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.

Brzezinski makes the point that Obama's response to Syria has been reactive rather than proactive and consistent, that the president is being nudged into the worst kind of "ineffective interventionism."

The Heilbrunn-Brzezinski exchange:

Heilbrunn: How slippery is the slope? Obama was clearly not enthusiastic about sending the arms to the Syrian rebels--he handed the announcement off to Ben Rhodes. How slippery do you think this slope is? Do you think that we are headed towards greater American intervention?

Brzezinski: I'm afraid that we're headed toward an ineffective American intervention, which is even worse. There are circumstances in which intervention is not the best but also not the worst of all outcomes. But what you are talking about means increasing our aid to the least effective of the forces opposing Assad. So at best, it's simply damaging to our credibility. At worst, it hastens the victory of groups that are much more hostile to us than Assad ever was. I still do not understand why--and that refers to my first answer--why we concluded somewhere back in 2011 or 2012--an election year, incidentally--that Assad should go.

When Obama empowered his National Security Advisor Tom Donilon to move forward on a Libyan military intervention, including a no fly zone plus other measures to neutralize Moammer Qaddafi's offensive military machine against Benghazi, certain criteria needed to be satisfied first. These included securing both regional and international support for the intervention -- that meant Arab League and UN Security Council support. Though Russia and China abstained in the United Nations, Donilon secured these key criteria required then by Obama.

Obama also would not agree to any military action in Libya unless the commitment of force would make a clear tipping-point change in circumstances on the ground and give the advantage to the Benghazi-based rebels. In addition, the military footprint would have to remain small, limited in duration and scope.

Libya, somewhat like Syria, did not represent a challenge to vital U.S. national security interests -- but an intervention could be justified on other grounds, in the case of Libya on what was feared to be mass slaughter of Benghazi citizens by Qaddafi's forces, and in Syria by the red line trigger of chemical weapons use.

In the case of Libya, Obama acted surgically and preempted the typical slippery slope to a larger military intervention that involved "owning the outcomes" inside Libya. Obama's strategy worked, and the U.S. in partnership with France, England, the UAE, and Qatar delivered a low-cost political transition inside Libya.

With Syria, Obama is behaving in ways that run counter to the decision criteria he applied in Libya. He is committing intelligence and military resources to a crisis that does not have UN Security Council sanction, and he is not framing his response to the chemical weapons use in terms of either punishing the commanders who authorized their use -- or to secure those weapons. Instead, Obama is joining the rebel forces and committing to a regime change formula that could potentially falter. And that is before calculating the global strategic costs of getting in a nasty stand-off with Russia whose support is needed on other global challenges.

This is sloppy interventionism -- strategically inchoate, potentially at conflict with other larger and more important U.S. strategic goals, and potentially the kind of commitment that obligates the United States to support a rebellion that America avoided doing in the Libyan case.

The question of what exactly comprises the Obama doctrine is getting murkier by the week.  How does intervening in Syria help or hinder America's broader global objectives in shaping Iran's nuclear pretensions? Does intervention in Syria constrain American power or leverage it? If the rebels were to succeed, what will America's position be in Syria Civil War 2.0 between the rebels America likes and the Islamic extremist rebels it doesn't?

Why did the administration's response to Syrian regime chemical weapons use not involve either punitive measures against the commanders that ordered their use -- nor a strategy to secure those weapons?

The success of President Obama's foreign policy depends on how well he implements a strategy and sticks to it. The Asia pivot comes to mind -- as opposed to having his foreign policy focus hijacked by events and forcing him into reactive national security decisions.

Syria as it looks today will likely take a decade or longer for forces inside to burn out and to come to some internal political terms.  Many will tragically die -- and the ability of outside players to influence internal outcomes inside Syria will be very limited.  Obama needs to settle in for a long Syrian sectarian conflict and avoid silver bullet options.

President Obama needs to get back to what he was doing for the last two years -- avoid getting caught up in the Syrian storm, his call for Assad's ouster aside.  Obama was right to remain focused on the economic and national security challenges really facing the United States and avoid those challenges that are peripheral.