President Barack Obama’s statements and decisions around responses to Bashar al-Assad’s use of Sarin against Syrian opposition provide a test case for three issues: Intervening in conflicts that have only indirectly to do with US interests, assumptions about the use of force that have gendered aspects, and how a president communicates. If we are to end our forever wars and avoid stumbling into more, we need to understand these issues.
Some time ago, I wrote up an analysis focusing on the gendered assumptions about the use of force and struggled with an editor over it for several months, until Jeffrey Goldberg published his interview with President Obama in The Atlantic. I had predicted some of the new information in that interview in my analysis, but of course the interview precluded the use of that analysis. So I never published it. But the fact that the interview supported my analysis has kept me watching for more information about presidential decisions in August and September of 2013.
Ben Rhodes has provided more information in an Atlantic article taken from his forthcoming book. The Obama interview is a useful companion read. In this post, I’d like to work through my three issues in relation to Rhodes’s article.
The biggest news in Rhodes’s article comes near the end.
On the flight home [probably September 6, 2013], Obama mentioned that he’d had a private conversation with Putin on the margins of the [G20] summit. For years, Obama had proposed that the United States and Russia work together to address the threat from Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile; for years, Russia had resisted. This time, Obama again suggested working together to remove and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons. Putin agreed and suggested that John Kerry follow up with his Russian counterpart.
That Monday, September 9, John Kerry mused before reporters’ cameras that Syria should give up its chemical weapons. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, replied that Syria could do that. By September 12, Russia and the United States had an agreement on the subject.
That sequence seemed scripted to me at the time, and, if Rhodes’s account is accurate, we now know it was.
In the White House discussions, it appears that Rhodes played the part of what Obama called the foreign policy “blob” – the Washington conventional wisdom that military force is the first response to be considered to most foreign relations problems. Obama wanted to change that conventional wisdom. Read through that framework, Rhodes’s article is a suspenseful account of one battle in Obama’s struggle with the blob.
Even though I had misgivings about our Syria policy, I wanted to do something about the catastrophe in Syria, just as I had advocated intervention in Libya.
When bad things are happening, it’s natural to want to do something, and for people in power, that all too often translates to military force.
Yet I was also wrestling with my own creeping suspicion that Obama was right in his reluctance to intervene militarily in Syria. Maybe we couldn’t do much to direct events inside the Middle East; maybe U.S. military intervention in Syria would only make things worse.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey, said that something needed to be done even if they didn’t know what would happen after they took action. That’s not good military thinking. But blob thinking is pervasive.
All this was in April 2013, before the attack on Ghouta that caused more than a thousand deaths. Assad tested Obama’s earlier warning with small attacks. Rhodes does not say what the purpose of doing something would be, perhaps to send Assad a warning. But a warning of what? Would there be more American attacks if Assad ignored the warning? Troops on the ground? This is the problem with the blobby do something.
The intelligence people were not sure enough that Assad was behind the attacks to write a finding. They gave their information to Rhodes to write an equivalent document.
The United Nations inspection team had not completed its work. Germany’s Angela Merkel felt that support needed to be built in Europe. Congressional opposition to a strike was building. There was an element of hypocrisy in Republican opposition, but it was a real difficulty for going ahead with strikes. The administration’s lawyers had concerns. The British Parliament voted against joining American strikes.
With Rhodes’s assessment in hand, John Kerry said in a speech at the State Department, “My friends, it matters here if nothing is done. It matters if the world speaks out in condemnation and then nothing happens.” Which is why presidents have to be careful what they say. On the other hand, we are now seeing what happens when too many people do not call out wrongdoing.
Rhodes continues as the voice of the blob:
Kerry suggested that we wait another week to bring other countries into a coalition. I argued that we had to act as soon as possible—time was not our friend, and our military action was likely to change the public dynamic. Obama, who seemed increasingly focused on the factors aligning against us, pressed for the domestic and international legal basis that we could cite for taking action.
As Rhodes becomes convinced that cruise missiles would soon be hitting Syria, Obama decides to seek approval from Congress.
At some point, [Obama] said [to the National Security Council], a president alone couldn’t keep the United States on a perpetual war footing, moving from one Middle Eastern conflict to the next. In the decade since 9/11, we’d gone to war in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya. Now there was a demand that we go into Syria; next it would be Iran. “It is too easy for a president to go to war,” he said.
As Obama goes around the room to gauge opinion, Rhodes agrees with him.
“In this Syria debate,” I said, “we’ve seen a convergence of two dysfunctions in our foreign policy—Congress and the international community. They both press for action but want to avoid any share of the responsibility.” All week, I had been thinking the answer to that problem was to go ahead and do something; now I saw Obama’s reasoning for why that wouldn’t work. “At some point, we have to address that dysfunction head-on.”
Of course, we now have so many dysfunctions in government that this one has gone to the back burner.
Obama decided not to ask Congress to vote on an intervention in Syria. Then came the massive chemical attack on Ghouta and the agreement between the United States and Russia to remove Syria’s chemical weapons.
As decisions are made about interventions elsewhere, it’s essential to think about alternatives, as Obama did, and evaluate on more criteria than the need to do something.
Image: National Security Council meeting in 2014. Rhodes is at the end of the table on the right.