Details about the decision are only now emerging, in a recent deeply sourced article in the Wall Street Journal. In making his decision, Obama went against the wishes of some of his top advisors.
“A proposal to arm Syrian rebels was backed by the Pentagon, the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency, but the White House decided not to act on the plan, reflecting the extent of divisions over the U.S. role in the bloody conflict,” the Journal reported last week. “President Barack Obama’s top national security leaders came to favor the plan last year, with the meltdown of an international diplomatic initiative to end the Syrian civil war.”
Those leaders included then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and then-CIA director David Petraeus.
But Obama himself “stalled the proposal because of lingering questions about which rebels could be trusted with the arms, whether the transfers would make a difference… and whether the weapons would add to the suffering.”
It was a wise decision.
“The president’s caution is welcome news for those of us who are skeptical of the United States’ ability to pick winners and losers in distant conflicts,” says the Cato Institute’s Christopher A. Preble, whose recent book, “The Power Problem,” addressed such issues. “It takes enormous discipline and courage for a president to resist the incessant demands that he do something — anything — when horrible things occur.”
In the first place, the U.S. should only get involved in foreign civil wars under certain circumstances.
The Syrian conflict meets neither of those criteria.
“Indeed, as the Journal story notes, the president appreciated that armed support for individuals and factions within the Syrian opposition was likely to have a number of unintended consequences,” Preble explains.
Another factor is that we simply aren’t very good at involvement in other people’s fights.
“Although the United States is providing non-lethal support to Syrian rebels, there are other good reasons to avoid doing more,” Preble says. “One is the United States’ terrible track record in providing material, and lethal, support to opposition groups and figures. We have often mistaken power-hungry thugs, or simply manipulative charlatans, for committed democrats, and it is unreasonable to expect that our ability to separate the true patriots from the phonies has improved markedly since Iraq.”
The president’s decision shows he’s paying attention, and learning some lessons.
His decision to defy his top advisors, and not send arms into the unfathomable Syrian conflict, was the right call.