In a recent commentary published on the World Post, Niall Ferguson criticizes President Obama for “Playing Patience While Syria Burns.” In his view, the Obama administration has chosen to kick the can down the road because the president “naturally prefers the path of least resistance.”
The problem with Ferguson’s argument (and many similar articles) is that it criticizes Obama for dithering over Syria without elaborating a viable alternative policy. Ferguson quite rightly points out that the choice is not simply between doing nothing and plunging into another Iraq—“there are many degrees of intervention in a war like the one raging in Syria.” Yet he never explains what type of intervention would actually help resolve the conflict in Syria. He seems to imply that Obama should have armed the Syrian rebels,but he fails to explain how that would end the conflict. Could the rebels have toppled Assad if they had American arms (and maybe air support like in Libya)? Is such an approach still viable following Russia’s intervention? And even if the rebels were to succeed in toppling Assad, then what? There are more than forty different rebel groups operating in Syria. Are they all going to cooperate in forming a national unity government? Or will they simply start carving out their own little fiefdoms, and perhaps begin fighting each other? These are the types of questions that need to be addressed before the United States intervenes—and they’re surely questions that the Obama administration has been wrestling with.
Ultimately, Ferguson’s article demonstrates that it’s a lot easier to criticize President Obama for doing too little than to devise a positive strategy that would accomplish much in Syria. The fact that the situation in Syria is currently so abysmal does not necessarily mean that a more proactive approach would improve the situation. U.S. intervention could easily make a bad situation worse. Since the Syrian conflict is such a complex problem, as Ferguson acknowledges, we should remain wary of calls for the United States to do more until the proponents of greater intervention are able to explicate a clear, detailed strategy—a strategy that explains specific actions the United States can implement, and, more importantly, how those actions will actually facilitate a resolution of the conflict.