On Syria, Obama Is Torn Between Pragmatism and Idealism

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Why has the White House been dithering so loudly and longly about conducting air strikes against the Syrian regime to punish it for its chemical weapons attacks?

Good question. Here’s another one: Why has the White House dithered for months about arming the Syrian rebels even though they promised to do so back in June? Adam Entous and Nour Malas of the Wall Street Journal provide a single familiar answer to both questions:

The delay, in part, reflects a broader U.S. approach rarely discussed publicly but that underpins its decision-making, according to former and current U.S. officials: The Obama administration doesn’t want to tip the balance in favor of the opposition for fear the outcome may be even worse for U.S. interests than the current stalemate.

….The administration’s view can also be seen in White House planning for limited airstrikes—now awaiting congressional review—to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons. Pentagon planners were instructed not to offer strike options that could help drive Mr. Assad from power: “The big concern is the wrong groups in the opposition would be able to take advantage of it,” a senior military officer said. The CIA declined to comment.

….Many rebel commanders say the aim of U.S. policy in Syria appears to be a prolonged stalemate that would buy the U.S. and its allies more time to empower moderates and choose whom to support….Israeli officials have told their American counterparts they would be happy to see its enemies Iran, the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah and al Qaeda militants fight until they are weakened, giving moderate rebel forces a chance to play a bigger role in Syria’s future. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has been particularly outspoken with lawmakers about his concerns that weakening Mr. Assad too much could tip the scales in favor of al Qaeda-linked fighters.

Dan Drezner doesn’t think Obama can keep up this balancing act for too long. Eventually he’s going to have to take sides:

There are a lot of areas of foreign policy where different paradigms can offer the same policy recommendation, and there are a lot of foreign policy issue areas where presidents can just claim “pragmatism” and not worry about which international relations theory is guiding their actions. I’m increasingly of the view, however, that Syria is one of those areas where Obama is gonna actually have to make a decision about what matters more — his realist desire to not get too deeply involved, or his liberal desire to punish the violation of a norm. If he doesn’t decide, if he tries to half-ass his way through this muddle, I fear he’ll arrive at a policy that would actually be worse than either a straightforward realist or a straight liberal approach.

The policy of stalemate is brutal but pragmatic: America truly has no allies in this fight. Neither Assad nor most of the rebel elements are even remotely friendly toward the U.S.

Punishing Assad for using chemical weapons, by contrast, is extremely high-minded. That’s an international norm that’s worth enforcing even if it hurts U.S. interests in the short term.

So which will it be? Sordid pragmatism or high-minded idealism? If the stalemate theory is correct, this is the decision Obama has to make, and it’s the reason he’s so obviously torn about it.

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