The Cost of Doing Nothing

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In Europe, photos of one dead Syrian boy have aroused more sympathy and indignation than four years of bloody civil war and the death of 250,000 Syrians, including tens of thousands of children. Having already spawned terror, the war in Syria is now exporting death to Europe. In Austria, police found 71 decomposing bodies –including those of four children – in the back of a truck abandoned by the highway. They are casualties of the mistaken belief that the world is better off when the United States and Europe refuse to intervene in complicated foreign conflicts.

Last year, President Barack Obama proudly declared that the organizing principle of his foreign policy was "don't do stupid stuff." This pithy catchphrase was intended to justify the liquidation of U.S. commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan and the avoidance of commitments in other hot spots like Syria. It came nearly a year after Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime murdered more than 400 children in a single nerve gas attack, an atrocity about which Obama could only bring himself to say that "this is clearly a big event of grave concern."

Yet the president's attempts to justify inertia begin to make sense when one takes a closer look at how four years of American passivity have helped turn Syria into a conflict so violent that parents will now risk their children's lives to find a better life in Europe.

In the summer of 2011, Obama responded to the Syrian regime's violence against massive street protests by declaring that "the time has come for President Assad to step aside." Assad's brutal crackdown continued despite Obama's admonition. The president refrained from supporting opposition groups, which then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attributed, at the time, to a lack of viable opposition organizations.

By the middle of 2012, Clinton and others became convinced that the ranks of the Syrian rebels did include viable organizations led by moderates. Clinton, then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and then-CIA Director David Petraeus advocated for military assistance to moderate rebel groups. Obama again offered words of condemnation of the Assad regime but avoided arming the rebels. The dearth of American support demoralized the moderates and drove many into the arms of the extremists. In October, a rebel leader, writing in the Turkish newspaper Milliyet, said, "We are now at a very critical juncture. We are not only facing Syria, but Iran, Iraq, Russia and China behind it as well. Behind us, we have nothing but the provocative stance and empty promises of the U.S."

During 2013, Sunni extremists from around the world flocked to Syria, where they helped extremist groups to fight both the Assad regime and the moderate rebels. As he prepared to retire after 33 years at the CIA, Deputy Director Michael Morell warned that Syria had become the number one threat to U.S. security. Extremist violence in Syria, said Morell, could spill over into Iraq, as well as Lebanon and Jordan. Obama was unmoved.

Also in 2013, the Syrian government tested the credibility of Obama's warning that use of chemical weapons would cross a "red line." On Aug. 21, the regime targeted the Ghouta neighborhood on the outskirts of Damascus with a barrage of artillery shells filled with Sarin gas. More than 1,400 died, including more than 400 children. After the intelligence community definitively concluded that chemical weapons had been used – thereby crossing the president's "red line" – the Obama administration suddenly seemed to mobilize for war. Yet just as suddenly, after the British Parliament voted against military action, Obama sought to back away from his plan.

At the White House, Obama disingenuously announced, "I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets," but then added, "I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people's representatives in Congress." As the president knew, involving Congress would make it easier to justify inaction. The House and Senate were deeply divided and the American public, profoundly skeptical.

Under fire for inconsistency, Obama sought to disavow his red line while pinning the blame on Congress. Pressed by a reporter about his reaction to the chemical attack, the president responded: "I didn't set a red line; the world set a red line. The world set a red line when governments representing 98 percent of the world's population said the use of chemical weapons are abhorrent and passed a treaty forbidding their use even when countries are engaged in war. Congress set a red line when it ratified that treaty."

As Obama has repeatedly shown, he respects the authority of Congress only when it suits him. When Congress stands in the way of what he wants, he goes around it. Less than a year later, he would launch a military campaign against the Islamic State group without congressional authorization. Facing solid opposition to the nuclear deal with Iran, Obama decided to make it an executive agreement rather than a formal treaty.

Fortunately for the president, Russian President Vladimir Putin offered him a way out of the Syrian debacle, by securing a pledge from Assad to surrender his stockpile of chemical weapons and allow inspectors to visit Syria's weapon-making facilities, in return for American inaction. Obama readily agreed to the deal, although now it has become clear that the inspections were a farce and that Syria has likely hidden away a reserve supply of chemical weapons precursors. Regardless, Obama's backtracking on his "red line" undermined America's credibility around the world, and it caused much of the remaining moderate Syrian opposition to side with the Islamic State group and other Sunni extremists.

In the following months, Obama did step up the covert training of moderate Syrian rebels, in what would become a pattern of pledging support to rebels while providing only token assistance. According to The Washington Post, the CIA's training of rebels was "expected to produce only a few hundred trained fighters each month even after it is enlarged, a level that officials said will do little to bolster rebel forces that are being eclipsed by radical Islamists."

The stunning rise of the Islamic State group in 2014 began to demonstrate the very tangible costs of a hands-off approach to Syria. To deflect criticism of his passive Syria policy, Obama vowed to seek $500 million from Congress to assist moderate Syrian forces. But White House aides subsequently disclosed that the administration had no plan for how it would use the money. Of course, the rise of extremist rebels and the marginalization of the moderates over the preceding two and a half years had by now made it difficult to find rebels worthy of America's support.

In September 2014, prodded by polls showing that nine out of 10 Americans now deemed the Islamic State group a serious threat to the United States, Obama announced that he had come up with a Syria strategy, in which moderate Syrian rebels and U.S. air power would target the Islamic State group relentlessly. The details trickled out in October, when administration officials divulged that doubts about the rebels inside Syria made it necessary to conduct the training in neighboring countries. The U.S. military would form a force of over 5,000 men and train it for a year before sending it into Syria. Ultimately, the program trained only 54 rebels, and most of them were captured or killed shortly after returning to Syria.

A newfound awareness of the humanitarian costs of the Syrian civil war is unlikely to cause a significant change in U.S. foreign policy, at least while Obama remains in office. However, it could still have beneficial consequences in the longer term, if it helps convince American leaders and voters that doing nothing may be far more dangerous than the active pursuit of American principles and interests.

For Obama, it became axiomatic that doing less was always the wiser course. This was the simplistic lesson he took away from the war in Iraq. Now it has been disproven by the rise of the Islamic State group and the flood of refugees seeking sanctuary in Europe, among other things. Try as the administration might to ignore the conflict, it has become clear that the U.S. and its European allies have direct stakes in the outcome of the Syrian war. Recognition of this simple truth could be useful in building support for more vigorous American action in Syria, which is the only ingredient that stands much of a chance of halting the bloodshed any time soon.

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