On Thursday, "President Barack Obama authorized his administration to provide arms to rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad," the Wall Street Journal reports. "The classified order directing the Central Intelligence Agency to coordinate arming the rebels in concert with its allies reverses a long-standing policy that limited the U.S. to providing nonlethal support."
Is this where we are now?
Involvement in a new war comes not via a declaration from Congress, nor even a major announcement from the president -- instead, a leak of a classified order is thought sufficient to alert the public!
One of the president's staunchest supporters, Andrew Sullivan, says that this is a betrayal, arguing that Obama was elected to get the United States out of armed conflicts in the Middle East. "By deciding to arm the Sunni radicals fighting the Shiites in Syria and Lebanon, the president has caved to the usual establishment subjects who still want to run or control the entire world," Sullivan writes. "I don't buy the small arms qualifier. You know that's the foot in the door to dragging the U.S. into the middle of a civil war we do not understand and cannot control." If arming the rebels has any effect, he concludes, "it will be to draw out the conflict still longer and kill more people."
Writing at Foreign Policy, Dan Drezner argues that drawing out the killing is the whole point:
Naturally, this will feed the "return of the liberal hawks" meme that's spreading in some quarters .... To your humble blogger, this is simply the next iteration of the unspoken, brutally realpolitik policy towards Syria that's been going on for the past two years. To recap, the goal of that policy is to ensnare Iran and Hezbollah into a protracted, resource-draining civil war, with as minimal costs as possible. This is exactly what the last two years have accomplished ... at an appalling toll in lives lost. This policy doesn't require any course correction ... so long as rebels are holding their own or winning. A faltering Assad simply forces Iran et al into doubling down and committing even more resources. A faltering rebel movement, on the other hand, does require some external support, lest the Iranians actually win the conflict.
In a related matter, arming the rebels also prevents relations with U.S. allies in the region from fraying any further. So is this the first step towards another U.S.-led war in the region? No. Everything in that Times story, and everything this administration has said and done for the past two years, screams deep reluctance over intervention. Arming the rebels is not the same thing as a no-fly zone or any kind of ground intervention. This is simply the United States engaging in its own form of asymmetric warfare. For the low, low price of aiding and arming the rebels, the U.S. preoccupies all of its adversaries in the Middle East.
Adding that he is morally uncomfortable with this approach "until one considers the alternatives," Drezner concludes, "the United States is using a liberal internationalist rubric to cloak a pretty realist policy towards Syria. Am I missing anything?" Daniel Larison thinks so. Writing at The American Conservative, the non-interventionist blogger writes that "because it will prove to be ineffective in changing the course of the war, as opponents of this measure have said for years, it will serve as an invitation to further escalation in the coming months and years."
Personally, I've stopped trying to figure Obama out. The man has done the opposite of what he's said too many times to treat his own words as a reliable predictor of what he really believes. (Who knew "change" described his future positions?) But whether he is deliberately trying to escalate U.S. involvement, as Sullivan seems to think, or just prolonging the slaughter in Syria, as Drezner believes, his actions will be just the latest disappointment to the anti-war liberals who helped elect him. They'll also be another example of a president making a decision that would be better debated and voted on by Congress. I'd want that debate to end in a finding that, aside from humanitarian relief supplies, the U.S. should stay as far away from Syria as possible.