More folly in Syria

The president's policies have gone from bad to worse, and may get worse still

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President Barack Obama's decision last week to provide greater U.S. military assistance to Syria's rebels, drawing America even deeper into the civil war there, was an error, made worse by the American political context within which it was made.

The first depressing aspect of what occurred is what the decision says about Mr. Obama. Americans who voted for him did so in part on the hope that he was opposed to taking America into more wars. This impression was reinforced by his having fulfilled his pledge to march America out of Iraq in 2011 and what appears to be progress toward ending U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan by the end of 2014. That latter commitment is under assault from defense officials, though, who are pitching to Mr. Obama's humanitarian intervention-minded advisers the idea of staying in Afghanistan longer by asserting that progress on, for example, women's rights and education, would be jeopardized by an American withdrawal that soon.

The decision to take America into Syria militarily -- providing military aid inevitably means more training of rebel forces and perhaps even an eventual combat role (to make sure the aid is used correctly) -- is entirely inconsistent with a policy of less rather than more U.S. participation in wars, especially in Middle East wars.

The word in advance of whatever debate took place within the administration last week was that Mr. Obama remained opposed to deeper U.S. military engagement. It is said that pressure from former President Bill Clinton helped change his mind. Why Mr. Obama -- or anyone else -- would pay attention to Mr. Clinton is beyond me. He is very rich now, he is trying to get back into the White House as first husband, and he never has shown remarkably good judgment. So, either Mr. Obama let himself be pushed by Mr. Clinton to make the wrong decision or Mr. Obama wanted to put troops into Syria and used Mr. Clinton's "advice" as a pretext, hoping to make it more acceptable to Americans.

Our intervention won't achieve the result we ostensibly seek -- the overthrow of the regime of Bashar Assad. And, much worse, it may turn out that the only way we can achieve that objective is to insert a much larger force than initially mentioned. That is to say, America will be dragged ever more deeply into another Middle East war on the heels of eight years in Iraq and 13 years in Afghanistan. The makeup of any successor regime to Mr. Assad's is also impossible to foresee, given the divisions among the rebels.

The main reason the United States has no business intervening in Syria at this time is that it has major priorities at home that are much more important to the future of the country than trying to rearrange the furniture in Syria. Monday's New York Times tells us that Philadelphia's schools will open in September with 3,783 fewer assistant principals, teachers and aides than last year. Why exactly should America's resources be engaged in regime change in Syria as opposed to being used to educate America's children so they can become happy, healthy, productive citizens? Or being used to repair America's infrastructure? Is this how we want to spend our money?

We have yet to hear how much the Syria intervention will cost or where the money will come from, since there has been no congressional debate of Mr. Obama's bright idea. Mr. Obama, in Northern Ireland for the G-8 summit, happily burbled in Belfast that hope is contagious. Then there was his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, which has turned out to be a continuing triumph of hope over experience in light of his decision on the Syrian war.

Another problem: The idea that somehow U.S. arms and training can be kept out of the hands of the al-Qaida-linked elements in the Syrian opposition is silly. The good guys -- if any -- will get U.S. weapons directly while less savory elements will get them and other arms via other suppliers -- Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates -- who either don't care or who actively support the extreme, anti-U.S. actors among the rebels.

One piece of the project is to provide training and arms in neighboring Jordan. But Jordan itself is tottery. It is ruled by a non-Jordanian king. At least half its population is Palestinian, not Jordanian, and the Arab Spring is in the process of blowing some of the petals off Jordan's expensive monarchy.

It would be a simple matter for the Assad regime to strike back at America through Jordan. Then the United States would be firmly on the hook to ride to the rescue of King Abdullah II -- with even more U.S. military involvement. The king appears to have not yet consulted with his parliament or people on the increased U.S. military role in Jordan that he contemplates.

Finally, the United States and Russia seem to be backing away from the joint effort they had started to organize peace talks in Geneva this month. On the U.S. side, it appears that the rebel threat not to turn up in Geneva unless the West gave them more arms has worked. Worse, we will be providing them more weapons but it looks now as though they still won't have to go to Geneva. It is an example of the worst kind of blackmail: The rebels get the reward but they don't have to deliver the goods.

Mr. Obama's handling of the Syria problem is a total disaster so far, and it reflects badly on his overall conduct of the presidency.


Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (, 412-263-1976).


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