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How Not to Keep a Low Profile in a Foreign War

Max Boot frets about Obama’s lack of commitment to defeating Assad:

Apparently administration lawyers have tied themselves up into knots worrying about Bashar Assad retaliating against the U.S. for weapons shipments–yet somehow the Reagan administration managed to undertake much larger weapons shipments to the Afghan mujahideen, who were fighting an enemy far more powerful than the Syrian state. One suspects that the difference between then and now is that President Reagan was personally committed to fighting the Soviet Union. Obama, by contrast, is, as usual, paralyzed by indecision. He is willing to make heavily hedged statements calling for Assad’s removal but he is not willing to follow up with decisive action. Thus the bloodletting in Syria drags on, and the Assad regime continues to regain lost ground with the aid of Hezbollah and Iranian operatives, while the U.S. and our allies increasingly lose out.

It’s fair to criticize the gap between Obama’s various ultimatums on Syria and his evident unwillingness to follow through on them, but if the choice is between current Syria policy that doesn’t match Obama’s rhetoric and a major U.S. commitment in Syria’s civil war the former is still obviously preferable for the U.S. Boot’s comparison with Reagan and Afghanistan doesn’t hold up very well on closer inspection. Reagan was an avowed anticommunist operating in the context of Cold War rivalry with another superpower, the Soviets had invaded and occupied a sovereign country, and he was intent on checking and reversing Soviet gains. The difference between then and now is that there is nothing in Syria’s conflict that is remotely comparable to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Even so, the U.S. effort to arm anti-Soviet insurgents in Afghanistan is hardly an inspiring example that anyone would want to follow today.

No one can defend the current policy, because even its supporters in the administration know that it won’t achieve anything other than prolong the conflict. As this WSJarticle reports, the administration’s hope was that the U.S. would attract the least attention with its half-hearted plan to arm part of the opposition:

The group’s arguments in part help explain why the White House agonized over Syria intervention and why Mr. Obama eventually opted to provide military aid to the rebels covertly through the Central Intelligence Agency, to help mitigate the legal risks and keep the U.S.’s profile low [bold mine-DL].

Do you know what would be an even better way for the U.S. to keep a low profile on Syria? Don’t make public threats about “red lines,” and definitely don’t announce to the world that the U.S. is taking sides in the conflict. Better yet, don’t take sides in the conflict in the first place. The trouble here seems to be that the administration doesn’t want the attention and pressure that would come from a more open and public debate about Syria, but it still wants to be credited for “doing something” in the conflict.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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