While we may have frequent occasion to grouse about President Barack Obama’s domestic initiatives, we’ve also had plenty of opportunities to admire his circumspection in foreign affairs. As the president of a war-weary nation that has spent the past decade rethinking the threshold for U.S. involvement, Obama has often shown an appropriate sense of restraint when it comes to entangling the nation overseas.
One such instance occurred last summer, when the president reportedly resisted calls from Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state, and then-CIA Director David Petraeus to supply weapons and train fighters involved in the resistance to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. That was the right decision then, and it’s the right decision now. Unfortunately, Obama has abandoned that policy.
It was announced June 13 that the administration would begin supplying support (in the form of what is widely acknowledged to be small arms and ammunition) to the Syrian opposition, a move partially inspired by the White House’s newfound conviction that Assad did, in fact, use chemical weapons against the Syrian people.
We share Obama’s revulsion at the Syrian president’s ruthlessness, but chemical weapons were hardly required to prove that point. The estimated body count from the chemical attacks is 100 to 150. The overall death toll from the broader Syrian civil war, however, already numbers nearly 93,000 according to a U.N. report issued last week. Certainly this would have qualified as a humanitarian tragedy whether deadly sarin gas ever entered into the equation.
Humanitarian tragedies, however, provide insufficient grounds for American intervention, particularly when our efforts are unlikely to do much to change the reality on the ground. Critics, from Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain to the political coordinator of the Anti-Assad Free Syrian Army, have all conceded that small arms are unlikely to move the needle. Obama himself has even claimed that similar efforts undertaken earlier would not have materially affected the situation, which leads us to wonder why he expects a different outcome now.
Intellectual maturity demands that our leaders recognize situations in which the nation is left choosing between a series of unpleasant outcomes. Syria is one such scenario. For all of Assad’s horrors, we remain woefully uninformed about the nature of the forces opposing him. What we do know, however, is that many of those groups adhere to radical Islam. It’s an open question whether their potential rule would be worse than Assad’s, but that’s an extremely low bar. With recent history as our guide, it’s hard to envision them ushering in a flowering of human rights in the region or doing anything to benefit our national security interests.
After a decade that has seen the U.S. endlessly involve itself in conflicts throughout the Middle East, the American people are justifiably jaundiced about our ability to foster meaningful change in Syria. A Pew poll released Monday showed 70 percent of the country opposed to our deepening intervention. That healthy skepticism reminds us of the Obama we knew as recently as last year. We long to see that commander in chief return.
From the Orange County Register