Quickfire Thoughts on Obama’s Syria Announcement

31 Aug

Obama’s big Rose Garden announcement today deserves some attention.  I don’t have time to write a full post, so here are three reactions I had.  Any pushback is appreciated.

This was not Obama’s first choice

Obama has been quite cautious on intervening in Syria despite significant pressure to the contrary.  His approval of arms transfers smacked of an attempt to silence the critics.  This is evidenced by the fact that the FSA is yet to actually receive any of those arms.  The chemical weapons attack on Ghouta presented another instance in which pressure from within the administration and from other countries (France and Israel primarily)  forced Obama’s hand.  Enforcing the norm against chemical weapons likely played a role in Obama’s decision to take this route of action, but it is clearly a compromise to ‘do something’ rather than an intentional strategy Obama believes will help achieve his objectives.    Passing the buck to Congress was a brilliant political move.  Instead of taking unilateral (or perhaps multilateral if France and Israel jump on board) action, he’s making congress take the blame for an intervention that’s both widely unpopular and unlikely to achieve positive results.  These factors may mean an intervention doesn’t happen, allowing Obama to not use military force and coming out looking looking less weak than inaction would have.  Whatever Congress decides, it also improves Obama’s image as a consensus-seeker.

This is not a humanitarian intervention

Charli Carpenter said it well on Foreign Policy.  It’s not R2P because it’s not going through the UNSC.  Also, the scope and target of the mission are not consistent with protecting civilians.  Studies on interventions that target the incumbent demonstrate that they actually lead to more civilian deaths.  If an intervention was open-ended, and included a more expansive mandate, it could possibly decrease civilian casualties.  While my STAND colleague Hannah Finnie drew  my attention to the similarities between Obama’s speech and LBJ’s Vietnam speech, I think further escalation beyond a limited timeframe and mandate is unlikely.  Two key phrases encapsulate this line of thinking.*  First Obama said, “We know our military cannot solve the underlying conflict in Syria.”  This points to a limited and focused intervention.  Second, POTUS argued that the “ancient sectarian differences” present in Syria are impossible to solve with military force.  This is reminiscent of Clinton’s thinking on Bosnia (influenced by the Robert Kaplan book Ghosts of the Balkans), which caused him to be very pessimistic about the benefits of intervention.  While the US did eventually did get further involved in Bosnia, it was not at Clinton’s behest.  Obama’s buck passing has squashed the possibility of expanding the mission, at least for the foreseeable future.

Intervention, if it happens, is unlikely to be successful

Obama stated that the primarily goal of the mission was to enforce the norm against chemical weapons.  While there is generally an international consensus against chemical weapons use, it’s important to remember Syria hasn’t signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, so it didn’t break that international law in the Ghouta incident (it was still a war crime according to my basic understanding of international law).  The limited timeframe  of this intervention makes deterrence against further use unlikely, however.  Assad already knows that Obama is reluctant to use force, and assuming the bombing happens, it’s unlikely Assad will be cowed into refraining from chemical weapons use following the conclusion of the US mission (doubts about CW’s strategic value aside).  There is simply not the political will for a open-ended mission that would potentially prevent the long-term use of chemical weapons.  Even then, it’s unclear what the value of such an intervention would be.  Many more civilians have been killed by conventional means than chemical weapons, and even if the latter arouse our disgust.  Deaths are deaths, and if a limited intervention is going to cause more than it prevents, it’s clearly a bad policy.  I seriously doubt that this is what Obama wants, but when military inaction becomes impossible, he’s judged that seeking congressional approval for a piecemeal strategy that’s bound to fail is preferable to a large-scale, boots on the ground intervention that has a slightly higher chance of success.

*I don’t have the speech transcript in front of me, so these were transcribed from memory.

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2 Responses to “Quickfire Thoughts on Obama’s Syria Announcement”

  1. Sonia Sen (@thesoniasen) August 31, 2013 at 10:34 pm #

    Not sure I would call it a “brilliant political move” on Obama’s part…seems to me like it was just the easiest move for him to make. But overall thanks for your insights, it’ll be interesting to see how this plays out.

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