Syria and Obama's strategic box

White House/Pete Souza

President Barack Obama meets with U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford in the Oval Office, Aug. 1, 2011.

Article Highlights

  • Syria represents just the kind of military contingency that the Obama Administration is trying to rule out.

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  • The decisions on defense spending and strategic posture amount to a form of self-deterrence.

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  • Obama's “strategic pivot" is less a pivot to the Pacific than it is a pivot away from the Middle East.

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Why hasn’t President Obama intervened militarily in Syria? After all, this is a president who issued a directive last year stating that a “core” national security interest of the United States would be to prevent mass atrocities of precisely the kind Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad is now unleashing on his own people. And this is a president who, to his credit, helped remove Muammar Qaddafi from power. Certainly, overthrowing Assad, cutting Syria’s ties to Iran, and putting an end to its destructive role in Lebanon is far more important to American security interests than the campaign to end Qaddafi’s rule in Libya ever was.

The quick and dirty answer is the November election. Having removed all U.S. forces from Iraq and drawing down in Afghanistan as rapidly as possible, this commander in chief is not looking for another Middle East war to fight.

But this is only half the story, and perhaps not the most important half. Following Libya, and since the beginning of the year, the president has reordered America’s strategic vision, announcing both new guidance for Pentagon planning and deep cuts in defense spending and the military’s force structure. Combined, this has created a dynamic in which it is increasingly difficult, if not yet impossible, to consider intervening in a Syria-like contingency.

Undeniably, the larger strategic stakes in Syria are also reflected in greater military risks. The Syrian military, though hardly invincible and now perhaps on the verge of splitting apart, is nonetheless a tougher force than Muammar Qaddafi’s mercenaries and militias. And the Syrians have been able to count on help from Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia. But removing the Assad regime remains the easy part. What comes after would be much tougher.

Obama discarded the “two-war standard” that has been the defining characteristic of U.S. global military posture since before World War II. The new benchmark is one war, at one time, in one place. - Gary Schmitt and Thomas Donnelly
An even greater difference between the Libyan and Syrian cases is to be found in the posture of the U.S. military. It is, allegedly, “pivoting” toward the Pacific. In reality, the Pentagon is preparing to return to an “offshore balancing” position in the greater Middle East. Syria represents just the kind of military contingency that the Obama Administration is trying to rule out, now and for the future, in American defense planning.

In profound ways, the future of Syria was written in the president’s “defense guidance” of January 2012, which rationalized the military cuts enshrined in the Budget Control Act. In his guidance, Obama essentially limited American strategy for the greater Middle East to a continued offensive counterterrorism campaign and to a efensive, supporting role “to partner with states in and around this region.”

Even more critical than this reframing of American intentions was the announcement of new limits to American capabilities. Obama discarded the “two-war standard” that has been the defining characteristic of U.S. global military posture since before World War II. The new benchmark is one war, at one time, in one place. In particular, the president drastically diminished the ability of U.S. land forces to make a decisive difference: Henceforth, the United States would only “be able to secure territory and populations and facilitate a transition to stable governance for a limited period” without “mobilized forces.” Reflecting his long-held view that Iraq was a “dumb war,” Obama wants to remove the very ability to make such a mistake again.

The Syria conundrum reveals the true nature of the Obama “strategic pivot.” It’s less a pivot to the Pacific than it is a pivot away from the greater Middle East. And though the Syrians are the first to feel the effects of this transition, they won’t be the last. - Gary Schmitt and Thomas Donnelly

In sum, the administration’s approach to Syria is not just about politics but, instead, is a continuation of its withdrawal from 30 years of American “onshore” engagement in the Middle East. The president’s defense guidance begins by observing that this is a “moment of transition.” It is, but not because, as he said, the “tides of war are receding;” rather, it’s because of decisions being made by his administration.

The decisions on defense spending and strategic posture amount to a form of self-deterrence, aimed not only at Bush-era “global cops” but also at those in the administration who pushed for the Libya intervention. Indeed, this is the one-war dilemma: if you have only one chip, you’re extremely reluctant to risk a bet, regardless of the odds. With possible contingences involving Iran and the Persian Gulf, as well as China and the South China Sea, the administration is putting itself in a strategic box of its own making.


Nor does it help that Western Europe continues to disarm. Neither Great Britain nor France nor NATO as a collective is, after Libya, in much of a condition to take on any new campaigns, especially campaigns that might require a sustained campaign or the use of land forces for securing Syria’s massive stockpile of chemical weapons or possibly conducting stability operations in a post-Assad Syria.

The Syria conundrum reveals the true nature of the Obama “strategic pivot.” It’s less a pivot to the Pacific than it is a pivot away from the greater Middle East. And though the Syrians are the first to feel the effects of this transition, they won’t be the last.

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