Dr. Lamont Colucci is an associate professor of politics at Ripon College, recent Fulbright Scholar to the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, and author of The National Security Doctrines of the American Presidency: How they Shape our Present and Future, among other books. You can find out more at lamontcolucci.com.
In 1956 the United States refused to aggressively support the anti-Soviet forces that had retaken Hungary from the barbarism of communism. The result was half a century of inevitable brutality, by the worst ideological creation known to man. Nearly 40 years later, President Clinton rebuffed Sen. Robert Dole's desire to arm the Bosnians, a decision that would force America's hand to directly intervene. This same lack of leadership demonstrated by the Clinton administration was illustrated in starker terms as the United States "led from way behind" over the Rwandan genocide.
Last week, this column devoted its space to the allegation that Syria has already used chemical weapons against its own people. It further noted the mutable nature of President Obama's sense of what a red line in foreign policy actually means. The surrender of the diplomatic and strategic field is now compounded by the release of information that the president himself thwarted the desires of his entire national security team by stopping the arming of the anti-Assad rebels in Syria. The plan, developed by CIA Director David Patraeus and endorsed by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Martin Dempsey, was to arm vetted rebel groups that sought the downfall of the Baathist dictatorship.
It is also noteworthy that every major official that supported this plan is either gone or on their way out the door. The new secretary of state, John Kerry has refused to make comment beyond the need to evaluate the general situation in Syria to "end the suffering and violence." The two reasons cited for President Obama's veto have been his unwillingness to get drawn into the Syrian conflict and the proximity of the decision to the last presidential election, against an opponent with much clearer national security and foreign policy goals. On January 29, President Obama announced that he would provide an additional $155 million dollars in nonlethal humanitarian assistance, precisely the time when the anti-Assad rebels were asking for combat arms. This humanitarian donation may assuage some guilt among those that view the 60,000 dead as the blood of innocents at the foot of the Western doorstep, but this personal mollification is useless.
This is the old and tired policy that is brought out in an effort to blunt the outright criticism of appeasement. It is the policy that makes everyone in the room feel good, at the expense of those doing the fighting and dying. If the United States does not pick and choose the rebel groups that need to be trained and supplied, if the United States does not become the single leader behind this effort, the end result will be a horror. Either the rebel factions will win, fight amongst themselves and the Islamic extremists may come out on top, or Assad will find some way to stay in power and grind every former opponent into dust.
The crossroads is here and the crossroads is now. The Obama administration has taken victory and stability off of the table in Iraq and Afghanistan; failed to act quickly and decisively in Libya; it miscarried any active support of the French in Mali; and it has chosen neutral ground between three allies (the United Kingdom, Israel, and Japan) in conflicts with their adversaries. The administration now sits on the sidelines in Syria. No one wants to use American troops in Syria, but no moral and sane person wants the Baathist in power one minute longer than necessary. The plan to ascertain which Syrian groups were legitimate (and arm them) would have solved a multitude of problem without risking American lives, while ultimately stopping the killing in Syria. A heavy American hand would further assist in limiting the post-war violence that could ensue.
What justification does the president have for going against his entire senior national security team? It appears that it is a fundamental fear of American leadership and denial of American Exceptionalism.