As President Obama contemplates his many bad options in Syria, he may want to consider the Aspin Doctrine, an argument for intervention abroad made by President Clinton's first secretary of Defense, Les Aspin.
In 1993, the Clinton administration was wrestling with a seemingly insoluble conflict in Bosnia, where Serbian-backed troops were besieging cities and slaughtering civilians.
Aspin's advice was straightforward: Let's bomb the Serbs and see what happens.
Critics objected that military action would put the United States on a slippery slope toward deeper intervention, but Aspin rejected that thinking as outmoded.
"If it doesn't work," he said, the United States could simply "back off." "Take it one step at a time, and see where we end up," he said.
That's the Aspin Doctrine: Military intervention doesn't have to be a slippery slope as long as you keep the option of walking away.
At first, Clinton rejected Aspin's suggestion. But two years later, he changed his mind and launched airstrikes that helped bring the Bosnian Serbs to the negotiating table — while insisting that he would not send U.S. soldiers into combat there.
Obama's decision last week to send weapons and ammunition to the rebels fighting Bashar Assad's regime in Syria carried a distant echo of Clinton's experience in Bosnia.
Like Clinton, Obama initially rejected proposals for lethal military aid (and still rejects direct military action such as airstrikes or the establishment of a no-fly zone over rebel-held areas). But he announced Thursday that he has decided to help arm the rebels, beginning with modest measures: a gradual escalation of aid including small arms and ammunition now, and perhaps eventually the antitank and antiaircraft missiles the rebels say they need most.
That's a significant change from Obama's position six months ago, when then-CIA Director David H. Petraeus proposed sending weapons and was turned down.
Why the policy change? For one thing, moderate factions among the rebels have organized a Supreme Military Council headed by a former Syrian Army general who has inspired a measure of wary confidence in U.S. officials. For another, the CIA finally concluded that Assad's troops have used chemical weapons against the opposition, crossing a "red line" Obama proclaimed last year.
Probably most important, though, is this: The rebels were in danger of losing. Thousands of fighters from Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah have streamed into Syria over the last three months, and they have helped Assad's regime regain the upper hand on the battlefield.
Obama's decision won't transform the situation on the ground. The rebels may well suffer more reverses in coming weeks. But with similar aid from Britain, France and other countries, the U.S help could speed the process of turning the rebels into a more effective army — one the Assad regime won't be able to destroy.
But the strategy has a weakness: It's hard to see how this still-modest level of aid will bring about Obama's chief goal of forcing Assad to step down.
Strategy is all about matching ends and means; but in Syria, Obama's goals have been ambitious and his means have been meager.
Assad has rejected the advice to quit, and his principal ally, Russia's Vladimir Putin, has supported him. The rebels have been too disorganized to prevail on the battlefield and too divided to negotiate.
Obama was left with two unpalatable options: escalate or accept defeat. Doing nothing might have led to irreversible results, the collapse of the rebels, so he chose to escalate — but only a little and with a vow to put no U.S. boots on the ground.
Some critics will still warn that he has stepped onto a slippery slope that leads to direct military intervention. But that's where the Aspin Doctrine comes in. There are plenty of examples of the United States aiding one faction in a civil war, only to disengage if our client army failed (Ronald Reagan's Contras in Nicaragua, for example).
Obama's gradual escalation doesn't preclude military intervention later — and could even pave the way for it.
In 1995, Clinton began airstrikes only after the Bosnian army, strengthened by help from neighboring Croatia, had begun to hold its own against the Serbs.
The experience appears to have left Clinton a devotee of the Aspin Doctrine (though the unlucky Aspin was gone by the time Clinton intervened in Bosnia). "Some people say, 'OK, see what a big mess it is? Stay out!' I think that's a big mistake," Clinton said of Syria last week in comments reported by Politico. "Sometimes it's just best to get caught trying, as long as you don't overcommit."
Increased aid to the rebels, in other words, doesn't need to be a slippery slope — as long as the president remembers to keep his footing.