Why Obama’s indecisive, wishy-washy Syria strategy is actually working

September 17, 2013

Obama speaks at the Group of 20 summit in Russia earlier this month. (Sergey Guneev/Host Photo Agency via Getty Images)

The Obama administration's awkward journey on Syria policy over the past few weeks has opened it up to a great deal of criticism. Officials have changed tacks a number of times, sent mixed messages about what they're trying to accomplish and appeared unconvinced by their own policy choices. "The Daily Show" compared Secretary of State John Kerry to Mr. Magoo for committing a gaffe -- sarcastically suggesting that the United States would back down on threatened miliitary action if Syria gave up its chemical weapons – that accidentally became U.S. policy.

But here's the thing: It seems to be working. That could all fall apart, and it's only "working" with respect to the administration's modest goal of stopping chemical weapons use rather than actually ending the war. But it's still worth examining how a strategy that appeared so un-strategic is working out as well as it has. As my colleague Neil Irwin wrote over the weekend, it can be tough to tell whether Obama is playing a super-advanced chess game or just jumping around reactively. But what if those two things aren't actually as different as they seem?

A leading criticism of Obama's Syria strategy so far has been his perceived lack of resolve or commitment. The argument goes that Syria and Russia have felt they can defy the United States and Obama's "red lines" because they doubt the president will follow through. Indecisiveness is weakness, according to this thinking, and it undercuts Obama's threats and his goal of deterring Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad from using chemical weapons. But Phil Arena, an assistant professor of political science at SUNY Buffalo, suggests that Obama's indecisiveness may have had the opposite effect, actually helping the United States to get what it wants.

"The most relevant obstacle to negotiation, up until very recently, might well have been a belief on behalf of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and Assad that the U.S. couldn’t be appeased," Arena wrote on the political science blog Duck of Minerva. In other words, a resolute U.S. policy made Russia and Syria less likely to bend because they believed they would have nothing to gain by doing so. Why make concessions that will yield nothing in return? Arena explains: "They faced a commitment problem stemming from the inability of the U.S. to credibly promise to leave Assad alone if he ceased using chemical weapons."

In the United States, all we saw was Obama's inability to commit to a single strategy on Syria, whether strikes or diplomacy, which certainly looked like weakness. But maybe Moscow and Damascus saw it differently, reading it as Obama's inability to fully back down from strikes. That unpredictability may have put Putin and Assad on the back foot. They didn't know what Obama was going to do -- that doubt is called an "information problem," because they didn't have all the information necessary to decide how to act -- and were thus forced to tread a bit more cautiously.

More to the point, the wishy-washy U.S. strategy encouraged Russia and Syria to negotiate. It's easy to imagine both Putin and Assad concluding that because Obama was uncertain, he was also persuadable. And that gave them a big incentive to try to persuade him.

This is obviously not a very satisfying theory. We like to believe that the United States can dictate terms to the world and set its agenda unilaterally, that a decisive president will force other countries to fall into line. But, for all America's military, economic and cultural assets, the hard truth is that we are not the bosses of the international system. A maximalist, inflexible U.S. approach to international disputes can prompt the other countries involved to adopt similarly maximalist, inflexible policies. Yes, the Obama administration was probably so indecisive and vague on its Syria policy because it was uncertain and uncommitted, but the effect may still have been to strengthen the United States' hand in negotiations.

If the goal of U.S. diplomacy and military threats toward Syria is to make Obama look good, then it's failing. If the goal is to end Syria's use of chemical weapons, then it hasn't succeeded yet, but it's taking some promising steps in that direction.

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Max Fisher | September 17, 2013