Obama team has mishandled Syria
September 1st, 2013
10:39 AM ET

Obama team has mishandled Syria

"Fareed Zakaria GPS," Sundays at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on CNN

By Fareed Zakaria

Last March, President Barack Obama spoke about how Syria’s use of chemical weapons would be a “game-changer.” It has, except not quite in the sense that he meant. It has been an event that has confused and confounded the Obama administration. Whatever your views on the larger issues, it’s hard not to conclude that the administration’s handling of Syria over the last year has been a case study in how not to do foreign policy.

The president started out with an understanding that the Syrian conflict is a messy sectarian struggle that cannot be influenced easily by American military intervention. He was disciplined in resisting calls to jump into a cauldron. But from the start he confused and undermined this policy with loose rhetoric, perhaps egged on by some of his advisors and critics to "do something."

So he announced just over two years ago that President Bashar al-Assad of Syria had to go. Now a pundit can engage in grandiose speech. The president of the United States should make declarations like this only if he has some strategy to actually achieve them. He did not.

More from CNN: Signs of sarin use, Kerry says

In truth, Obama – and many others – miscalculated. They believed that al-Assad’s regime was near the end, misreading both its strength and brutality, but also the level of support it has from several segments of Syria.

Then, just about a year ago, came the off-the-cuff remarks about a red line on chemical weapons, insufficiently thought through but now publicly stated and definitive. Since then, American foreign policy in Syria has largely been concerned about ensuring that Obama’s threat does not seem empty. It has been a complicated dance.

But what American national interest is being followed? The administration says it is upholding international law. Except, as Fred Kaplan pointed out in Slate this week, the institutions that embody international law and consensus – the United Nations and other international organizations – do not support this action. The United States plus France and Turkey cannot be considered the embodiment of international law and global public opinion.

More from GPS: Does public care about U.N. blessing?

The nature of the strike, we are told, will be short and symbolic – a shot across the bow. In the midst of a civil war in which both sides are in a high-stakes struggle for survival, does anyone think that this will make any difference?

And then, the strangest twist – an unplanned, last minute appeal to Congress, paving the way for further delay, weakening momentum, erasing what little surprise existed, and setting the stage for a potential defeat at home.

I don’t think that this strike, should it eventually take place, will be as damaging as its critics fear. The al-Assad regime will likely hunker down, take it, and move on. It will make little difference one way or the other. But the manner in which the Obama administration has first created and then mismanaged this crisis will, alas, cast a long shadow on America’s role in the world.

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Topics: Foreign Policy • Syria • United States

soundoff (630 Responses)
  1. TJC

    Mr. Zakaria.s comments today that the fight against chemical warfare was antiquated was unbelievable. Does he think we are talking about the mustard gas of WWI? If chemical warfare is unleashed this planet is doomed. Scientists will come up with more and more lethal poisons that will be able to be dispensed in larger and larger areas. They will kill all plant and animal life, poison soil and water and make the planet uninhabitable. Forget about Syria. We need this line in the sand for our own future protection and survival. The world has to unite against this lethal threat.

    September 5, 2013 at 1:53 pm | Reply
  2. elaine toomey

    Are they kidding? Now our government wants us to support the Syrian rebel group that is infected with AlQueda. How quickly they forget how this group was responsible for the loss of our citizens 12 years. Support them Hell NO!

    September 5, 2013 at 6:16 pm | Reply
  3. the blood

    The President is proving to be what many were afraid of when he ran for office - weak, shallow, all style and no substance. He reminds me a lot of Jimmy Carter. Let's face it, Democrats have traditionally been lousy at foreign policy just as Republicans have traditionally been terrible at home economics. It's a shame we can't have both parties working together somehow to make this country strong again instead of the constant bickering and fighting. I grieve for this nation. Our star is falling and our problems are growing, which IMO is a direct result of kicking God out of the equation.

    September 5, 2013 at 7:50 pm | Reply
  4. Third Grader

    I am in the third grade. Our class voted 42-1 to not attack Siria. Johnny voted to drop bombs but everyone in the class knows he is a bully and not very smart

    September 5, 2013 at 8:18 pm | Reply
  5. alan cameron

    The American Government must have a secret agenda. After the fiascoes in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan they still want to interfere and bomb people? They used the chemical Agent Orange indiscriminately in Vietnam! They've ignored other despotic regimes in Black Africa, Myanmar and Korea. Any common citizen would wonder at the I.Q.levels of the Representatives of the U.S. Government.

    September 6, 2013 at 4:07 am | Reply
  6. matthew gibb

    Look at all the news. It seems to fit together like some sort of puzzle. We are very against Iran building a supposed nuclear weapon. We helped liberate Libya and there is so much talk about Egypt's president being replaced. Meanwhile we want the Palestinians to be recognized. The Syrians are all fleeing to other countries. Maybe they will try to create some another new country like was done in Kosovo? Whatever the agenda is it seems clear that we are trying to balance the flow of oil from this part of the world in favor of the U.S. I find it really strange that Saudi Arabia, Israel and Jordan aren't already involved if things are really so bad. The news stations are trying to sway our opinions. Why don't they show us all the angles? I for one, feel like I don't get to see the big picture. Why is it with all of this technology the truth doesn't present itself readily?

    September 6, 2013 at 7:00 am | Reply
  7. dave

    whatever happens in Syria I got dibs on Assad’s wife!

    September 6, 2013 at 7:40 am | Reply
    • A Woman

      why women are always easy targets?

      September 8, 2013 at 11:47 pm | Reply
  8. Alex279

    So to express Fareed's argument in one sentence - Obama and his team mishandled Syria because they miscalculated strength Assad regime vs. strength of rebels one year ago, and by doing so they missed the window of opportunity to enter the war in Syria a year earlier.

    September 6, 2013 at 2:11 pm | Reply
  9. NewNEReview

    We do not need more politics to determine our position with regard to Syria. The USA should have a human rights policy that defines what we can do, and how we may respond to ongoing mass civilian deaths anywhere in the world. Every US president has had to face these issues, yet we bungle them every time. We know that we cannot rely on the United Nations to accomplish anything. We know Russia is going to oppose the West and help the "bad guys." We know that not all nations will commit to resolving the situation. But do we really have an excuse for our congress that cannot come to reasonable discussions on any issue? Can we really explain why the White House cannot rely on congress to do it's job?

    It appears that the Obama administration acted upon it's best intentions of seeing Syria through to reasonable end. How did the White House get boxed into a corner? Congress. Who is accountable in congress for outcomes? Who takes the responsibility for results from either house of congress? If congress cannot do it's work, who is accountable? Until we have a functioning representative body in each house of congress, the US will continue to flounder and fail. Nobody is accountable?

    September 6, 2013 at 7:36 pm | Reply
  10. NewNEReview

    In response to another commenter, I agree with Fareed Zakaria. Any US strike will likely be symbolic and the Assad administration will remain in power after the strike. I do not favor a strike. A strike might be worth considering if it would prevent civilian deaths, cause a beneficial regime change, or bring this ongoing civil war to a quick end. Under all considered options, any strike by the USA is unlikely to accomplish these objectives. Therefore, an ineffective US strike will be viewed by most all the world as a weak, ineffective act of war by the USA against Syria. That should not be our intent or end result.

    In considering all information available today, I do not see a compelling reason for the United States to launch any type of military strike in Syria. We need a purpose, objectives, a strategy, and safeguards that our relentless war-mongers cannot overstep to escalate the conflict. Everything to date suggests that we should stand down.

    September 6, 2013 at 7:47 pm | Reply
  11. jnobfan

    Its over Obama will back down. The American people have had enough of Muslim Civil Wars.
    We have been lied to about every war since Korea and we are just not falling for it again.
    Washington will have to come up with a new strategy to get us into the next war and I have no doubt it will be a good one.

    September 6, 2013 at 10:15 pm | Reply
  12. Ted Ward

    The photo looks like a bunch of indecisive, scared, hand wringers trying to look concerned and responsible, but really they're just covering their posteriors and doing nothing and have no viable well thought out strategy or policy. We need some smart leadership, folks. Not more community organizing, posturing, speeches and impotent spin.

    September 7, 2013 at 11:31 am | Reply
  13. Gregg

    What American politicians cannot seem to learn is that there are not American solutions for problems throughout the world. They continue to see the rest of the world through their own culture and experiences, when the rest of the world sees things differently. This is a basic lesson adults should learn when they are young, yet our elected officials cannot seem to fathom that the rest of the world is different. The overall Syrian problem is largely an Islamic problem, caused by generations of animosity and hatred that an American politician cannot hope to understand. If the Islamic world is not willing to shed its blood and spend its treasure to deter horrible behavior, why should America?

    September 7, 2013 at 3:07 pm | Reply
  14. arvay

    So what's the REAL story here?
    Could this be it?

    http://www.thenation.com/blog/176040/obamas-syria-war-really-about-iran-and-israel#axzz2eFYXl9MD

    http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-09-04/adelson-new-obama-ally-as-jewish-groups-back-syria-strike.html

    http://www.timesofisrael.com/jewish-organizations-in-us-support-syria-strike/

    Many American Jews are alarmed at what israel does, and how these groups arrogantly create the impression that they speak for "the Jews."
    The question is - do they want this war, if it happens - to be labeled a "Jewish" war?

    September 8, 2013 at 6:09 am | Reply
  15. Serena

    Please tell me why the world political leaders and "America's powers to be" seem so rushed to war. What happened in Syria is a war crime and should be handled as such by the powers that have the authority to do so. Why wouldn't American powers encourage this 1st and foremost? It seems to me if we could hold these evil powers accountable to the World it would be far more effective than trying to hold them accountable to the US and their handful of Allies.

    September 8, 2013 at 1:28 pm | Reply
  16. Trayvon Thug

    There's no sense in wasting our time trying to inject reason into the religiously delusional, Islamic Middle-East countries. They will never set aside their religious beliefs for the rule of law. Dictatorships are "friendlier" to the U.S. interests than the Islamic Brotherhood/Al-Qaida parties that gain control post Arab-Spring revolts. Egypt is a perfect example of that. Now they want a "Do-Over" because democracy ended up giving an outcome half the people didn't want.
    The missile diplomacy the U.S. employs only adds thousands of Jihadists to the ever-growing group wanting revenge.
    The situation in Syria is not a clear and present danger to this country. If you're worried about "credibility"...DON'T...The world will never forget we're a bloodthirsty country if we sit this one out.
    I'm not a fan of Sarah Palin, but I had to laugh when she said" They've been fighting for centuries...Let Allah sort them out".

    September 8, 2013 at 8:43 pm | Reply
  17. herblaub

    The president has talked too much about his red lines about Assad's use of chemical weapons against his own people and that he should be replaced by whom???The rebels are not united against Assad-and there are very bad rebels that we do not want to take over if and when a new Syrian government is formed-but the real issue is that you can not appease a dictator who uses chemical weapons against his own people because if the United States doesnot act against Assad he will only continue to use chemical weapons against his people.

    September 9, 2013 at 3:08 am | Reply
  18. Mike ezzedine

    You can rent a brain but no a heart . Are you related to Dr Oz ?

    September 9, 2013 at 5:23 am | Reply
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