You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Obama's Timidity on Syria: Lessons from a Fiasco


A reporter who visited the White House last week brought back the news that the criticism of President Obama’s immobility about the Syrian disaster has “begun to sting.” Good. Something got through. The president’s sophistries about his “red line” helped, of course: he spoke his way into a predicament that he cannot speak his way out of, thereby damaging the article of faith about the magical powers of his speech. The press is full of reports that our policy may be changing, that we may finally supply weapons to rebels we can ideologically support, that we have identified such rebels under the leadership of General Salim Idris, and so on. “We are on an upward trajectory,” a White House official told another reporter about these second thoughts, which only a short while ago it would have considered a downward trajectory. Obama, somewhat embarrassed by the implication that for two years he may have been in error about one of the most consequential crises of his presidency, is having the White House rehearse its old admonition about caution (its chin-stroking Kissingerian term for a doctrinaire timidity), but still something may be stirring. The Syrian use of sarin and the Israeli airstrikes (which were miraculously unimpeded by the mythical power of Assad’s air defenses) seem to have concentrated the West Wing mind. Is Obama being stung into action? I do not really believe it—his anti-interventionism runs deep, philosophically and temperamentally; but in any event it is not too early to record a few lessons that can be extracted from this fiasco.

The bitterness of belatedness. There is nothing we know about Assad now that we did not know a year ago and longer. Not even his use of chemical weapons changes our understanding of him. His strategy in this crisis has always been to transform a democratic rebellion into a sectarian war, and his method for doing so has been to commit crimes against humanity. In the two years of American quiescence the Syrian situation has become only more dire, so that those who now plead that there are no perfect options are right. But there are imperfect options, which is often all that the Hobbesian life of nations anyway allows: we can still create pro-Western elements in the struggle for Syria after Assad, and deny Al Qaeda a government in Damascus, and stem the tide of the refugees that is shaking the entire region. Yet the road to a democratic Syria is now much longer and more twisted than it had to be. I say this not only in recrimination, but also because Obama’s failure to act swiftly in the Syrian crisis reiterates one of the regular mistakes of American presidents after the cold war, which is to refuse to treat an emergency like an emergency. In many problems of statecraft, patience is a virtue and judiciousness the beginning of wisdom; but not in all. There are gross outrages against justice, such as the butchery of civilians, that must be acted against without delay or they have not been properly understood. Confronted by this degree of urgency, the difference between success and failure is time. Why do we have to keep rediscovering this? Must the learning curve of presidents always cost so many corpses? Has anyone at the White House read Samantha Power’s book?

The cult of the exit strategy. A “senior American official who is involved in Syria policy” plaintively said this to Dexter Filkins of The New Yorker: “People on the Hill ask me, ‘Why can’t we do a no-fly zone? Why can’t we do military strikes?’ Of course we can do these things. The issue is, where will it stop?” The answer is, we don’t know. But is the gift of prophecy really a requirement for historical action? Must we know the ending at the beginning? If so, then nobody would start a business, or a book, or a medical treatment, or a love affair, let alone an invasion of Omaha Beach. We can have certainty about our objectives but not about our circumstances. The most serious action is often improvisatory, though its purposes should always be clear. The prestige of “the exit strategy” in our culture is another American attempt to deny the contingency of experience and assert mastery over what cannot be mastered—in this instance, it is American control-freakishness applied to the use of American force. But we often engage with what we cannot master. No outcomes are assured, except perhaps when we do nothing. We do not need to control the realm in which we need to take action; we need only to have strong and defensible reasons and strong and defensible means, and to keep our wits, our analytical abilities, about us. After all, there are many ways, good and bad, to end a military commitment, as Obama himself has shown. All this talk of exiting is designed only to inhibit us from entering. Like its cousin “the slippery slope,” “the exit strategy” is demagoguery masquerading as prudence.

The eclipse of humanitarianism. Seventy thousand people have died in the Syrian war, most of them at the hands of their ruler. Since this number has appeared in the papers for many months, the actual number must be much higher. The slaughter is unceasing. But the debate about American intervention is increasingly conducted in “realist” terms: the threat to American interests posed by jihadism in Syria, the intrigues of Iran and Hezbollah, the rattling of Israel, the ruination of Jordan and Lebanon and Iraq. Those are all good reasons for the president of the United States to act like the president of the United States. But wouldn’t the prevention of ethnic cleansing and genocidal war be reason enough? Is the death of scores and even hundreds of thousands, and the displacement of millions, less significant for American policy, and less quickening? The moral dimension must be restored to our deliberations, the moral sting, or else Obama, for all his talk about conscience, will have presided over a terrible mutilation of American discourse: the severance of conscience from action.

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.