President Obama discussed his administration's approach to the war in Syria, among other topics, in great depth with the New Yorker's David Remnick in a profile that came out Friday. While Obama did not offer any revelatory scooplets, it's fascinating to learn how he describes – and defends – his administration's response to the conflict that has claimed over 100,000 lives and thrown the region into turmoil.
Obama's view seems to be that his administration's relatively inactive response was and remains the right call because there was no option that he could guarantee wouldn't backfire. "It is very difficult to imagine a scenario in which our involvement in Syria would have led to a better outcome," he told Remnick. No regrets. The president acknowledged that he was "haunted by what's happened" in Syria but said, "I am not haunted by my decision not to engage in another Middle Eastern war."
Obama does offer one anecdote from what he says were many deliberations over what to do about Syria, and it's revealing. "Very early in this process, I actually asked the CIA to analyze examples of America financing and supplying arms to an insurgency in a country that actually worked out well," Obama said. "And they couldn’t come up with much."
By one view, that's a sound and intellectually rigorous way to approach the problem. It's even more appropriate given that U.S. administrations can have a tendency to ignore historical precedent and persuade themselves that this time will be different. This is the way a political scientist might look at it, wisely, and it's never a bad thing when policymakers start thinking more like evidence-driven political scientists.
By another view, Obama's challenge to the CIA seems like a self-serving exercise that was bound to confirm his preexisting preference for not getting involved. As Obama surely knows, the history of foreign sponsorship of local insurgencies is dominated by the Cold War. And those interventions are rightly considered to have been largely mistakes, sometimes horrible mistakes, that damaged everyone involved. But that exercise elides the very significant differences between then and now. The Cold War-era interventions were typically about promoting a local fringe or minority group with the hopes of setting back Soviet influence; about creating conflict rather than ending it. In Syria in the beginning, at least, the Bashar al-Assad regime was the minority party and the one creating conflict. So comparing Syria with Cold War history is a bit apples-to-oranges.
In either reading, Obama comes awfully close to declaring the conflict beyond the reach of outside influence. "The truth is that the challenge there has been, and continues to be, that you have an authoritarian, brutal government who is willing to do anything to hang on to power, and you have an opposition that is disorganized, ill-equipped, ill-trained, and is self-divided. All of that is on top of some of the sectarian divisions," he said before switching gears mid-thought.
Later in the interview, Obama continued to expound on Syria's intractability. "You have a schism between Sunni and Shia throughout the region that is profound. Some of it is directed or abetted by states who are in contests for power there. You have failed states that are just dysfunctional, and various warlords and thugs and criminals are trying to gain leverage or a foothold so that they can control resources, populations, territory," he said.
This certainly reads like it's leading us to: "There's nothing to be done." And whether you agree with this – some analysts do, some analysts don't – it's worth taking note of the president's apparent conclusion that the Syrian conflict is beyond America's reach.
That approach is deeply conservative. I don't mean conservative in the sense of being part of the American political right, but conservative in seeking to minimize risk, to protect the status quo. That is perhaps an anticipatable reaction to his predecessor's adventures in Iraq: Obama would rather accept a path of relative inaction, knowing the outcome will be bad, than take a high-risk path that could be even worse. That's not going to get him in the history books, but given the way George W. Bush wrote himself in with the Iraq invasion, that may be exactly what Obama wants.