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Why doesn’t Obama seem to listen to Syria experts?

U.S. President Barack Obama bows his head in prayer as he attends the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington February 4, 2016. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

U.S. policy toward Syria is a fascinating, if depressing, case study. Many of my friends and colleagues who work on Syria—nearly all of them, in fact—have been baffled by President Obama’s approach to the Syrian conflict. The administration’s apparent resistance to rethinking its policies, despite rapidly changing events on the ground, sparks a number of challenging questions, particularly for someone like me who works at a think tank: When the basic thrust of policy seems immovable, irrespective of events on the ground, how should researchers respond? Should influencing policy be the animating objective of policy research? Who exactly should our work be directed to?

Having participated in the contentious debates over military intervention and the “Responsibility to Protect” since early 2012, I thought it might be time to go a bit “meta” and try to make sense of what did—and didn’t—happen from that point on. That is what I tried my best to do in a new journal article—“What is Policy Research For? Reflections on U.S. Failures in Syria.” 

Is Obama’s foreign policy ideological?

In my work on Islamist movements, I’ve been interested in the idea of political “inelasticity”—that is, how what Islamists do (or don’t do) has little effect on how their opponents view them. That’s because secularists and liberals will view them as Islamists, regardless of anything else, because, well, that’s what they are. The problem is that beliefs, attitudes, and policies are resistant to revision, because they’re steeped in deeper philosophical and ideological divergences that are somewhat divorced from everyday politics.

Inelasticity is helpful in understanding Obama’s policies on the Middle East, and particularly on Syria.

Inelasticity is helpful in understanding Obama’s policies on the Middle East, and particularly on Syria, for similar reasons. Administration officials aren’t oblivious to what’s happening in Syria; it’s more that the facts on the ground—even though they’ve changed rapidly and repeatedly over the past five years—seem to have no real effect on the basic contours of our Syria policy. This would seem surprising, since the president has styled himself a post-ideological technocrat who’s simply interested in “what works.” 

Obama’s “defensive minimalism” or “calculated dithering” on Syria and the broader Middle East is not incidental. However wrong and dangerous, it makes sense. It’s the product of a deeply held conviction that the use of American power in Syria will only make matters worse. This ideological thrust of U.S. policy helps explain why Obama has been remarkably dismissive toward the critics of his Syria policy, describing alternative proposals as “mumbo-jumbo.” They may or may not be mumbo-jumbo, depending on how you feel about U.S. military action against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, including the establishment of no-fly zones, no-drive zones, and humanitarian corridors. 

And, to be sure, counterfactuals are challenging and, by definition, speculative. But we can judge empirically what U.S. policy has actually been for the past five years, and we can judge whether or not it’s been successful. On this, senior U.S. officials have very little to say, except to present false choices, as Secretary of State John Kerry did when he suggested that doing more, as a humanitarian tragedy unfolds in Aleppo, would require going “to war with Russia.”

That President Obama has been unwilling to question his original assumptions on Syria, despite a rapidly evolving—and worsening—context, suggests an insularity and ideological rigidity rare among recent presidents.

This even includes, oddly enough, George W. Bush. Bush is often dismissed as the towering example of anti-intellectualism, afraid of ideas and afraid of changing them. Yet, this view of Bush, however numerous his other faults, is simply incorrect. After several years of disaster in Iraq, Bush concluded that a course correction was needed. He relented to outside criticism, when there was a strong temptation—as there always is after making a series of rather large mistakes—to double down and stay the course. He brought in outside counsel to help develop a new strategy, something that has never happened with Obama’s Syria policy, or even his broader approach to the Middle East. It requires an active imagination to even begin to envision a scenario where Obama, realizing that Aleppo may fall in the coming weeks, invites top Syria experts—most of whom support greater U.S. action—to discuss possible ways forward. 

It requires an active imagination to even begin to envision a scenario where Obama, realizing that Aleppo may fall in the coming weeks, invites top Syria experts...to discuss possible ways forward.

It is never too late (or at least that’s what they say). President Bill Clinton, after falling under the sway of the “ancient hatreds” thesis, managed to shift American policy as the Bosnian genocide unfolded, but it required him to come to terms with his own role in looking away amidst the slaughter. Some, today, are sounding similar notes. The moral urgency is undeniable. As Michael Ignatieff and Leon Wieseltier write, we may very well end up being “complicit in crimes of war,” and that “if we do not do everything we can to put a stop to the suffering that is the defining and most damaging abomination of our time, Aleppo will be a stain on our conscience forever.”

Gaining and losing traction

When I wrote a first draft of the article on the dilemmas of policy research when U.S. policy is immovable, I let a little light in. I wrote: 

There are other places, such as Iraq, where the Obama administration was pulled back in despite (or, more likely, because of) its best efforts. A fundamental shift is still unlikely in the case of Syria but it is more likely in the fall of 2015 than it was a year before. For instance, in July, Turkey and the United States appeared close to agreeing on the creation of a “safe zone” along the Syrian-Turkish border that would bring U.S. aircraft “closer than ever to areas that Syrian aircraft regularly bomb.

I was still pessimistic, of course, but I wanted to believe that the growing chorus of anger and frustration over our Syria policy would somehow be reflected in administration policy. It seemed like we were building toward that moment of discontinuity, when real policy change becomes possible and when ideas that were previously dismissed as “unrealistic” finally gain traction. 

I was mistaken to let my pessimism erode, even slightly. I’ve long argued that Syria will be Obama’s Iraq. As much as I want to believe otherwise, I do think that it’s probably too late. I hope to God that I’m wrong.