In a front-page story for the Wall Street Journal, Adam Entous reports that President Obama rejected a plan to arm Syrian rebels presented by officials at the Pentagon, CIA, and State Department. It seems that despite the advice of the most senior members of his national security team, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and then-CIA director David Petraeus, the president decided against becoming more deeply embroiled in a brutal civil war.
The president’s caution is welcome news for those of us who are skeptical of the United States’ ability to pick winners and losers in distant conflicts. I am also deeply sympathetic with the president’s dilemma, which is the theme of my book The Power Problem. “With great power comes great responsibility,” as the saying goes. But true responsibility means acting wisely, not simply acting. It takes enormous discipline and courage for a president to resist the incessant demands that he do something—anything—when horrible things occur. He should only act (1) in those rare cases when vital U.S. national security interests are at stake, and (2) when it is clear that the action being taken has a reasonable chance of delivering tangible results at a reasonable cost.
Neither of those criteria is satisfied with respect to the Syrian conflict.
Indeed, as the Journal story notes, the president appreciated that armed support for individuals and factions within the Syrian opposition was likely to have a number of unintended consequences. Specifically, the White House was dissatisfied with the answers to “lingering questions” including “which rebels could be trusted with the arms, whether the transfers would make a difference in the campaign to remove Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, and whether the weapons would add to the suffering.” And the president apparently didn’t listen only to those making the case for expanded U.S. involvement; an anonymous U.S. official told the Journal that a team of CIA analysts cast doubt on the impact of arming the rebels in the conflict.
Although the United States is providing non-lethal support to Syrian rebels, there are other good reasons to avoid doing more. One is the United States’ terrible track record in providing material, and lethal, support to opposition groups and figures. We have often mistaken power-hungry thugs, or simply manipulative charlatans, for committed democrats, and it is unreasonable to expect that our ability to separate the true patriots from the phonies has improved markedly since Iraq.
More to the point, we cannot be sure that the prevailing faction(s) will advance U.S. interests. Proponents of the invasion of Iraq thought that U.S. intervention would allow us to exert influence in that country, and throughout the region, for decades to come. It hasn’t turned out that way. The government we helped install in Baghdad is not even cooperating with U.S. and international efforts to isolate Assad.
As I noted in the New Republic in December, refusing to pick sides in the Syrian civil war isn’t the same as hoping for the war to continue. Bashar Assad is under enormous pressure, but he obviously retains the support of at least some of Syria’s disparate religious and ethnic groups. If the opposition has any hope of dislodging Assad’s regime from power, it must convince these minority groups—especially Alawites and Christians—that they have a future in a post-Assad Syria.
The United States is not well suited to help broker such a process of political reconciliation. The American people are understandably opposed to direct U.S. military intervention, and merely providing arms to the rebels, even if those individuals are properly vetted, is unlikely to prove decisive. But the involvement of Syria’s neighbors might. President Obama’s reluctance to deepen U.S. involvement makes space for, and indeed encourages, countries in the region who have much more at stake to play a larger role.
President Obama’s first term was marked by a doubling of the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan and a military intervention in Libya that lacked formal congressional authorization. And, of course, he dramatically expanded the Bush administration’s use of drones against suspected terrorists, including American citizens. But his reluctance to involve the United States more deeply in the internal politics of Syria suggests that he hasn’t completely forgotten his instincts, so clear during his 2008 campaign, to avoid stupid wars.