Syria Intervention: Too Much, or Not Enough?

Those arguing for US intervention in Syria have always had a hard time being consistent, but Jackson Diehl’s piece in the Washington Post on Sunday is all over the place. He claims that Obama’s decision in 2009 to re-open the US Embassy in Syria (it had been closed by Bush) “enabled” Bashar al-Assad. Furthermore, the administration’s reluctance to go ahead and unilaterally bomb Syria to smithereens doubly enabled Assad to slaughter his own people.

On the first point, Deihl argues:

The problem with [reopening the US Embassy] was not just the distasteful courting of a rogue regime but the willful disregard of the lessons absorbed by George W. Bush, who also tried reaching out to Assad, only to learn the hard way that he was an irredeemable thug. Yet Obama insisted on reversing Bush’s policy of distancing the United States from strongmen like Assad and Hosni Mubarak — a monumental miscalculation.

Deihl’s dwelling in something of a fantasy land. First of all, how can he speak of “distasteful courting” of authoritarian regimes when it is the express policy of the Obama administration, and Bush before him, to enthusiastically support the region’s most dictatorial governments with billions of dollars, weapons, and diplomatic cover? Surely that outweighs re-opening an Embassy. And Bush never “learned the hard way” that reaching out to Assad was fruitless: indeed, Bush refused in a blind, knee-jerk way repeated requests from General Petraeus to deal diplomatically with Assad. Also to say that Bush distanced himself from Mubarak is laughable.

But the substantive point is that Obama appeased Assad by re-opening an Embassy and not outwardly calling for his destruction. I think we’d be hard pressed to find anyone that seriously thinks a slight change in Obama’s tone towards Assad (nothing substantive about the relationship had changed since Bush) had any effect on the unforeseeable events of the Arab Spring and Syria’s civil war.

With regard to not intervening unilaterally to unseat Assad, Deihl writes:

The State Department’s Syria experts recognized the peril: If Assad were not overthrown quickly, they warned in congressional testimony, the country could tip into a devastating sectarian war that would empower jihadists and spread to neighboring countries. But Obama rejected suggestions by several senators that he lead an intervention. Instead he committed a second major error, by adopting a policy of seeking to broker a Syrian solution through the United Nations.

Really? If only Obama had jumped the gun and invaded or bombed Syria while it was still a relatively small, minority protest movement, all would be better? Deihl is being rather selective in his “Syria expert” analysis, since many academics and intelligence officials with such expertise advocated against direct US intervention from the very beginning.

Deihl tries to make it seem as if Obama had a window to commit to war in Syria, but lost it because now its a messy civil conflict filled with jihadists who want to establish an Islamic sharia state. But Obama “rejected suggestions by several senators that he lead an intervention” because everybody and their mother was advising him that such an intervention would be an utter catastrophe that would make the situation dramatically worse and invite the kind of sectarian civil war that Iraq experienced following the unilateral invasion that toppled the regime in 2003.

Deihl and other rabid interventionists can write articles like this with a straight face, I’m assuming, because of the mantra they keep repeating to themselves: “Every bad thing is due to lack of US militarism.” At the same time, Deihl systematically underestimates the negative consequences of intervention.

Deihl writes that “when historians look back on Obama’s mistakes in the last four years, they will focus on something entirely different: his catastrophic mishandling of the revolution in Syria.” I’m tempted to say I agree, but not for the reasons Deihl thinks. With the news that most of the arms flowing into Syria – facilitated in part by the Obama administrationare going to benefit the jihadist fighters, it seems clear this may be remembered as an instance of blowback, not of appeasement. Even other establishment analysts who support US intervention, like those from the RAND Corp., grant that “a rebel victory could result in Al Qaeda or its sympathizers coming to power in a post-Assad Syria.”