Home/Daniel Larison/What Is Obama’s Worst Foreign Policy Mistake? It’s Not Syria

What Is Obama’s Worst Foreign Policy Mistake? It’s Not Syria

Ibrahem Qasim/Flickr: air strike in Sana'a, May 2015

Nick Kristof repeats a standard complaint against Obama:

I admire Obama for expanding health care and averting a nuclear crisis with Iran, but allowing Syria’s civil war and suffering to drag on unchallenged has been his worst mistake, casting a shadow over his legacy.

Obama’s Syria policy has certainly been a muddled mess for years, but it has never made sense to me to fault him for “allowing” a foreign civil war to continue. To say that Obama “allowed” this assumes that the U.S. could have put an end to it at an acceptable cost, and I don’t see how anyone believes that to be the case. This takes for granted a degree of control over events on the other side of the world that no government–not even one as powerful as ours–can ever hope to have. Talk of “allowing” a foreign civil war to continue also presupposes that the U.S. has the right to interfere and force a settlement in another country’s internal conflict, but it has no such right. Further, it assumes that the U.S. knows how to bring an end to a multi-sided war in a fragmented country that it poorly understands, and I submit that our experience in the region over the last fifteen years proves that we do not.

I am often struck by how absurd it is that Obama is so often faulted on Syria for what he hasn’t done rather than what he has. We are repeatedly told that he erred because he didn’t illegally bomb Syria in 2013, or because he didn’t throw weapons at the problem earlier on. He receives much less criticism for arming opposition forces that are in league with jihadists (and then having those weapons seized by jihadists) or expanding the anti-ISIS bombing campaign into Syria on his own authority. That’s not because these other policies have been particularly effective or successful, but because they mean that the U.S. is “doing something” in Syria, and that is all that seems to matter for interventionist critics. “At least we’re not standing idly by,” they say. That’s right. Instead, we’re needlessly contributing to the mayhem.

Of course, the people most upset with Obama on Syria are those hawks that have wanted him to do much more, and so they blame him for the actions that other states and groups have taken when he has no control over what these other actors do. Meanwhile, when the Obama administration directly and actively participates in creating one of the gravest humanitarian crises of this century, as it has in Yemen, the same people that berate him over Syria have nothing to say about that. Obama’s sin of commission in Yemen is clearly more blameworthy than his “failure” in Syria, not least because the former is indefensible, and yet he usually gets a pass on the one while being excoriated for the other. The point here is not just that Obama has been let off the hook for a terrible decision to back the Saudi-led war on Yemen, but that our foreign policy pundits and professionals are much more willing to blame a president for the consequences of so-called “inaction” than they are willing to hold him accountable for the things that he actually does.

The example of Yemen’s exacerbated suffering should also make us wary of claims that the U.S. could have somehow forced an end to the civil war in Syria without causing even more harm. Outside intervention in Yemen obviously hasn’t hastened the end of conflict there, but instead propped up the weaker side while significantly escalating the war at enormous cost to the civilian population. The U.S.-backed, Saudi-led intervention made the existing conflict much worse and inflicted far more destruction on the country than would have otherwise happened. As terrible as Syria’s civil war has been, there is just as much reason to believe that direct intervention by the U.S. and its allies would have caused far more destruction and more loss of life to the detriment of the people of Syria.

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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