I’m probably one of the few Americans left with some sympathy for President Barack Obama’s foreign policy, and even I have to admit that his Syria policy has been a mess.
His “red line” about chemical weapons turned out to be more like a penciled suggestion. His rejection of the proposal by Hillary Rodham Clinton and David Petraeus to arm moderate Syrian factions tragically empowered both the Islamic State group and President Bashar Assad of Syria.
Dismissing the Islamic State as a “JV team,” as Obama did in January, was silly — compounded by the White House’s contorted attempts to deny that he had said that. Obama’s ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, resigned this year because he found our government’s policy impossible to defend.
The tragedy in Syria isn’t Obama’s fault, but that of Syrians. Still, the president has been painfully passive toward what has unfolded: the deaths of nearly 200,000 Syrians, the destabilization of neighboring countries by 3 million refugees, the near collapse of Iraq, the beheading of two U.S. journalists, mass atrocities against Yazidi and Christian religious minorities and growing risks of Islamic State terrorism against U.S. and European targets.
And, yes, that’s the judgment of an Obama fan.
So it’s just as well that the president is trying for a reset — oops, wrong word — let’s just say “a new strategy” in Syria.
“America will lead a broad coalition to roll back this terrorist threat,” Obama declared in his speech last week. He described it as a “counterterrorism campaign” that would “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State.
There’s some inconsistency there. Counterterrorism is the right prism through which to approach this, rather than all-out war, but it’s unlikely to destroy the Islamic State any more than it did the Taliban or militancy in Yemen. Indeed, the president, in his speech, said that his strategy in Syria “is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.” That’s a plausible comparison, but Obama may be the only person in the world who would cite Yemen and Somalia as triumphs.
Unfortunately, there are more problems than solutions in international relations, and calls for more aggressive action by some Republican critics could make things worse. Dick Cheney has compiled an almost perfect record of being wrong on foreign affairs, so when he called last week for the United States to be more aggressive and get “back on offense,” we should all insist upon caution.
My take is that Obama is right to expand military action against the Islamic State into Syria if it’s done prudently with modest goals of containing and degrading a terror group. We also need a partner on the ground to take advantage of airstrikes and seize back territory. That means moderate Syrian rebels, but there are many fewer of them now than there were two years ago. The middle has been vanishing.
Bolstering the Syrian opposition is still worth trying, and a senior administration official says that the White House will try to expand support. But there’s a danger that more arms will lead not to the destruction of the Islamic State, but to the creation of another Somalia.
So let’s move ahead with eyes wide open. We’ve seen the perils of Obama’s inaction, and let’s now avoid the perils of excessive action.
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Credit: Channel 2 Action News