Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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Haunted by Syria?

by Elliott Abrams
January 6, 2014


“When the history of the Obama administration is written, there will be a long and damaging chapter on its immense humanitarian and strategic failure in Syria. With three years of Obama yet to come, we have not even seen the full humanitarian disaster play out​—​nor have we yet confronted the dangers that are arising there from the vast jihadist presence.”

That is how my article in the newest issue of The Weekly Standard begins. In it I trace the sad story of Obama policy toward Syria, where American strategic and humanitarian interests met–yet the administration still did nothing to advance them. Or perhaps one must say the President himself did nothing, for most of his top Cabinet advisers urged stronger action: Clinton, Gates, Panetta, Kerry. But the President rejected the advice, and we now see something like 200,000 dead, a regime that used chemical weapons but that we have given up trying to remove or punish, 6 million people displaced and homeless, and the gathering presence of ten thousand jihadis at the center of the Middle East.

In establishing his “Atrocities Prevention Board” in 2012, the President said

Awareness without action changes nothing. .  .  . “Never again” is a challenge to nations. It’s a bitter truth​—​too often, the world has failed to prevent the killing of innocents on a massive scale. And we are haunted by the atrocities that we did not stop and the lives we did not save.

The article notes that  “As the year ended Obama was golfing in Hawaii; evidence that he was haunted is difficult to come by.”

As the article concludes, the President

is presiding over a humanitarian disaster where war crimes and atrocities occur each day and he responds with speeches. He is conceding a strategic victory to Iran and Hezbollah, who have decided to win in Syria and have rejected the administration line that “there is no military solution.” He has weakened our own alliances, for example dragging British prime minister David Cameron into a dispiriting defeat in the House of Commons when he rushed to join a military strike that Obama soon abandoned. He is endangering our safety by allowing jihadists to turn Syria into their world center of activity. And over the next three years, he is likely to reap what he has sowed. The problem is, so will we.

The full text is here.

Post a Comment 7 Comments

  • Posted by ah

    Same point as previous comments. If the Bush Administration, of which you were a part, had not been so careless and reckless in their Iraq intervention, the US would have been much more capable – and willing – to intervene in Syria under the Obama Administration.

    Similarly, Iran would have significantly less leeway in the region than they do now, with their main adversary Iraq under Saddam out of the way. It seems to me you too quickly blame the Obama Administration for its failures, without taking the time to examine your own failures and their lasting repercussions.

  • Posted by Adam

    Looking forward, the combatant parties in Syria are both unpalatable to the U.S. and Europe, but the greater threat may arise from the sunni jihadi faction. Especially as european muslims flock to the jihadi banner, and then return to Europe, indoctrinated and trained to kill. Europe needs to move to secure itself against this threat.

    The U.S. needs to secure Jordan and Israel against the spillover effect from this war. It has the power to do so. But it seems difficult to see how the U.S. might prevent spillover and eventually full-fledged civil war in Lebanon. My prediction, unfortunately, is that by the end of 2014, the situation in Lebanon will have deteriorated considerably.

    I supported the Iraq war; but it was a military overreach and a political miscalculation. Obama has learned the lesson and will not put the U.S. in the line of fire in another middle eastern ethno-religious fight. But Obama had many other options in Syria which he did not pursue, and he should have.

    There may no longer be a ‘win’ scenario for the U.S. in Syria, but it needs to get involved in limiting the spread of the conflict and strengthening its allies.

  • Posted by ah

    Well said Adam, to quote Goldberg’s more thoughtful column from yesterday:

    “The Bush administration’s sin was over-engagement; the Obama administration’s sin may be under-engagement. Certainly, in Syria, there was much more to be done early on. But ultimately, the U.S. is a bystander. It did not create the problems that plague the Arab Middle East.”

  • Posted by Adam

    I find Goldberg zigs-zags unbearably in his analyses. It would have been unthinkable to label the U.S. a ‘bystander’ in the last half-century, and for example, the arrival of AQI was very much an outcome of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The power vacuum in the Euphrates helped both Iran and Al Qaida spread their influence westward. Historically, I would label the U.S. role in the ME a catalyst and an enabler of change, even unintended change. But recently (post 2009) that has changed, and ‘bystander’ is not a bad description.

    To be fair to Obama, the ‘Arab Spring’ (a misnomer if there ever was one) was largely driven by internal forces beyond the influence of the U.S. and that goes for Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria. Yet in Egypt and Syria especially, the Obama administration has failed to successfully play the minor role it could have. Obama is just not getting stuck in there, and he seems incapable of putting a bite to his bark. Again and again, the Obama administration is the bystander, and I don’t blame Bush for that.

    Leadership in the ME demands engagement, even when you can’t control the outcome. Obama has abdicated this role for the U.S., and is only paying hollow lip service. In Syria and Libya the sunni jihadi elements have successfully established themselves. In Egypt, the officers have had to retake power against U.S. wishes. Iraq is back in civil war. U.S. allies in the ME are despairing at the thought of another three years of Obama; as far as they are concerned , the next presidential elections can’t come soon enough.

  • Posted by Beatrix139

    Our problem in Iraq was leaving too soon. We went in for the wrong reason, but were right to get rid of Saddam. If we’d maintained our relations, Iraq wouldn’t be leaning toward Iran today. Al Qaeda is Sunni and our enemy and so Obama is befriending the Shiites, Al Qaeda’s enemy. Obama does not care for American power or for war. He’s wants someone else strong enough to fight for us. Obama is a clever President, not a powerful one.

  • Posted by ah

    I disagree Beatrix, our problem with Iraq was poor planning from the start. Rumsfeld and our friend Abrams here disregarded the advice of most military planners and did not truly plan for the democratic transition, but rather relied upon poor advice suggesting the US would be welcomed with American flags and posters of Bush, and that full democracy would be installed in two years time.
    Obama simply pulled out of an occupation that was already failing, despite conservative arguments to the contrary. Iraq was already leaning toward Iran, but any American politician with actual knowledge of the region would have predicted this from the start.
    In terms of the Sunni-Shiite dichotomy you make, it’s not that black and white. There are no hegemonic Sunni or Shiite blocs, there are strange bedfellows temporarily aligned.

  • Posted by Jassem Othman

    The Syrian opposition that worthy of a great respect is that led by Gentlemen “Farid Al-Ghadry and Ammar Abdulhamid”, Otherwise they either an extremist nationalists or fanatic Islamists!
    However, I warn of the western arming of extremist groups in Syrian opposition, because of the fears that the weapons probably could end up in the hands of the Islamic militant extremist groups that link to Al-Qaida, and then be turned against Syrian people and against their neighbors of secular states “Lebanon, Israel and Turkey.”

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