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Is Obama “Abandoning” Syrian Rebels?

David Ignatius likens Obama’s Syria policy to previous episodes of U.S. “abandonment” of foreign rebels:

The story that’s playing out now in Syria is so familiar that it’s almost a leitmotif of American foreign policy.

Washington wants to see a change of government so it encourages local rebels to rise up. Once these rebels are on the barricades, policymakers often get cold feet, realizing that they lack public support. This process happened in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the Bay of Pigs in 1961, the Prague Spring of 1968, the contras program in Nicaragua in 1984.

These comparisons aren’t entirely fair. The U.S. really did give Hungarians and Cuban exiles the false expectation that the U.S. would back them up, and in the Cuban case it was an American-sponsored operation that never had any realistic chance of success. Those could fairly be called instances of “seduction and abandonment.” When Ignatius says that “policymakers often get cold feet,” he means that the U.S. refused to escalate the situation by attacking another country when the rebels started to lose. By all accounts, the Syrian uprising started without U.S. encouragement, and it continued despite explicit public statements that the U.S. wouldn’t be repeating anything like its Libyan intervention there. The Libyan war may have given many Syrian rebels the false impression that the U.S. would go to war on their behalf. If so, they were very much mistaken.

This points us to the real flaw in Obama’s handling of Syria: he kept making very strong statements of support for the anti-Assad cause that he had no real intention of backing up with anything more than limited aid. Whether he did this because he overestimated how quickly Assad would fall without having to do very much, or if he did this because of some mania to appear to be on the “right side of history” as often as possible, it doesn’t really matter. The U.S. failure in all of the examples that Ignatius cites isn’t the failure to follow up on foolish promises. In almost every case, the great blunder was in claiming to support a foreign cause that the U.S. wouldn’t or couldn’t wholeheartedly support. Creating that false hope is a cruel and unnecessary thing to do, and it is something that the U.S. could have easily avoided if Washington had refrained from making promises it wasn’t going to keep. The solution isn’t to make a belated effort to make good on a promise that should never have been made, but to acknowledge the earlier mistake.

The question now is whether the administration feels pressured by these charges of “abandonment” to increase its support for the Syrian opposition, or if it sees this as an opportunity to correct the mistake it made last month. This is why last month’s decision was so foolish: it was always bound to disappoint the Syrian opposition because it offered them so little, and it was certain to open the administration to the charge that it was “abandoning” the people that it had pledged to support unless it agreed to do more. Obama should reverse his decision, but he is facing so much criticism for fecklessness that he may feel compelled to continue the current policy that satisfies no one.

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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