As Max Boot observed, Barack Obama suffered an unpleasant surprise on Thursday evening. An insurrection at the State Department over the White House’s Syria policy has gone public. While the president was off at Yosemite National Park this weekend waxing poetic about the majesty of American topography, this mutiny spread to his Cabinet. According to the New York Times, Secretary of State John Kerry more or less agrees with the diplomatic revolt against the White House’s paralytic approach to the crisis in Syria. In taking this position, Kerry has retroactively vindicated the ouster of irresponsible regimes in the Middle East and dispelled the myths that supposedly explain the rise of the Islamic State.
The 51 diplomats’ missive, in which they dissent to Obama’s prescriptions for Syria, indicts the White House’s approach to the crisis from the very start of the Arab Spring-inspired revolt against Bashar al-Assad. Obama’s craven attempt to outsource the job of enforcing geopolitical norms prohibiting the use of chemical weapons on the battlefield and against civilians has only kept the Assad regime on life support. The Russian-U.S. partnership in Syria has now deteriorated into a virtual proxy war, with all the potential for escalation therein. “Failure to stem Assad’s flagrant abuses will only bolster the ideological appeal of groups such as Daesh, even as they endure tactical setbacks on the battlefield,” the diplomatic correspondence read. In short, the only way to destroy ISIS is to replace the regime in Damascus.
The fact that Secretary Kerry apparently agrees with this objectively accurate assessment of the increasingly dire situation in the Levant is a political earthquake. Kerry has seen his tenure at State consumed by the bloodletting in Syria. The administration’s desperation to avoid entanglement in that nation’s civil war led them to justify Iranian and Russian direct intervention in the conflict. Attacking the Assad regime now so as to shift the balance of power against Damascus, as these diplomats recommend, means risking broader conflict with Tehran and Moscow. In this way, the administration’s inaction justifies more inaction, and the crisis continues to spiral.
The rise of ISIS is a story that frustrates partisans on both ends of the political spectrum. The Syrian civil war, the isolation of former Ba’athists and Saddam Hussein-era ex-military officers, former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s alienation of Iraqi Sunnis, the withdrawal of coalition forces, and the surrender-prone Iraqi Security Forces suffice to explain the ISIS phenomenon. Both this and the last administration deserve censure for the present set of circumstances, but casting about for someone to blame is not the president’s job.
In March of 2015, the president lent legitimacy to a popular blame-shifting theory of ISIS, which holds that the 2003 invasion and subsequent power vacuum led to the creation of the self-described “caliphate.” ISIS “is a direct outgrowth of al-Qaida in Iraq that grew out of our invasion,” Obama told Vice News. “Which is an example of unintended consequences. Which is why we should generally aim before we shoot.”
The president’s highest-ranking Cabinet official never subscribed to this post hoc attempt at exculpation dressed up as an ISIS origin story. “What’s happening in Iraq is not happening because of the United States, in terms of this current crisis,” Kerry said in a 2014 media briefing in Cairo. In that speech, Kerry also defended the legitimacy of U.S. intervention in Libya, which led to the toppling of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi and the creation of a thousand comforting pacifist myths about U.S. military intercession. In a televised speech to the nation in 2011, Barack Obama specifically warned against the toppling of Gaddafi and called the pursuit of regime change a “mistake.” The result was that, when the regime fell, there was no plan in place for the day after.
Today, Syria is a monument to the folly of non-interventionist self-assuredness. The myths the left has told themselves about the virtue of multilateralism, the laws of unintended consequences, and the repercussions associated with the use of U.S. military power are now the functional equivalent of security blankets. Anti-interventionists can wrap themselves up in comforting fictions that justify their paralysis amid the worst military and humanitarian crisis of the 21st Century, but the diplomatic corps has had enough. In 2002, John Kerry confessed that he agreed with the Bush “administration’s goal of regime change in Iraq.” By siding with these 51 rebellious diplomats, he is essentially endorsing regime change in Syria, too, and at long last.
Don’t expect Barack Obama to endorse this position as the sun sets on his presidency. He’s managed to avoid entanglement in Syria so far, and he’ll preserve that position at all costs. The regional crisis and human tragedy that cascades needlessly out of Syria remains a monument to American indecision and inaction. The fact that the secretary of state agrees is a foundation upon which the next president can endeavor to fix the greatest mistake of the Obama presidency.