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Obama’s Unpersuasive Syria Spin

The administration is serving up some pretty pitiful spin [1] to provide political cover for the complete failure of their plan to arm the “moderate” Syrian rebels:

By any measure, President Obama’s effort to train a Syrian opposition army to fight the Islamic State on the ground has been an abysmal failure. The military acknowledged this week that just four or five American-trained fighters are actually fighting.

But the White House says it is not to blame. The finger, it says, should be pointed not at Mr. Obama but at those who pressed him to attempt training Syrian rebels in the first place [bold mine-DL] — a group that, in addition to congressional Republicans, happened to include former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

I’m all for holding Syria hawks responsible for their advocacy of terrible policies, but the administration can’t simply shift all the blame to its hawkish critics on this one. If members of Congress and some members of Obama’s administration “pressed” him to do something that he knew was pointless, he deserves even more blame for going along with an option that he knew wouldn’t achieve anything. There is nothing quite as pathetic as a president blaming his opponents for his decision to give in to their stupid recommendations. “It’s not my fault that I caved in to the demands of people who are always wrong about foreign policy” is not the argument one wants to be making.

Yes, Syria hawks have been wrong about the possibility and desirability of arming a “moderate” Syrian opposition, and [2] I have [3] objected [4] to [5] the idea [6] from [7] the [8] very beginning [9], but Obama eventually yielded to their bad arguments. The fact that he did so reluctantly and much later than they wanted doesn’t make the final decision to authorize a useless training program better. On the contrary, it makes that decision even less defensible. Earlier in the debate over Syria policy, Obama rejected the recommendation of several top people in his administration to do this and he was right to reject it. He then backtracked and reversed himself when “arming the moderate opposition” became a way to placate his hawkish critics in 2013 [10], and he recommitted to this [11] bad idea [12] as part of the war on ISIS after he expanded it into Syria. Those are things that Obama chose to do, and he was wrong in both cases.

Now that the effort to arm and train a “moderate” opposition has completely failed, what the administration should be doing is reassessing the wisdom of continuing U.S. operations in Syria now that there is clearly no effective force on the ground that can be used to fight ISIS that the U.S. can work with. We all know that reassessment isn’t going to happen, but that would make a lot more sense than engaging in lame and unpersuasive finger-pointing for a bad policy [13] that the administration foolishly endorsed against the better judgment of some of its members.

16 Comments (Open | Close)

16 Comments To "Obama’s Unpersuasive Syria Spin"

#1 Comment By Essayist-Lawyer On September 18, 2015 @ 1:22 am

“It’s not my fault that I caved in to the demands of people who are always wrong about foreign policy” is not the argument one wants to be making.

I love it!

#2 Comment By Uncle Billy On September 18, 2015 @ 7:55 am

There is no “moderate Syrian opposition.” Basically, we have a choice between Assad, who is a thug, and Sunni fanatics, who are even worse. There are no Thomas Jeffersons or James Madisons, lurking in the shadows, ready to leap out and install “Democracy.”

Rather than trying to engage in regime change and arming rebels (the arms typically end up in the hands of the fanatics anyway), we should have been pressuring Assad to treat his people better, via both carrots and sticks. We could have worked with the Russians to get them to participate in an effort to encourage Assad to be less brutal. There would be no “democracy” but the life of the average Syrian would have been better, and the refugee crises would have been less desperate.

#3 Comment By Ron Beasley On September 18, 2015 @ 10:21 am

The Russians and Iranians seem willing to take on ISIS to prop up Assad – let them and get the hell out.

#4 Comment By Rossbach On September 18, 2015 @ 10:32 am

You are right, Uncle Billy, as usual. I would add that this feckless administration can be expected to continue its failed and useless policies (all of them) for another 417 days, then hand the mess to his successor.

#5 Comment By K L On September 18, 2015 @ 10:58 am

When it comes to foreign policy, neoliberals like Clinton are almost indistinguishable from the neoconservatives who got us into Iraq. What happened in Libya should’ve disabused them of the notion that if you removed a dictator, Freedom and Democracy would spontaneously spring up.

#6 Comment By balconesfault On September 18, 2015 @ 10:58 am

This was a statement by the Press Secretary – and not the President himself – and I’m hoping that we get a clarification which sounds a lot less whiny. Because as correct as the statement is – as Ryan Crocker offered in the article – “the worst thing they could say.”

Policy towards Syria is certainly not something Obama can be proud of. From his guarded Press Conference remark that neocons tried to use to goad him into a full out war against Assad (“We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”) … to his hemming and hawing when the neocons tried to argue that enforcement of the “red line” was critical to America’s credibility … to the final decision to throw a bunch of money at an exercise that he was sceptical about from the beginning.

I don’t blame the Syrian mess on Obama – I don’t think there’s much he could have done to make the situation better than it is today (except perhaps perversely had he thrown US military force in to support Assad from the beginning) – I’m firmly convinced that in the hands of a President McCain or President Romney the situation would be even worse today than it is.

But he’s bumbled around on the issue enough to give fuel to those who want to discredit a more nuanced and non-interventionist foreign policy, and he’s certainly wasted some money. Sad indeed.

#7 Comment By John On September 18, 2015 @ 2:36 pm

This does not absolve Obama for going along, but I think it’s uncontroversial that the advocates of a stupid plan don’t get to be critics when reasonable efforts to enact that plan are met with failure. If we had a less constitutionally dysfunctional government where the House and Senate approved military actions, instead of one where they throw money at the Department of Defense to see what the President will order, the sharing of blame would be more intuitive.

#8 Comment By Joe F On September 18, 2015 @ 2:38 pm

I have to say that the driving foreign policy force for me is civil order. When civil order disintegrates, a humanitarian disaster is all but certain to accompanying blood shed arising from widespread civil disorder when the rule of law becomes unenforceable. Advanced countries used to have the luxury of being removed from such chaos, but now the chaos is arriving at their door. The biggest areas currently suffering from catastrophic civil disorder are Afghanistan, Syria, Libya and Yemen. Even Iraq has some semblance of order.

the ultimate solution for the refugee crisis in Europe is not how to absorb them, it is not to create them in the first place.

#9 Comment By Irony Abounds On September 18, 2015 @ 3:03 pm

Unfortunately there is no good solution to the mess in Syria in particular and the Middle East in general. The best solution is to do virtually nothing and let the fire burn itself out. Unfortunately, that results in a lot of human suffering that creates problems as well. It is very likely that everything would be much better had the US not invaded Iraq, but that genie is out of the bottle (thanks GWB). I agree Obama should not be whining, but it is important for the information to come out just to show, once again, just how stupid and dangerous the hawks are.

#10 Comment By EliteCommInc. On September 18, 2015 @ 8:06 pm

“Unfortunately there is no good solution to the mess in Syria in particular and the Middle East in general. The best solution is to do virtually nothing and let the fire burn itself out. Unfortunately, that results in a lot of human suffering that creates problems as well. It is very likely that everything would be much better had the US not invaded Iraq, but that genie is out of the bottle (thanks GWB).”+

Unfortunately Iraq is the nexus. Afghanistan isn’t much better. But Iraq serves as the linchpin to a lot of very bad policy. But I think it should never be forgotten that after 9/11 most of the country was in some kind of war fever. Whether it was Iraq/Afghanistan of both. Pres. bush did not get us into either soley on his own. As executive, he had the last say and should have listened to his deeper hesitations. His comment to Director Tenet,”That’s all you got speaks volumes.”

As for the current executive blaming everyone but himself. One can only respond sigh and no kidding. As a matter of after action processs, even if one is not the actor of events, reflection demands some responsibility for actions that could have chartered another course.

But in this case the current executive both actor and owner. Several years ago, I had a long converstion with a group of liberals some black some not and they did everything they could to remind me of history and how blacks get duped. My only response is that if accurate, then this executive knew that going in, you apparently did — He should have chartered his own course. But once he chose to follow their lead, that two is a choice for good or ill.

As for the Sec. Clinton factor, he never should have chosen someone who stood for all he said he rejected.

#11 Comment By gabriel syme On September 19, 2015 @ 12:51 am

Obama’s weak half-measures even fail to provide a meaningful lesson on the dangers of attempting to arm the friendless “middle ground” of a civil war. Anti-Assad hawks rightly claim that Obama only ever attempted a small portion of what they claimed was necessary – and executed it exceedingly poorly. Regrettably, the only lesson that could be learned here is that the Obama regime is criminally irresponsible and incompetent in foreign affairs – and that everyone who is willing to learn already knew.

#12 Comment By SmoothieX12 (aka Andrew) On September 19, 2015 @ 7:42 pm

@Uncle Billy.

In one post you managed to do what many would have tried to get their Ph.Ds in–you summarized a complete incompetence and absurdity of US foreign policy, and not in Syria only. Any references to Assad as a “thug” from the country which is directly culpable in the tragedy and misery there seems rather redundant. Qaddafi might have been a thug too but at least Libya lived and prospered. I guess Libyans are “enjoying” now all benefits of “life for average……” being better(c).

#13 Comment By Fran Macadam On September 20, 2015 @ 6:27 pm

The truth of the matter is that which cannot be said: the administration wants Al Qaeda and ISIS to overthrow Assad for them. That takes care of the Russian and Iranian influence, which is the more geostrategically important objective. After that, ipso facto, there is then every excuse to invade Syria going all in to defeat ISIS and set up a western satrapy. In any case, ISIS is seen as less threatening to U.S. interests than Iran and ultimately Russia’s influence in the region.

#14 Comment By SmoothieX12 (aka Andrew) On September 20, 2015 @ 7:37 pm


You are absolutely correct. That was the idea, what this idea is today–is a completely different matter. The whole thing is reminiscent of a deer caught in the headlights of the incoming truck on the highway. Evidently, all those “scholars” in DC have no idea about causality and that actions are followed by the consequences.

#15 Comment By Hyperion On September 20, 2015 @ 9:15 pm

The very thin silver lining to this very dark foreign policy cloud: Obama seems to now realize what some knew before, that picking winners in these situations is fraught with danger.

I doubt there will be a GWB-like response a la “more rubble, less trouble”. But that’s as good as it’s going to get.

#16 Comment By EliteCommInc. On September 20, 2015 @ 10:41 pm

I think now that Russia is in the game, probably has been for a while, that we have been out manuvered. I could be wrong. Bt Russia and Iran are not about to allow Syria to fall into the hands of Al Queda or ISIS.

Our divided strategy has left us in aurch.

I sspect that eventually russia will have to put troops on the ground to remove ISIS/ISIL. I don’t think ISIS will survive the pushback.

And while Sec. Clinton and company woud live to take on Russia, I think it proves an unneccessary move. The istake of Iraq looms large and oivital because with no bffer against Iranian efforts. The geopolitical landscape is going to look much different.

And with Europe and Russia pushing for the Iranian deal, whether are in or out won’t matter much.

Excuse, even at the risk of being called a troll. We should left Pres, Hussein right where he was.