An article that I published last week argued that President Obama is supporting Iran in Syria and Iraq, and that he is leaving America’s traditional allies and the Syrian opposition in the lurch. The article claimed that the president was being disingenuous when, in his commencement speech at West Point on May 28, he announced his intention “to ramp up support” for the Free Syria Army (FSA). That accusation deserves a more detailed explanation than I was able to provide in the body of the article itself.
On the surface the president’s new initiative looks impressive. After making his grand announcement in a major foreign policy speech, Obama turned to Congress with a request for $500 million to fund a new program to train and equip the FSA. For the first time the military, rather than the CIA, is to play a role in assisting Assad’s enemies. But a close look at the details of the request reveals a Potemkin structure.
The West Point initiative fits perfectly with what a well-established pattern of misdirection by the White House. Call it the Syria two-step. The president or a member of his administration issues a statement of support for the FSA that is long on pious intention but short on practical details. After gaining credit from the media for taking action, the president then quietly backs away from his own initiative, taking care never to admit that he is doing so.
In addition to this track record, there are three others reasons to believe that we are, once again, at the beginning of a new round of the two-step.
First, the West Point initiative, if it ever really materializes, will have no practical impact for at least a year, probably longer. Before the military can get to work, two pieces of legislation must pass Congress: an appropriations bill, which will fund the program, and the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which will provide the military with the necessary authorities to involve itself in Syria. Given Congress’s schedule, the NDAA will not come up for a vote until after the midterm elections—not until December, possibly even January 2015. Even if the military rushes to work immediately after the passage of the bill, another six months to a year will elapse before American-trained FSA units can actually arrive on the battlefield. The earliest we could hope to see any impact is June 2015, and even that late date is probably unrealistic.
Second, no prior planning went into the initiative before Obama announced it—none whatsoever. The most basic questions have yet to be answered. Who is going to be trained? Which regional allies will help in the effort? Will FSA units receive training to carry out offensive operations, or will they simply defend select locales? It is no exaggeration to say that the president dumped a half-baked plan on lawmakers and then demanded that they take immediate action. This behavior hardly builds the kind of trust necessary to turn the program into a success.
The maneuver calls to mind Obama’s sudden request from Congress, in September 2013, for an authorization of force against Assad. The president knew full well that the request had no chance of approval. He was scuttling his own initiative. As it turned out, the Russian proposal to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons gave the president a pretext to call off the vote, but defeat was foretold.
A similar calculation is undoubtedly at work today. This is not to say that Obama is expecting Congress to reject his West Point initiative in its entirety, but it will not give him the blank check that he has demanded. And the inevitable wrangling between the executive and legislative branches will provide the White House with opportunities for further delay.
Third, and most significant, the call for getting tough with Assad is entirely inconsistent with the general thinking of the president and his team. An enlightening report by Josh Rogin of The Daily Beast confirms my claim that significant actors in the administration indeed believe that Assad and his Iranian patrons can be helpful in arresting the growth of the jihadi statelet that has now sprung up in Iraq. Rogin quotes one senior Obama administration official as saying, “Anyone calling for regime change in Syria is frankly blind to the past decade, and [to] the collapse of eastern Syria, and [the] growth of Jihadistan, leading to 30 to 50 suicide attacks a month in Iraq.”
If officials are willing to speak openly in this manner, what explains the policy of misdirection? The president is balancing competing demands. He needs a policy, however disingenuous, that allows him to refute the accusation that he is indifferent to some of the worst human rights abuses that we have seen in the last half-century. His Potemkin initiative allows him to claim, as he said in his West Point speech, that he is standing up to “a dictator who bombs and starves his own people.” What is more, the policy covers the president’s tracks before Congress and the American people, who are skeptical about any kind of partnership with Iran and Assad.
On September 14, Vanda Felbab-Brown joins the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for the discussion, “US, Afghanistan, 9/11: Finished or Unfinished Business?“