Syria and the Politics of Prudence

12 June 2013, 1252 EDT

According to the Washington Post, the Obama Administration is meeting to “reassess” US policy toward the Syrian conflict. Hezbollah’s intervention appears to have tilted the balance in favor of the Assad regime. Sectarian violence is on the rise. This has, naturally enough, led to hand-wringing about growing Iranian influence throughout the region.

Defenders of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy sometimes stress its general commitment to prudence and deliberation. John McCain and Lindsey Graham may call for ‘strong’ and ‘decisive’ US commitments at the drop of a hat, the argument goes, but the Obama Administration knows better. Except, of course, when it doesn’t. Or, perhaps, when the costs seem relatively low. As Michael Crowley observes (see also an old post of mine), “The unfortunate truth is that Obama didn’t intervene in Libya despite great risk. He did it because it was a relatively low-risk venture. Whatever you think should be done, the same can’t be said about Syria.”

The problem, of course, is that “prudence” and “deliberation” can translate into “hoping for the best.” This looks to have been the case with the Syrian civil war. If the Obama Administration considers gains by Hezbollah and Iran intolerable, then perhaps it should have adopted policies that took that contingency far more seriously.

Moreover,  “leading from behind” works best when the US actively shapes the policies of those ‘in front’ in favorable ways. I have serious doubts about whether the US has been doing this. Only recently has Saudia Arabia supposedly “prevailed” over Qatar and the latter’s tendency to support hardline Islamists:

Saudi Arabia is now formally in charge of the Syria issue,” said a senior rebel military commander in one of northern Syria’s border provinces where Qatar has until now been the main supplier of arms to those fighting President Bashar al-Assad.

The outcome, many Syrian opposition leaders hope, could strengthen them in both negotiations and on the battlefield – while hampering some of the anti-Western Islamist hardliners in their ranks whom they say Qatar has been helping with weaponry.

Anger at a failure by one such Qatari-backed Islamist unit in a battle in April that gave Syrian government forces control of a key highway helped galvanize the Saudis, sources said, while Qatari and Islamist efforts to control the opposition political body backfired by angering Riyadh and Western powers.

The northern rebel commander said Saudi leaders would no longer let Qatar take the lead but would themselves take over the dominant role in channeling support into Syria.

“The Saudis met leaders of the Free Syrian Army, including officers from the Military Council in Jordan and Turkey, and have agreed that they will be supporting the rebels,” he said after attending one of those meetings himself.

Despite this development, it seems pretty clear that the overall terrain is more difficult for the US then it was, say, a year ago. Indeed, if more extensive US involvement  (in whatever form) does materialize, it will be driven by the fear of a major policy and political setback rather than an attempt to seize a policy and political success. Put differently, the combination of a prudence-driven relative inaction followed by significant policy shifts isn’t always the best approach — whether from a humanitarian perspective or a geo-strategic one. Five years in, the Obama Administration still shows signs of lurching between hastiness and all the traditional ‘decisiveness’ of the Ents.

Perhaps this reflects the dysfunctions created by combining Obama’s close involvement in foreign-policy decisions with his lack of consistent engagement with US policy. Or perhaps it is just an example of the right decision — not to intervene in Syria — producing the wrong outcome. Regardless, we’ll just have to put our hopes that alternate-history Winston Churchill was correct that  “you can always count on the Americans to do the right thing after they have tried everything else.”