Obama has lost control over Syria policy
September 17th, 2013
10:59 AM ET

Obama has lost control over Syria policy

By Robert Hutchings, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Robert Hutchings is dean of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas and co-director of its “Reinventing Diplomacy” initiative.  He served as chairman of the U.S. National Intelligence Council from 2003 to 2005. The views expressed are his own.

Clausewitz famously wrote about the fog of war – the confusion and chaos that undermine even the best laid battle plans.  The same could be said of diplomacy, particularly the last two weeks of American diplomacy toward Syria.

In an earlier commentary, I praised the Obama administration for handling an intractable challenge reasonably well, but warned of the danger of escalation once military action commenced.  That was before the decision to delay action while consulting Congress. Since then, the administration’s cautious approach has unraveled, and the president has wholly lost control over U.S. policy.

There was no need to go to the full Congress – and many reasons not to do so. The limited strikes the administration was considering did not rise to a level that required Congressional endorsement.  Consultations with senior Congressional leadership, even without gaining their full support, would have been sufficient. The policy would then have been judged by its effectiveness, and had the objectives been limited to punishment for the al-Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons, there were good prospects of success. Taking such limited but important action without Congressional authorization could easily have been defended on grounds of urgency.

Diplomacy is hard enough when top political leaders limit the scope for surprise and “wild card” events.  When they open up the floodgates, as President Obama did by announcing a controversial action but delaying implementation and exposing the issue to Congressional and public debate, political leaders should not be surprised when they lose control. Administration officials can be excused for not foreseeing how quickly and thoroughly this happened – it surprised everyone – but they should have been aware that this hedging tactic would open up an unpredictable and uncontrollable dynamic that risked undermining the policy before it was even tried.  Such is the fog of war – and of diplomacy.

More from GPS: Syria turning point for the West

The wild card event was the Russian gambit of offering to broker a chemical weapons deal with Damascus. But while this precise event may have been unpredictable, it was easy to anticipate that the Russians would try an eleventh hour ploy to delay American action and sow confusion, just as they did in sending Yevgeny Primakov to Baghdad before the first Gulf War. The gambit didn’t work back then, but the latest Russian move has worked all too well this time, leaving the Russians in the role of global peacemakers.  (Why does this not make us feel more secure?)

Moreover, in the diplomatic haze of the last two weeks, the administration evidently forgot that its objective was to punish the Syrian regime for actions it had already taken, not to embark on a protracted negotiation aimed at ridding that country of its chemical weapons stockpiles. It is like letting a convicted murderer go free if he agrees to turn in his gun. It was Syria’s use of chemical weapons that concerns us, not mere possession of the capacity, which can be quickly regenerated anyway.

Secretary of State John Kerry now asserts that the president is “deeply committed to a negotiated solution.” How did we come to this point, when not so many days ago the administration was committed to an entirely different course of action?

More from GPS: Why America can't shape Syria

U.S. policy is clearly in shambles. It cannot be retrieved. There is no point in trying to revert to the punitive strategy that was originally intended. But neither should a chastened Administration, seeking to recover lost credibility, undertake more extreme actions that would involve us more directly in Syria’s civil war. This course of action was a bad idea before. It remains a bad idea.

But arming the Free Syrian Army, a superficially attractive, low-risk option, runs the danger of gradual escalation as the initial “light” intervention proves insufficient.  And what then? Escalation to heavier weapons and the use of covert advisers to provide training on how to use them?  Policy failure can induce even a risk-averse administration to become risk-prone by doubling down its bets.

For the near term the administration has little choice but to follow the “diplomatic” route that it has been led to embrace, set short deadlines for action, steer the process away from Russia and into the U.N. Security Council, and work to restore some semblance of domestic and international consensus.  Within the U.N. Security Council, the administration should set firm requirements for securing Syrian compliance with the alleged “deal” on chemical weapons via a highly intrusive inspection, verification, and monitoring regime under U.N. auspices but with substantial U.S. participation.

And the administration must stick to its guns this time, not simply engage in tough talk for a while, but ultimately accept whatever arrangement the Russians and Syrians devise. Otherwise, as we experienced with Iraq for more than a decade following the first Gulf War, the opportunities for delay and obfuscation are endless, and we will wind up having allowed the al-Assad regime to escape any retribution or indeed any consequences at all for its use of chemical weapons.

Disheartening as this episode in American diplomacy has been, we will be dealing with a volatile Middle East for a long time to come. There is an urgent need for a wholesale stocktaking and reassessment at the highest levels of the administration, with a view to the longer term. The stakes are too high to allow one policy failure to paralyze us.

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Topics: Barack Obama • Syria • United States

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soundoff (13 Responses)
  1. salimB

    President Obama result-oriented policy might get us what President Bush did but at no cost. The problem is that in order to do that , Obama replaced the Chemical by Qaeda as mass destruction weapons in Syria. Something that is proven to be much more destructing .
    His from-behind policy of allowing allies to encourage opposition to go lethal, helped Qaeda to build grass roots within Sunni Arab communities of Syria.
    His shift of focus from punishing the regime to removing the chemical weapons is pushing opposition further toward Qaeda !
    While we are waiting for the end result of removing the chemical weapons , his policy had proven success in one thing:
    Moving Sunnis toward Qaeda and moving Shia toward Iran as protectors . Something his predecessor was graded A+ in Iraq .

    What would made Obama different than Bush, is to make peace, wiping out Qaeda and rebuild of Syria politically and economically as one single package with removing the chemical weapons.The worse thing to do is to repeat the same Iraq scenario of disarming under threat, it pushes the other side to cheat Something that end up requiring boots on the ground to validate their false claims !

    September 17, 2013 at 3:17 pm | Reply
  2. Phelix Unger

    Getting a hold of and destroying the chemical weapons is a victory and will save lives. How its done isn't as important as getting it done. No American lives will be lost and that is a good thing.

    September 17, 2013 at 5:00 pm | Reply
  3. toumanbeg

    Nonsense! Obamas lack of military action has resulted in the death oif law and order. The UN will never recover from it's failure to uphold it's own charter. The world has returned to the 18th and 19th century law of the jungle. The "Great Game 2.0".
    Only the new and Improved Great Game 2.0 won't be played by a handful of European Nations armed with cannons but almost 200 nations armed with WMD.
    When billions of humans die in the resulting wars, it will be the fault of thoise that thought Syria was not worth fighting for, that it wasn't in America's "national interest".

    September 18, 2013 at 12:51 am | Reply
  4. j. von hettlingen

    Russia is unpredictable! Over the weekend Sergei Lavrov agreed a disarmament deal with John Kerry, leading the world to believe that Russia was coming around to the American stance on Syria.
    This week it has quickly dispelled that view. It looks as if Russia sees it has delivered a promise from Syria to give up its chemical weapons and it doesn't seem to feel that it has to give the West anything more.
    The Kremlin has refused to accept the American, British and French interpretation of the UN chemical weapons inspection team's report. It has less to do will defending its ally in the region. It's more an act of defiance to the West!

    September 18, 2013 at 10:30 am | Reply
  5. Matt A.

    Just for the record, they never had control. The US has never had any control over any military or foreign policy decision
    in its history, unless of course, one considers Hiroshima or Nagasaki. One tends to associate, control, with side deals.

    The US has a generally poor track record.

    September 19, 2013 at 11:16 pm | Reply

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