Hectoring Obama Over Syria

The U.S. punditocracy is pushing President Obama to intervene in the Syrian civil war and judging his diplomatic efforts a “failure” because little progress has been made. But the underlying assumption that U.S. military action can fix everything is dangerous, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

It is easy to confuse possibility with responsibility, and policy with inescapable reality. Especially when headline-writers attempt to achieve compression, which, speaking of inescapable reality, is part of their job.

An article by the Washington Post‘s Anne Gearan about Syria, which is mainly about the efforts of U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and humanitarian aid developments within Syria, leads with some remarks by President Barack Obama at a joint press conference with visiting French President Francois Hollande.

President Barack Obama raises his glass in a toast with President François Hollande of France during the State Dinner at the White House, Feb. 11, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)

President Barack Obama raises his glass in a toast with President François Hollande of France during the State Dinner at the White House, Feb. 11, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)

Mr. Obama “acknowledged,” according to Gearan’s account, that “diplomacy, the main pillar of its Syria policy, is failing…” The page one headline tracks the language in that lead sentence. A headline in bigger type after the jump sounds even more judgmental about U.S. policy: “Obama admits diplomatic failures.”

Obama made his remarks in answering a question from Mark Landler of the New York Times. It is hard to find in the transcript where the president “admits” much of anything, and specifically hard to find an admission that his own diplomacy is a “failure.” He observes, along with just about everyone else, that the situation on the ground in Syria is really bad, is “heartbreaking” to see, and is a source of “enormous frustration.”

He states that any solution in Syria will have to involve a political formula in which no one sect or faction dominates others, that some modest progress has been made in getting adversaries to talk to each other, but that otherwise Brahimi’s political process has a long way to go.

The President noted that Russia has been a holdout regarding action in the U.N. Security Council to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid. On chemical weapons, another subject of Landler’s question, the President notes that some deadlines have been missed but that substantial progress has been made toward the agreed goal of destroying Syria’s stock of chemical weapons.

On the larger topic of dealing with the civil war, Mr. Obama surmises that a premise of the reporter’s question is that there may be “additional direct action or military action that can be taken that would resolve the problem in Syria,” but the President concludes that there is not “a military solution, per se, to the problem.” All of that is true.

Possibly the treatment of the story, including the choice of leads and headlines, is a way for the Post to stick it to the President and to chalk up a U.S. policy failure. Possibly sentiment on the Post‘s editorial page, with its incessant drumbeat to do something more about Syria (although it is often not clear exactly what) is bleeding over into the news pages.

A more likely explanation, however, is that this treatment illustrates a more general, and unfortunate, phenomenon of assessing U.S. policy according to how much the United States does to resolve any or every problem in the world that is serious enough to attract our attention. The unstated assumptions are that the United States can solve any such problem, and that it should solve such problems.

But even many problems salient enough to grab our attention, and even some that are undeniably important and might even touch U.S. interests in identifiable ways, are not amenable to solution by the United States, at least not without incurring other debilitating costs. This is true of some situations that are heartbreaking and frustrating.

It is probably true of the Syrian civil war (which may cease, as the Lebanese civil war did, when the participants have sufficiently exhausted themselves and the conditions are thus ripe for international mediation to bring more results). It is a mistake to assess the success or failure of U.S. foreign policy based on an image of the United States as an omnipotent global savior or policeman.

We ought to bear this principle in mind in contemplating policy about problems anywhere on the globe. It certainly should be borne in mind with the Middle East, where there is a still fairly recent history of forceful U.S. action doing more harm than good, and a more distant history of the actions of outside powers in general also doing harm.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)