Obama Succeeded in Libya; He's Failing in Syria

Why did the administration's response to the chemical weapons use not involve either punishing the commanders in charge or a strategy to secure the weapons?


A Free Syrian Army fighter reacts after his friend was shot by Syrian Army soldiers during clashes in the Salah al-Din neighbourhood in central Aleppo on August 4, 2012. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)

President Barack Obama made his first call for Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad to step down on Thursday, August 18, 2011 and then proceeded to enjoy a private 10-day vacation with his family on Martha's Vineyard. Nearly two years later, Assad is still in power, and it seems clear today that Obama's posturing nearly two years ago was unattached to an action plan to achieve Assad's ouster.

At the time, liberal interventionists and neoconservative hawks pommeled the White House for dragging its heels in finally calling for Assad's ouster, and many of these critics claimed credit for Obama's eventual statement that the United States government favored regime change in Syria. 

Perhaps Obama believed that Assad's position would crumble like that of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who did relinquish power after President Obama called for him to step down. In the Egypt case, then-Senator John Kerry called for Mubarak to step down on Tuesday, the February 1. The following day, Senator and former presidential candidate John McCain "broke with the President" and joined Kerry's call to Mubarak for the President to step down.

Within a week, President Obama called for Mubarak to step down and to transfer power -- and to the surprise of many, though it was messy, Mubarak did relinquish his power.  he United States had leverage over a large package of military and non-military aid that the U.S. provided Egypt each year -- but otherwise, the Obama White House helped through persuasion and diplomacy to tip the scales against Mubarak, a process the protestors in Tahir Square had put in motion.

Huffing and puffing worked. There was no need for an "intervention plan" to deliver a political transition in Egypt, like appears to be needed in Syria.

When presidents call for the ouster of other presidents, particularly without a strategy to deliver those results, lines are drawn and diplomatic and political options are decreased. Obama's call for Assad's departure, prolifically reiterated in public comments by Obama since, foreclosed the possibility of a real partnership with the Syria-hugging Russia in engineering a transition. 

The Russians, who have interests in not seeing the sectarian hostilities inside Syria drive other regional and transnational ethnic instabilities, have suggested numerous times that the White House walk back its rhetoric on Assad having to leave -- and then get all parties to commit to an election process or governance structure that would be inclusive of those protesting against the government. This is surely short of revolution that many human rights and global justice advocates desired -- but it might have been the best strategy to get the killing to stop.

Interestingly, former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski has been trying to push the White House to engage not only with Russia but with other global powers like India, Japan, and China -- as opposed to the regionally-reviled former colonial powers of England and France -- to call for an election process that would achieve transition and yet give Assad a face-saving way out of power. 

In an interview with The National Interest's Jacob Heilbrunn, Brzezinski states:

. . .there should be some sort of internationally sponsored elections in Syria, in which anyone who wishes to run can run, which in a way saves face for Assad but which might result in an arrangement, de facto, in which he serves out his term next year but doesn't run again.

The entire interview is worth reading, as Brzezinski outlines how strategically inchoate America's Syria strategy has been. He notes that President Obama calls for Assad's ouster and then green-lights David Petraeus-led covert provision of weapons and war counsel to Syrian rebels through the national proxies of Qatar, UAE, and Saudi Arabia, and then backs off when it becomes clear that the most ferocious (and then successful) parts of the Syrian opposition were Islamic extremist militants of the sort America had been battling for a decade in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the Middle East North Africa region.

Now, America is back in the game of the Syrian civil war and has used low-level use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime to justify stepping up military support provided directly to the rebels by the US. America has taken a side in the war -- and the Russians and Iranians are on the other. Thus, underway today in Syria is now clearly a proxy battle between regional and great global powers set on top of a sectarian civil war.

If one of America's top global strategic priorities is influencing the strategic course of Iran and its decision to build nuclear weapons, then investing resources deeply inside the Syrian conflict should be measured against that goal. 

Does America's alignment with the rebels enhance or hinder American points of leverage with Iran? When it came to the same question with regard to Afghanistan, also a neighbor of Iran, there was no question that Iran perceived America's engagement there to be a constraint on U.S. power, not an amplifier. Iran felt more emboldened by America trapping its resources and attention there. Iran may very well see that its proxy of Hezbollah, now operating inside Syria against the rebels, gives it an upper hand against the U.S. and Gulf State-supported rebels and helps to distract the US from its other global strategic ambitions.

Presented by

Steve Clemons is Washington editor at large for The Atlantic and editor of Atlantic Live. He writes frequently about politics and foreign affairs. More

Clemons is a senior fellow and the founder of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, a centrist think tank in Washington, D.C., where he previously served as executive vice president. He writes and speaks frequently about the D.C. political scene, foreign policy, and national security issues, as well as domestic and global economic-policy challenges.

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