The Syrian mess: The Obama administration is operating under many dangerous delusions
Predictably, President Obama’s recent decision to provide additional nonlethal military aid to the opposition Syrian National Coalition and its military wing has pleased almost no one. Those who want to provide arms and ammunition to the rebels see Obama’s step as weak and insufficient, while those who oppose any aid to the increasingly dubious opposition see it as another step toward just such lethal assistance.
Despite these divergent criticisms, however, the decision announced by Secretary of State John Kerry, now belatedly converted to opposing Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship, is at bottom simply another half-step, a compromise, further evidence of President Obama’s chronic national security indecisiveness. There is no coherent politico-military strategy at work here, only an effort to appease domestic and international critics of a Syria policy badly misguided from the outset.
The central issue for America has never been whether to aid the Syrian opposition or simply sit on the sidelines. The real question is how broader U.S. strategic objectives in the Middle East and elsewhere are affected by the conflict among Syria’s ethnic and religious factions.
Unfortunately, other than pressuring Israel these last four years to surrender to unacceptable Palestinian demands, Obama is bereft of a regional strategy. By withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq and accelerating withdrawal from Afghanistan, he acts as if we were the cause of regional hostility rather than a source of security and stability for our interests and friends.
And regarding Iran, whose support for terrorism and pursuit of nuclear weapons constitutes the principal threat to regional peace, Obama has simply been AWOL.
Where does Syria fit in? Assad’s regime is no friend to America or Israel. It relies for its existence on Russian and Iranian assistance, it oppresses its own people and it is a key abettor of international terrorists such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah. In short, the regime has nothing to recommend its continued existence.
For two years, however, Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pursued Russia, operating under the delusion that Washington and Moscow had “common interests” in effecting Assad’s peaceful removal from power. Nothing could be further from the Kremlin’s real interests and two years of conflict are largely attributable to this complete misreading of Russia’s intentions.
Moreover, Obama was reluctant to oppose Assad for fear of displeasing Tehran’s ayatollahs, thereby risking disruption of a parallel delusion, namely that Iran could be bargained out of its nuclear weapons program. Even now, the administration continues negotiations that will actually legitimize Iran’s nuclear program, leaving it far more capable of manufacturing nuclear weapons at a time of Tehran’s choosing.
In fact, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, we go into crises with the president we have and this one is simply too dangerously naïve and detached to bear serious responsibilities.
Unfortunately, however, Syria’s opposition is also problematical. Even after two years of increasingly mortal conflict, Europe and the United States remain unable to identify opposition politicians, political blocs and fighting units we are confident would govern Syria after Assad according to acceptable standards.
Given the tragedy continuing to unfold in Syria, what should American policy be?
First, our most important objective must be to ensure that Syria’s large stockpiles of chemical weapons and related materials do not fall into the hands of international terrorists and exit the country for use elsewhere. Moreover, reported biological weapons and nuclear programs, likely in conjunction with Iran, must also be kept from the wrong hands. And before any substantial assistance, lethal or nonlethal, is provided to any Syrian opposition elements, Washington must obtain demonstrable, unequivocal commitments that, if they prevail, they agree to the destruction of all aspects of Assad’s programs of weapons of mass destruction.
Second, supporters of the opposition must name names and supporting evidence:
Whom can we trust?
How much Syrian support do they have?
Are they strong enough to stand against al-Qaida or radical Islamicist elements within the opposition?
We must insist on opposition leaders who would not commit indiscriminate bloodbaths against the Christians, Druze and Alawites now supporting Assad.
These preconditions are neither unreasonable nor impossible to fulfill. And they rest simply on the long-standing bedrock of U.S. foreign policy — namely that our objectives should be to protect American national interests and allies, not endlessly going “abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”
John Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.