Obama’s interview with Jeffrey Goldberg over his foreign policy doctrine was striking for many reasons, but none more so than his defense of his Syria policy—especially his decision not to act after the United States accused the Bashar Assad regime of using chemical weapons. Obama’s critics claim that the decision undermined American credibility, weakened international norms, and showed U.S. moral indifference, among other things. From the interview, it’s clear that Obama sees that decision as an essential piece of his foreign policy legacy.
Obama’s Syria policy has had its weaknesses. The president erred in stating “Assad must go” without having a policy to remove him; superpowers’ utterances signal policy, not merely analytical statements or wishes. And even as the United States knew that in the end it would have to work with multiple parties—including Russia—to seek a political settlement in Syria, it would have been wise to find a stronger lever to boost the U.S. position in the negotiations.
When Obama sought congressional approval to strike Syria in 2013, however, he and his supporters advanced arguments that simply missed the mark. As I argued then, the central theses behind the strike were flawed. With the renewed attention now on Obama’s foreign policy legacy—particularly on Syria—it’s worth revisiting those arguments. In my view, it remains as clear today as it did then that a strike on Syria would have been the wrong move.
Back in 2013, the pro-strike camp advanced a number of spurious or otherwise dubious arguments, and my response then still holds today:
1. We are defending international norms.
How can one defend international norms by going against international majorities? Specifically with regard to the 2013 decision, how could the Obama administration have successfully defended one norm (a prohibition on the use of chemical weapons) while breaking another (attacking another state, without U.N. Security Council support, in a case that’s clearly not about self-defense)?
2. If we don’t act, Bashar Assad will use chemical weapons again.
The Syrian leader doesn’t need to use chemical weapons against his own people, especially when Russia is more than happy to supply him with conventional arms. However, in desperation, leaders like Assad will often do the unthinkable. Whether or not we intervene, if Assad is going down, nothing—especially not “norms”—will stop him from using every means at his disposal to retain his grip on power.
3. If we don’t act, terrorist groups and militias may draw the lesson that they can use chemical weapons with impunity.
Terrorist groups don’t care about international norms, and they are also less sensitive to deterrence. The only thing preventing al-Qaida from using weapons of mass destruction against its enemies is its lack of weapons of mass destruction.
What’s more, Syria is awash in jihadist groups, including affiliates of al-Qaida. A military strike would have further weakened Assad’s control over his chemical arsenal, and this would have increased rather than decreased the possibility of such weapons falling into the wrong hands.
4. U.S. credibility is on the line if Obama doesn’t act.
What credibility? Arabs think America intervenes too much, not too little, and conspiracy theories blame the United States for most problems in almost every country. The problem is not the absence of American will to intervene, but lack of trust in American aims.
5. Iran will be emboldened if we don’t act.
Iran, like the rest of the region, did not believe a possible American intervention in Syria would be provoked by weapons of mass destruction. And seeing how hard it was to get congressional support for even a limited strike against Syria, any action would hardly have scared Tehran.
Moreover, if U.S. voters see the consequences of a Syria strike as costly, imagine how they’ll feel when they contemplate the price tag of some future military campaign against Iran.
Nor is it clear how Iran would react. Iranian leaders might well note that the United States attacked Iraq and Syria, but not nuclear North Korea. Their incentive to acquire nukes only increases.
6. It’s the moral thing to do.
While Assad’s behavior is almost universally acknowledged to be morally abhorrent, even beyond his use of chemical weapons, what was at stake was whether the world’s response is seen as “moral.”
If a military response without a Security Council resolution is moral, why is it the case that even many U.S. allies, who are offended by Assad’s behavior, thought that it was the wrong thing to do? These allies worried that the proposed action is unlikely to impact the balance of the war; any degradation of Assad’s army will likely be met by an increase in Russian support and in anti-American sentiment.
Can moral action be taken without regard to consequences? Is punitive action moral if it has no behavioral consequences—knowing that innocent lives will inevitably be lost in the process?
7. Assad has broken the world’s red line.
The case that Assad broke norms on the use of chemical weapons is strong, (although the CIA had reportedly told the president that the case was “not a slam dunk”). But where is the international norm requiring that the response in such cases must be military action, or that this military action must be taken by the United States?
8. Assad has broken Obama’s red line.
Perhaps, but defending a president’s word is hardly reason for a nation to go to war. It’s also worth noting that the president never said that if Assad used chemical weapons, the United States would use force against him, let alone without the Security Council’s support. Obama allowed his opponents to define the meaning of his own words.
9. We are the United States of America.
This is hardly persuasive when memory of the Iraq war looms large: the lowest estimate of civilians killed in the American-led war were higher than all the casualties in the Syrian conflict at the time Obama asked Congress to support a strike. And if anything, precisely because the United States is a proud democracy, our presidents shouldn’t go to war without the support of the American people.
The legacy question
Undoubtedly, Obama’s legacy with regard to backing out of striking Syria over its use of chemical weapons was helped by the Russian-American deal to peacefully remove Assad’s chemical weapons. This particular result, which would not have been achieved through the proposed military strike, was far more meaningful than anything else that could have been achieved militarily–even aside from the possible political and military costs of intervention, in the absence of international support. It’s hard to know if the seemingly credible threat to strike Assad was itself the reason for the Russian proposal; Russia had every reason to worry about the possibility of chemical weapons falling into the hands of militant Islamists at a time when the outcome of the internal conflict seemed uncertain. Still, Obama captured the moment, and the result was far better than anyone could have imagined.
Beyond the chemical weapons case, there is nothing that suggests that a more robust (but necessarily limited) military action against Syria in 2013 would have substantially improved the situation there or prevented the chaos that continues today. Supporters of a strike presumed that the mere threat of escalation would have deterred Assad. We have no way of proving that counterfactual, of course. But Assad proved he is capable of anything in order to survive, and his survival was what was at stake; that’s certainly what he assumed when he heard “Assad must go.”
One must also take into account that the United States had little international support, that Russia would have doubled down on its backing for Assad anyway, that the American public had little stomach for American casualties in the aftermath of the Iraq war, and that even some Arab governments using the “credibility” argument to bait the United States to intervene would have pointed to American imperialism at the earliest sign of trouble. Add that the intelligence community was already warning the White House that the only thing standing between militant Islamists and control of Syria was the Syrian army—the room for American military operations was inevitably limited and success doubtful. Restraint was the wiser course, even if the administration may have been able to play its hand more effectively.
As we consider Obama’s foreign policy legacy during his last year in office and into the next administration, let us recall the true realities of the challenge the United States has faced in Syria, not fall back on facile critiques about action and inaction.
Note: This post is adapted from a 2013 article in Politico.
Brookings Senior Fellow and former U.S. State Department Special Envoy on Climate Todd Stern spoke at the US Climate Action Center, at the COP 24 UN climate negotiations, on the future of the Paris Agreement in Katowice, Poland on December 10, 2018.