In the coming weeks, pressure on Barack Obama to do something about Syria will intensify. Neoconservatives on the right and liberal interventionists on the left argue that the president’s inaction is making the US look impotent and callous. He does not even follow the lead of others, they say, let alone lead from behind as he did on Libya. He just sits cynically on his hands while the slaughter escalates — at the cost of 70,000 lives and counting.
That narrative will only grow stronger as the Syrian faultlines become more sectarian. But it is unlikely to prompt a change of course since it misreads the kind of president Obama has become. In his State of the Union speech last week, Obama devoted barely half a sentence to Syria and only a sentence to Iran. But he dwelt at length on the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The contrast was revealing. Obama may have campaigned as a bold moralist. But he has largely governed as a realist. The key difference between early 2009 when he ordered his first Afghanistan surge and today is that he is now vastly more experienced. If the Afghan surge was Obama’s biggest decision as commander-in-chief, it was also his most disappointing. There are three reasons to believe he will continue to resist being railroaded into a Syria intervention.
First, Afghanistan has underlined the limits of what the US military can do. Almost 12 years after the start of America’s longest war, the Pentagon’s chief concern is trying to figure out how it will protect retreating US soldiers and equipment from a resurgent Taliban. Contrary to the forecasts of his generals, Obama’s 100,000 troop surge achieved very little. More than $1 trillion (Dh3.67 trillion) in US military and civilian spending has barely altered the dynamics of a country of 30 million people.
Even in Iraq, where George W. Bush’s surge was seen as a success, the situation is veering dangerously close to civil war — driven by similar confessional divisions to those in Syria. Obama’s critics want him to supply arms to the Syrian rebels. Some are also urging him to set up a no-fly zone. The latter would commit Obama to an open-ended military escalation. But even secreting arms to a fragmented rebel army rings an Afghan alarm bell. A large share of the Stinger missiles the US funnelled to anti-Soviet rebels in the 1980s washed up among hardline jihadist groups. It is hard to believe Obama would risk putting serious weaponry into the hands of groups in Syria controlled by Al Qaida.
Such a move would also come with a warning from Mali, many of whose Islamist insurgents were trained and supplied by the west. As Obama hinted to the New Republic last month, the human tragedy in Syria is not enough by itself to merit US military involvement. “How do I weigh tens of thousands who’ve been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?” he asked.
Second, Obama is far more confident in the job today than when he was agonising over the Afghanistan surge. A mix of politics and military consensus persuaded a reluctant president to escalate the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. One of his advisers was David Petraeus, the hero of Iraq. As it turns out, few of the conditions that helped in Iraq applied to Afghanistan. The young John F. Kennedy felt bounced by US generals into approving the Bay of Pigs fiasco in Cuba in 1961. After that he was more sceptical of military advice. Obama has acquired a similarly healthy distrust.
Last August Obama ignored the joint advice of Mr Petraeus, who was then the CIA chief, and Hillary Clinton to arm the Syrians, according to the New York Times. He slapped down similar advice from Leon Panetta, his defence secretary, and Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. It takes a supremely confident president to dismiss the unanimous recommendation of his four most senior national security advisers.
Third, it is stretch to imagine the same advice coming from John Kerry, who has replaced Clinton as secretary of state, or Chuck Hagel, the probable next defence secretary — both of whom are mistrustful of military solutions. Having turned down Petraeus, it is also hard to picture Obama submitting to John Brennan, the new CIA head, who has been among his most trusted White House advisers.
Foreign policy was unusually centralised in Obama’s first term. Some even compared it to the Nixon-Kissinger White House. It is likely to be even more White House-centric in his second. As ever, Obama will be his own Henry Kissinger.
And there lies the president’s true vulnerability. Declining to make risky moves — such as no-fly zones not backed by the UN — is one thing. Failing to plan ahead is quite another.
With an eye on where things are heading in Syria, allies of Clinton leaked the news that she had advised Obama to arm the rebels. She is understood to have been frustrated by the White House’s lack of focus.
This is Obama’s weakest point. Realism is not supposed to be passive. If there is a middle ground between doing nothing and taking military action, it is through Kissinger-style diplomacy. The president’s lack of diplomatic creativity, rather than his sense of caution, is his real Achilles heel. Perhaps this is one area where Kerry can help.