a third possibility: the White House wants the rebels to neither win nor lose. Here’s Dan Drezner on Friday:

To your humble blogger, this is simply the next iteration of the unspoken, brutally realpolitik policy towards Syria that’s been going on for the past two years.  To recap, the goal of that policy is to ensnare Iran and Hezbollah into a protracted, resource-draining civil war, with as minimal costs as possible.  This is exactly what the last two years have accomplished…. at an appalling toll in lives lost.   

This policy doesn’t require any course correction… so long as rebels are holding their own or winning. A faltering Assad simply forces Iran et al into doubling down and committing even more resources.  A faltering rebel movement, on the other hand, does require some external support, lest the Iranians actually win the conflict.  In a related matter, arming the rebels also prevents relations with U.S. allies in the region from fraying any further.

That’s one way of saying Obama wants everyone to lose. But that, of course, means the bloody civil war goes on. Additionally, there are a couple of problems with this. First, helping the rebels just enough to keep the war balanced but not enough to enable them to take control is quite the needle to thread. And second, there’s no way to help the rebels and remain neutral–unless Obama is prepared to help Assad if need be, and I don’t think that’s in the offing (nor should it be).

That means that the rebels become, in the minds of the regional actors, an American (or, more generally, Western) proxy. A defeat for the rebels would be much more difficult for the Obama White House to disown, and would certainly not improve the Western position at the negotiating table. The president needs to stop thinking about diplomatic summits and start thinking a few moves ahead.

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