If Obama is going to act why does he procrastinate? One theory is that Obama cares little about foreign policy and is entirely focused on his reelection. Unless a crisis is dire, he can’t be expected to bestir himself. Another is that Obama is so locked into his not-Bush foreign policy perspective that he digs in his heels whenever presented with the chance to aid protesters against a dictatorial regime.
It’s telling that these are the only explanations she can imagine. A more reasonable political explanation for the pace of the administration’s response to the Syrian crackdown and civil war is that there is no enthusiasm for taking on a significant new commitment in the Near East during an election year when the vast majority of the public wants nothing to do with the situation in Syria. Americans are war-weary, relatively few Americans consider democracy promotion overseas to be an important priority, and there is no appetite for new foreign commitments, no matter how limited or indirect U.S. involvement may be. It is political folly to commit the U.S. to anything more than non-lethal and humanitarian assistance, and if the administration eventually does provide more than that it will be making a mistake.
Another reason that the administration may be reluctant to funnel weapons into the middle of a civil war is the correct understanding that doing so will intensify and prolong the conflict to the detriment of the civilian population. On a related note, some administration officials apparently believe that arming the opposition will change nothing, so it would simply be a case of doing something for the sake of doing it. Alternatively, the administration might believe that sending weapons to a fragmented opposition whose different groups have not yet managed to organize themselves is a mistake for different reasons. Arming anti-regime insurgents doesn’t make sense until there is a clear picture of what the insurgency represents and whether it is a force that the U.S. wants to help bring to power. The geographic dispersion of the Syrian opposition both inside and outside the country creates another difficulty. Contrary to the now-fashionable comparison with Bosnia, Syrian rebels are not fighting for territory on behalf of the recognized government of a quasi-state.
Rubin’s second explanation cannot be taken seriously. Let’s recall that this is an administration that abandoned Mubarak within two weeks of the start of protests in Cairo. Whatever else one wants to say about Obama’s response to protests in Egypt last year, it is absurd to say that he “digs in his heels whenever presented with the chance to aid protesters against a dictatorial regime.” Santorum et al. will point to this as proof of Obama’s deeper perfidy. As they see it, he supports protesters against rulers of client states, but he seems to do less when presented with protests against hostile authoritarian regimes. This overlooks the lack of influence that the U.S. has with the governments of Syria and Iran, and it ignores that U.S. support would be neither terribly useful nor welcome among large parts of the populations in these countries.