You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Inconsistency in Obama's Iraq-Haunted Thinking on Syria


The first round of the so-called peace talks between the Syrian government and the opposition coalition is wrapping up today in Switzerland. The talks produced little real progress, though there was some dark humor to be found in dispatches from the conference describing, with an air of surprise, that the opposition representatives have been comporting themselves in a more unified and professional fashion than the government representatives—the government’s years-long denigration of the opposition may have served to so reduce expectations for it that it wasn’t so hard for the opposition to come across as surprisingly competent in Western and Russian eyes.

The end of the conference round offers a good moment to scrutinize something I’m surprised hasn’t gotten more attention: President Obama’s rationalization of his decision not to intervene more directly in Syria, in his series of talks with The New Yorker’s David Remnick. One excerpt:

I am haunted by what’s happened. I am not haunted by my decision not to engage in another Middle Eastern war. It is very difficult to imagine a scenario in which our involvement in Syria would have led to a better outcome, short of us being willing to undertake an effort in size and scope similar to what we did in Iraq.

And there’s this from Ben Rhodes, the Obama speechwriter turned “deputy national-security adviser for strategic communications,” who told Remnick that Washington was “trapped in very stale narratives”:

In the foreign-policy establishment, to be an idealist you have to be for military intervention. For the President, Iraq was the defining issue, and now Syria is viewed through that lens, as was Libya—to be an idealist, you have to be a military interventionist. We spent a trillion dollars in Iraq and had troops there for a decade, and you can’t say it wielded positive influence. Just the opposite. We can’t seem to get out of these boxes.

It’s not hard to see the thread between these two passages: the ghost of Iraq. Obama, having been launched into the presidency in great part due to his early opposition to the war in Iraq, was loath to get pulled into a costly quagmire in the country just to its west. That is entirely to be expected. But here’s the thing: at the very same time as Obama’s thinking on Syria has been so obviously shadowed by Iraq, you have for a while now had him and his administration making much of the fact that he operates not by any grand doctrines, but rather views each country and problem in its own context and circumstances. As Remnick put it, in summarizing Obama’s thinking:

This wasn’t realism or idealism; it was something closer to policy particularism (this thing is different from that thing; Syria is not Libya; Iran is not North Korea.)

All well and good. But when it comes to the question of intervening against Bashar al-Assad, it’s simply the case that Syria pretty much is Iraq for the Obama administration. The particularism that the administration claims to apply everywhere falls away, glossing over the distinctions between the two situations: among other things, that there is a viable opposition in Syria pleading for U.S. assistance in deposing its brutal dictator; that Al Qaeda-affiliated extremists were not in Iraq in 2003, but are ascendant in Syria now; that even the most hawkish U.S. advocates of intervention have never suggested anything close to the invasion of Iraq, with its Shock and Awe bombardment and 467,000 deployed U.S. military personnel.

That is not to say that the Iraq fiasco should not inform thinking on Syria. Of course it should, not least for what a decade’s worth of lost blood and treasure in Iraq and Afghanistan has done to Americans’ patience for even the most limited and well-intentioned action in the Middle East. It is simply to say that it is a bit rich for the administration to be so eager to tout its foreign policy of contextualization when, in the case of Syria, it has, if anything, been downplaying the context and over-internalizing the lessons of one place that is adjacent to but not identical to another. Claiming to zoom in on the particulars, the administration has been doing just the opposite.

And speaking of zooming in, we now have this from Human Rights Watch, with stunning new photographs:

Satellite imagery, witness statements, and video and photographic evidence show that Syrian authorities deliberately and unlawfully demolished thousands of residential buildings in Damascus and Hama in 2012 and 2013. The 38-page report, “Razed to the Ground: Syria’s Unlawful Neighborhood Demolitions in 2012-2013,” documents seven cases of large-scale demolitions with explosives and bulldozers that violated the laws of war. The demolitions either served no necessary military purpose and appeared to intentionally punish the civilian population or caused disproportionate harm to civilians.  

There are the boxes one needs to worry about getting caught in. And then there are the boxes that are wiped off the map entirely.