Was Obama’s Syria strategy brilliant or lucky?

September 14, 2013

From Geneva, there is a deal to (for now) avert U.S. military intervention in Syria's civil war. Secretary of State John F. Kerry and his Russian counterpart hammered out a two-page framework agreement that requires the Assad regime in Syria to come up with an inventory of its chemical weapons next week and to begin destroying them next year. It is backed by the threat of U.N. sanctions and, implicitly in the background, the possibility that Western airstrikes would be back on if Assad does not comply.

This is a win for President Obama. He had worked himself into a strange strategic cul-de-sac of his own making as recently as a week ago: He had made clear he thought strikes were justified yet elected to go to Congress seeking authorization, although the sentiment in Congress was clearly tending against the resolution.

Had Obama reversed course and launched strikes against the explicit wishes of Congress (and the overwhelming tide of public opinion), it would have triggered an outcry and possibly even impeachment hearings in the Republican-led House. Had he simply washed his hands of things and launched no strikes, Assad would have gone unpunished (at least by the world's most powerful military) for allegedly using  chemical weapons against his own people, and Obama would have looked impotent on the global stage.

But the deal with the Russians allows everybody, with the important exception of the Syrian rebels, to proclaim victory. The West gets to declare that it is getting tough on Assad by forcing him to give up chemical weapons. Russia gets to protect its ally Assad from attacks. Assad gets to stay in power.

The best that can be said, from the Syrian rebels' perspective, is that Assad will come under intense political pressure, including from his Russian allies, not to use chemical weapons against them. But there is every reason to think that Assad's conventional attacks on his enemies will continue unabated.

So this is not a happy outcome for anyone who wants the United States to take aggressive steps to topple Assad. The thing is, though, the alternatives didn't portend very happy outcomes, either.

Limited airstrikes with, as the president repeatedly said, "no boots on the ground" weren't going to bring down Assad. They would have meant more death in a country that has seen too much of it, with the benefits more of a longer-run variety in dissuading leaders from using chemical weapons in the future. And, a decade after the Iraq invasion, there is no political support in the United States for a longer, deeper, hands-on intervention that might actually speed up regime change in Syria, let alone for the financial and human costs it would incur.

So it's a dismal situation all around. Still, this deal gives the president the face-saving out that a congressional rejection of airstrikes wouldn't have. It's hard to know sometimes whether Obama is playing a chess game that is so sophisticated the rest of us can't tell what he's doing or simply blundering about hoping for the best. From what we know so far, this looks like the latter. But Americans, if the public opinion polls on military action are a guide, will take it.

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Ezra Klein · September 14, 2013