On Syria, Obama Is Torn Between Pragmatism and Idealism

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.


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.

THE TRUTH IS...

what drives Mother Jones' team of 50-plus journalists. The truth is powerful, as evidenced by how hard those with something to hide, or profit to gain, seek to discredit it. The truth, stated boldly and reported meticulously, is what draws so many readers to Mother Jones.

And the truth is, going into the final 4 days of the year we still needed to raise $TK to hit our $350,000 goal and start 2021 on track. It's nerve-wracking, wondering if the big spike we normally see at the end of December is going to be another thing that doesn't go as planned in 2020, or worse, if, now that Donald Trump is set to leave the White House (for longer than a taxpayer-funded golf trip to a property he owns), folks might be pulling back from fighting for the truth and a democracy and think the hard work is done.

It's not, and if you can right now, please consider a year-end donation to support our team's fearless nonprofit journalism so we can close that big fundraising gap and finish the year strong, ready for all that's ahead in 2021. Whether you can give $5 or $500, it all matters in keeping us charging hard, and we'd be grateful.

payment methods

THE TRUTH IS...

what drives Mother Jones' team of 50-plus journalists. The truth is powerful, as evidenced by how hard those with something to hide, or profit to gain, seek to discredit it. The truth, stated boldly and reported meticulously, is what draws so many readers to Mother Jones.

And the truth is, going into the final 4 days of the year we still needed to raise $TK to hit our $350,000 goal and start 2021 on track. It's nerve-wracking, wondering if the big spike we normally see at the end of December is going to be another thing that doesn't go as planned in 2020, or worse, if, now that Donald Trump is set to leave the White House (for longer than a taxpayer-funded golf trip to a property he owns), folks might be pulling back from fighting for the truth and a democracy and think the hard work is done.

It's not, and if you can right now, please consider a year-end donation to support our team's fearless nonprofit journalism so we can close that big fundraising gap and finish the year strong, ready for all that's ahead in 2021. Whether you can give $5 or $500, it all matters in keeping us charging hard, and we'd be grateful.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate