Republican politicians and commentators have been saying it. From Bobby Jindal to Michael Gerson, among many others, including this blogger, many of President Obama’s critics have been saying that he bears responsibility for the debacle in Syria.
It’s one thing for the president’s critics to say it. It’s quite another when his friends, his ideological soul mates, are blaming him for the mess in Syria.
Take Roger Cohen, liberal columnist for the New York Times. I understand that some people do not care what liberals think, but the way the history of the Obama administration is written will certainly influence how future presidents conduct policy. If you lose an influential liberal Times columnist, you should start worrying about how you are going to look in the history books.
Cohen begins his most recent column:
Syria will be the biggest blot on the Obama presidency, a debacle of staggering proportions. For more than four years now, the war has festered. A country has been destroyed, four million Syrians are refugees, Islamic State has moved into the vacuum and President Bashar al-Assad still drops barrel bombs whose shrapnel and chlorine rip women and children to shreds.
For a long time, those who fled waited in the neighborhood. They wanted to go home. They filled camps in Turkey and Jordan and Lebanon. When it became clear even to them that “home” no longer existed, nothing could stop them in their desperate flight toward the perceived security of Europe. The refugee crisis is the chronicle of a disaster foretold.
Cohen makes a point that I argued in my post on “Who Lost Syria?” Namely, that Obama’s inaction caused the debacle. As I mentioned, it is difficult to show that doing nothing can produce devastating effects. It seems easier to blame someone for doing something, especially for doing something wrong.
So it matters that Cohen explains how inaction can have disastrous consequences:
American interventionism can have terrible consequences, as the Iraq war has demonstrated. But American non-interventionism can be equally devastating, as Syria illustrates. Not doing something is no less of a decision than doing it. The pendulum swings endlessly between interventionism and retrenchment because the United States is hard-wired to the notion that it can make the world a better place. Looking inward for long is a non-option for a nation that is also a universal idea. Every major conflict poses the question of how far America should get involved.
Despite his support for the administration’s Iran nuclear deal, Cohen sees significant foreign policy failures:
In Syria and Libya he has washed his hands of conflicts that the United States could not turn its back on. Such negligence comes back to bite America, as its experience in Afghanistan since the 1980s has shown. Nobody loves a vacuum like a jihadi. And nobody likes American wobbliness like Vladimir Putin.
Cohen sets out the stages of Obama’s fecklessness:
In 2011, Obama said, “The time has come for President Assad to step aside.” At that time, as events have shown, the president had no policy in place to achieve that objective and no will to forge such a policy. His words were of a grave irresponsibility.
In 2013, with France poised to join the United States in military strikes on Syria, Obama walked away at the last minute from upholding his “red line” on the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. In so doing, he reinforced Assad, reinforced Putin, declined to change the course of the Syrian war, and diminished America’s word in the world — setbacks of far greater significance than ridding Syria of chemical weapons. This was a mistake.
Obama, Cohen says, has shrunk from using American military power. His has been the politics of cowardice:
At multiple stages, if Obama could have mustered the will, the belief in American power, there were options. The Syrian aircraft dropping those barrel bombs could have been taken out. A safe area for refugees might have been created. Arming the rebels early and massively might have changed the course of the war. Counterfactuals, of course, don’t carry much weight. We will never know. We only know the facts of the Syrian nightmare now seeping, in various forms, into the West. Syria, broken, will be the rift that keeps on giving.
In Libya, Obama bombed and abandoned. In Afghanistan, Obama surged and retreated. In Syria, Obama talked and wavered. He has been comfortable with the pinpoint use of force — the killing of Osama bin Laden for example — but uncomfortable with American military power.
In my previous post on Syria I noted Fred Hiatt’s remarks in the Washington Post, to the effect that the Obama administration, with its media enablers, has, up to now succeeded in not taking responsibility for the events in Syria and for the refugee crisis in Europe. And Hiatt added that it has also allowed Americans to think that the problem is not theirs.
Hopefully, Cohen’s column will start a movement toward a more rational appraisal of the extent of Obama’s failure.