Sunday, June 16, 2013

Some More Idle Speculation on Syria

So, as I suggested in my Syria post yesterday, I want to speculate a little about why the Obama administration decided to start directly arming the more "moderate" Syrian rebels. One obvious possibility is pure face-saving or "doing something for the sake of doing something"; I think this probably captures a large chunk of their motivations but I want to spend most of this post exploring other possibilities because (a) this one's not terribly interesting to write about and (b) I have enough respect for the intellectual and moral worth of the Obama foreign policy team that I think they have more substantive reasons for intervening as well. I think it's most likely that some combination of two related explanations is closest to the truth.

One of these starts from the obvious but often overlooked point (of which Slate blogger Matt Yglesias reminded me about a year ago) that presidential administrations are not unified agents and often adopt policies that are compromises between various factions. In this context, the Syria policy change would be a compromise between interventionists and intervention skeptics. This explanation does a good job of accounting for the incoherence I detailed yesterday, with the administration invoking the grand objectives presumably favored by its interventionists in support of a fairly modest policy framed in such a way as to explicitly rule out escalation. It also fits with a recent New York Times story which placed heavy emphasis on the role that external pressure from American foreign policy elites (and especially recent comments from Bill Clinton) played in leading President Obama (who, to his great credit, has generally shown considerable skepticism and reticence about these types of foreign misadventures) to intervene.

For what it's worth, though, I think Obama and any less interventionist comrades he might have in the White House (Vice President Biden and Defense Secretary Hagel, perhaps?) were most likely rolled. This is because I think that, despite the points I made in my last post about how the administration's announcement of the policy undercut any larger psychological impact I might have, it's still quite plausible that arming the rebels will implicitly commit it to overthrowing the Assad regime and so could lead to further intervention, for several reasons.

First, Obama foreign policy adviser Ben Rhodes' announcement of the policy mentioned that the administration wants to "avoid" sending any weapons heavier than small arms and that doesn't "at this point believe that the U.S. has a national interest" in an air war no-fly zone, but only categorically ruled out a ground war; this seems like language designed to give the appearance of limited intervention for political purposes (to get intervention skeptics and [cough] the public to sign on) while still leaving scope for more aggressive action later. Second, the extensive media coverage suggests that it is in fact being perceived as an indication that the administration is prepared to do whatever it takes to end the war. Third, it seems likely that as prominent administration officials start to coordinate the rebel Free Syrian Army's troop movements more directly and work with them to some extent on strategy (an inevitable component of supplying weapons), they'll start to identify in a more direct and visceral way with the rebels' goals and so feel a need to offer more support if it seems necessary. Fourth, in explicitly declaring that it sees the four goals I mentioned in my last post as important foreign policy objectives it wants to achieve through its latest move, the administration is handing hawkish critics an opportunity to urge further action when they remain unmet.

Relatedly, it seems somewhat plausible to me that the Obama administration is more unified and wholehearted in its endorsement of this policy but simply thinks it can perform the circle-squaring move required to make it work - that is, send a message of unconditional support that will call forth new effort from the rebels and regional allies (and new lethargy from the Assad government) while also making sure that it never has to actually deliver on its promises. I see some merit in this explanation because, if correct, it links the administration's action in Syria to what I see as a more general flaw in its thinking, a tendency to think that its impressive agglomeration of political and policy-making talent makes it capable of overcoming the fixed constraints of human nature and the world's imperfections that lesser mortals must contend with. Examples of this tendency include its aspiration to run a global campaign to kill suspected terrorists with minimal judicial or legislative oversight and not abuse power or create precedents that will facilitate future abuse and its members' apparent belief (detailed in this interesting piece by the Times' Washington editor, David Leonhardt) that their willingness to be proactive in response to the financial crisis-caused downturn meant that they could ignore what most available economic models said about the amount of stimulus that would be needed to restore growth.

In closing, it's perhaps worth saying a word or two about an intriguing yet profoundly disturbing explanation of the administration's actions offered by Tufts international relations professor and Foreign Policy blogger Daniel Drezner. Roughly, Drezner suggests that Obama and his team have no interest in helping the rebels win but simply want to prolong the conflict as long as possible to bleed Iran, which has been providing its ally Assad with substantial support. I may return to his comment that "to describe this as 'morally questionable' would be an understatement.  It's a policy that makes me very uncomfortable... until one considers the alternatives" in a future post, but while this explanation is very far-fetched, there's a sense in which it does a much better job accounting for the flawed logic of the administration's public statements than the more mainstream ones; after all, one would expect the premises offered not to entail the ostensible conclusion if they had nothing to do with the administration's actual policy goals, and the cold-bloodedness of Drezner's proposed rationale explains why no official would even leak it anonymously. However, it seems pretty implausible to me that even a president as harsh on leaks as Obama could have prevented any mention of this view from making it into the media if it were his administration's actual reason for intervening, and in spite of my rather dismal view of the administration's human rights record I'm not sure they would do something as frankly ghastly as this.

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