BUZZARDS BAY, Mass. — What does President Barack Obama see when he looks at the Syrian disaster?
Is it Afghanistan, where the effort to assist the anti-Soviet jihad in the 1980s ultimately gave strength and weapons to the Taliban, resulting in the war we have been fighting for the past 12 years?
Perhaps he thinks of Iraq, where US intervention, based on a flawed premise, resulted in almost total anarchy?
Or is he afraid that history will condemn him for failure to protect civilians, as in Rwanda or Bosnia?
There is no shortage of cautionary tales as the president weighs his options in Syria — and no course of action that has an even minimal guarantee of success.
Thursday’s announcement that the United States was preparing to arm the Syrian rebels after being convinced that President Bashar al-Assad's military forces had used chemical weapons on the population was greeted with almost universal approval in the halls of power. Legislators of both parties commended the president for his decision to intervene.
"I support the president's decision to expand assistance for the vetted Syrian opposition, and I encourage the Administration to begin, in earnest, arming the Free Syrian Army," said Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, in a statement released Thursday.
"In using chemical weapons, #Assad committed a war crime against his own people," tweeted Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY). "What more does the civilized world need?"
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The only carping seemed to come from those who felt the president had not gone far enough.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has long called for intervention in Syria, told Fox News on Friday that the president was doing too little, too late.
“It’s disgraceful, the conduct of the United States sitting by and watching this happen,” he said.
The White House has been has been noticeably stingy with details on what the policy shift will actually mean.
“Following on the credible evidence that the regime has used chemical weapons against the Syrian people, the president has augmented the provision of non-lethal assistance to the civilian opposition, and also authorized the expansion of our assistance to the Supreme Military Council (SMC), and we will be consulting with Congress on these matters in the coming weeks,” said the White House statement, issued Thursday in the name of Deputy National Security Adviser Benjamin Rhodes.
What happens next?
The Obama administration has been cautious — some say to a fault — on getting involved in Syria.
This is understandable, given the fairly dismal set of options open to Washington.
For years Obama has been saying that “Assad must go,” and he has been joined by many world leaders in his call.
But the key question of “what next?” is not so easily answered.
The Syrian opposition is fractured and varied, featuring extremist factions like Al Nusra, which is more or less a splinter group of Al Qaeda in Iraq. There is concern that, once the regime of Bashar al-Assad is removed, the resulting power vacuum might be filled with forces hostile to the United States.
Assad has powerful friends — among them Russia and Iran. The militant group Hezbollah, based in Lebanon, has directly contributed forces to the fight, most recently helping Assad’s forces to rout rebels from the strategic town of Qusayr, located near the border with Lebanon.
Assad “has allies who are seriously committed at a level that no Western power is committed to the people that are opposing him,” said journalist Philip Gourevitch, speaking in a live chat hosted by the New Yorker magazine last week.
But last August the president drew a “red line,” saying that the use of “a whole bunch” of chemical weapons would prompt him to change his thinking.
Some US allies have been saying for months that there is credible evidence that Assad has been treading on that red line, but, at least until Thursday, the Obama administration has refused to be pushed.
The president has three main options in Syria, say experts: he can give arms to the rebels, risking that those weapons might fall into the wrong hands; he can try and impose a no-fly zone, although Syria has a fairly sophisticated air-defense system that could pose problems; or he could intervene directly to try and secure Assad’s chemical or biological weapons.
“Don’t be a wuss”
None of these is ideal, and none is likely to be popular with the American public.
Very few Americans want to see the United States get bogged down in another foreign conflict; a recent poll showed that only 15 percent of respondents supported military intervention in Syria.
But polls aren’t everything, as one of Obama’s colleagues recently advised.
Speaking at a closed-press event earlier this week, former President Bill Clinton said that Obama risked looking like “a total fool” if he failed to act on Syria.
A president should not put off action just because “there was a poll in the morning paper that said 80 percent of you were against it," said Clinton. "[Y]ou’d look like a total wuss,” he continued. “And you would be.”
He may have been speaking from personal experience: Clinton was the president who stood by while 800,000 Tutsis were massacred in Rwanda, and who would not intervene to stop ethnic cleansing in Bosnia.
These are conflicts that haunt two of Obama’s chief advisers.
Susan Rice, recently tapped to become National Security Advisor, will have a strong voice in foreign policy. She was in the Clinton administration, first on the National Security Council, then as assistant secretary of state for African affairs.
Once, she was quoted as saying that if she were ever faced with a decision such as the one to intervene or not in Rwanda, “I swore to myself that … I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required.”
Samantha Power, who has been nominated to replace Rice as ambassador to the U.N., cut her foreign policy teeth as a journalist in Bosnia, writing a book ‘“A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide.’
Both women are seen as liberal interventionists, but it is not clear how much influence they will have on their boss, who has concentrated foreign policy decisions in the Oval office.
The only possible upside to the whole mess is that it has, at least for a time, absorbed much of the energy that has recently been focused on scandals plaguing the administration, including the revelations surrounding government snooping by the National Security Administration.
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This has prompted a whole string of “wag the dog” tweets from opposition groups.
But, as one senior White House official told the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins, there is no real advantage to foreign intervention for any president:
“The pressures on us to intervene now are enormous,’’ he said. “But, the day after you do something, the pressures go in the other direction. In Libya, the day after we intervened, all the pressure went from ‘Why aren’t you intervening?’ to ‘What did you just do?’ ”