As agitation for war with Syria increases here in the U.S., it’s worth considering what might be happening right now if the party with the loudest Syria hawks in it controlled the White House. Romney was consistently the more hawkish candidate on every foreign policy issue during the election campaign. It was always wishful thinking to believe that he wouldn’t conduct foreign policy as he had campaigned. On Syria, Romney was not as aggressive as John McCain was at the time, but he and Ryan were both firmly in the pro-intervention camp and called for arming the opposition when that was still a relatively rare position to take.
Syria policy under the current administration has been so muddled because Obama wants to be seen as being on “the right side of history,” but fortunately he hasn’t always been willing to follow through on some of his most ideological and sweeping rhetoric in practice. Obama shouldn’t have insisted that Assad “must” go when he didn’t intend to compel him to give up power, but it’s much better that he is not dragging the U.S. into an unnecessary war to back up an ultimatum he shouldn’t have made. Obama would have been better off saying nothing about “red lines” when he evidently doesn’t want to start a war against the Syrian government, but now that every opportunistic hawk wants to use these statements to force him into war he is correct to ignore them. Obama has meddled in Syria more than he should, but not so much that the U.S. has to continue meddling.
While Obama’s handling of Syria has been far from optimal, his evident reluctance to become drawn into yet another war is one of the things that has redeemed Syria policy over the last two years. It is a reluctance that I have always been confident Romney would not have shared, because the short-term political incentives and pressure from inside his party would have all pushed him towards “action.” Romney is too much of an opportunist and too overconfident in U.S. military power to exercise restraint, and that’s especially true if he were presented with a chance to establish his foreign policy credentials and to demonstrate a clear break with his predecessor’s relatively more cautious approach. It seems very unlikely that the U.S. wouldn’t already be directly arming anti-regime forces if Romney had won the election. It is hard to imagine that Romney would have either the political courage or the inclination to refrain from direct military intervention as demands for “action” became more insistent. A Romney administration might now be preparing for a Syrian war if it hadn’t launched one already.