The Flight of the Syria Hawks

His decision to arm Syrian rebels was a passive-aggressive one.

By SHARE
 (Charles Dharapak/AP)
The president decision to lethally arm Syrian rebels could come to define his presidency.

President Obama can't outrun Syria any longer.

Actually he can't outrun the hawks – some from within his own administration – prodding him toward the bitter bloodbath going on in a lawless country ruled by a ruthless tyrant. So reluctantly, he let it be known we would arm the rebels. He let an aide, Benjamin Rhodes, break the news, as if to say he didn't want his own hands stained with blood. 

Poor Obama. The man never bragged about being a "war president," yet here he is in Dogpatch again, with a sly push from Bill Clinton, who joined the Syria chorus a few days ago. 

This is a passive-aggressive decision on Obama's part, aimed at appeasing foreign policy critics who have not been silenced by our failures in the 21st century. They are holding the president to his "red line," meaning chemical weapons have entered the fray in Syria. To his credit, he is not feigning enthusiasm at this latest adventure abroad. Those inside his foreign policy shop who favor arming rebels may include a handful of women advisers, chief among them Samantha Power and Susan Rice. Another woman who served him at State, Anne-Marie Slaughter, hints darkly at a total "Middle East War" on the horizon, with barriers and borders broken down. 

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

Like we really need to get involved. Like the United States has ever made anything better with military intervention in the Middle East (unless you count Libya). Even the first Gulf War had deadly consequences, for it radicalized bin Laden and the jihadist movement against the U.S. Like Sen. John McCain, a two-time loser in his presidential quest, should be considered a serious voice in foreign policy. The son and grandson of admirals, the former Vietnam War prisoner of war never saw a fight he didn't like. 

Blasphemy though it is: Iraqis would probably say life under Saddam Hussein was better back then than now, years after the American "surge" and after the shooting supposedly stopped between the Sunnis and the Shias. While we wrecked everything from the infrastructure to the police force to the antiquities in their country, the civilian death toll soared to more than 100,000. 

Obama won a Nobel Peace Prize, yet he pursued victory in Afghanistan as "his" war to win. There is no such thing as winning a war in tribal Afghanistan, as the British and the Soviets demonstrated not so long ago. Planning the Osama bin Laden kill vindicated Obama as commander-in-chief. Still, we are likely to leave a shambles behind in Afghanistan, especially for the schooling and safety of women and girls. Obama is searching for a graceful exit from the longest war in U.S. history – good luck with that.  

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Middle East.]

Being a bright learner, Obama would like to sit the Syria conflict out, as the choice between the Assad government and the rebels is not necessarily a pretty one. Case in point: the Muslim Brotherhood, which emerged victorious in Egypt during the "Arab Spring," is not a breath of democracy in the public square. Even worse, the rebels in Syria have links to terrorists – or so we've heard. All we know is, it's a mess that's likely to get worse.  

There may not be clear winners and losers, good and bad guys  in Syria. Either way, neither is inclined to practice Western democracy as we know it. And isn't that what our foreign policy is about, at its pure pinnacle – as President Woodrow Wilson put it early in the 20th century, making the world safe for democracy?  Isolated and lonely, Obama should hew true to that idea, which fits well with his own worldview.

The Wilsonian vision still lives and breathes beautifully as a way to measure – and define – our endeavors abroad.  Let's try it sometime, like now.

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