Last August, then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and then-CIA Director David H. Petraeus proposed that the United States change its policy and send weapons and other aid to the rebels fighting the Syrian government. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, signed on too, an unusual step for the normally cautious Pentagon.
President Obama’s national security advisor, Thomas Donilon, opposed the proposal, and in the end, the president sided with him. As a result, U.S. assistance to Syria’s opposition remains limited to “nonlethal” aid to unarmed political groups, plus humanitarian aid to civilian refugees.
Obama critics have charged that the president sat on his hands for narrow political reasons: a presidential election campaign was underway last summer, and the last thing Obama wanted was to entangle the U.S. in another war.
Today, more than three months after the election, the playing field has changed. Syria is still mired in a bloody stalemate, with more civilians killed every day, but Clinton, Petraeus and Panetta are out, and the president is relying on a different set of advisors. The two most important will be his new secretary of State, John F. Kerry, and his soon-to-be-confirmed Defense secretary, Chuck Hagel.
The president is still the most important player, and he sounds like a man who’s looking for excuses to stay out of conflicts, not to get into them. “I have to ask, can we make a difference in that situation?” he said in an interview with the New Republic. “How do I weigh the tens of thousands who’ve been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?”
In Hagel, Obama has an even more determined non-interventionist. Hagel didn’t support Obama’s escalation in Afghanistan or his decision to use U.S. force in Libya, and those dissents seem to have counted in his favor, rather than against him, when Obama made his choice.
Kerry, a Vietnam veteran like Hagel, is skeptical of military intervention too. But unlike Hagel, he supported Obama’s surge in Afghanistan and his decision to use force in Libya.
Kerry says Syria is one of the first problems he intends to tackle, and he has made plans to meet with civilian leaders of the Syrian opposition in Rome next week. He says he wants to give diplomacy another chance to persuade Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down peacefully.
“My goal is to see us change his calculation,” Kerry said last week. “My goal is to see us have a negotiated outcome.”
But there’s no sign from Damascus that Assad will be receptive; his current belief, as Kerry put it, is that he can outlast the rebels, even as war tears his country apart.
If Kerry’s mandatory exercise of diplomacy doesn’t pay off, we may well see another schism among the president’s advisors about the best course of action.
One proposal that should be considered comes from Frederic Hof, who helped run Syria policy for Clinton until he left the State Department last year.
The idea, in a nutshell, is to find out what moderate factions among the rebels need most and get it to them quickly. “It doesn’t need to be weapons,” Hof told me this week. “We may decide that weapons are not essential. Other kinds of assistance may actually be more important — military equipment, training, sharing intelligence.”
What’s important, he said, is cementing U.S. ties with the armed men who may end up running Syria — and making sure the moderates in the opposition aren’t displaced by better-armed Islamic radicals.
“This is not a slippery slope,” he insisted. “Trying to build strong relationships with carefully vetted armed elements of the Syrian opposition is the conservative, low-risk option here.”
It’s hard to imagine Hagel, who sees every incline as a slippery slope, endorsing any aid to armed rebels. But would Kerry?
In fact, he already has. In a little-noticed interview with Foreign Policy magazine last May, the then-senator from Massachusetts said U.S. aid to the rebels should be increased.
“There could be some [military] training,” he said then. “If we can enhance the unity of the opposition, we could consider lethal aid.
“You have to change the current dynamic. That’s to me the bottom line,” Kerry said.
So here’s a prediction for the next few months of Obama administration policymaking on Syria:
Kerry will make his trip. He will appeal to Assad to negotiate with the opposition and entreat Russia to end its aid to Syria. But those efforts will show indifferent results.
Then he’ll come back to the White House and say it’s time to revive the proposal that Clinton and Petraeus made last August for aid to Syria’s armed rebels.
Obama will be caught in the middle again. He will have to make the call. But this time there won’t be an election campaign underway, and the problems of Syria, along with the spillover problems for its neighbors, will have escalated.
Obama may find it harder to say no this time. But if he says yes, he’ll have to explain why he waited seven months, during which both time and lives were lost.
Follow Doyle McManus on Twitter @DoyleMcManus