Obama’s Syria Plan: Ill Conceived, Ill Timed

While there are very real atrocities, the situation requires careful diplomacy, not military force.

Opposition to strikes against Syria in Washington (Mandel Ngan/Getty Images); Barack Obama (Sergey Guneev/Getty Images)
Opposition to strikes against Syria in Washington (Mandel Ngan/Getty Images); Barack Obama (Sergey Guneev/Getty Images)

Some good, as Andrew Sullivan has recently noted, may come out of all of this. The very fact that Obama is seeking congressional approval provides an opening for voices of restraint. As a candidate for president, then-Sen. Obama said during one debate that he was not opposed to all wars, “just dumb ones.” President Obama should listen to his own advice on this score.

Forceful military intervention in Syria amounts to regime change by another name and is fooling no one, least of all the American public, which, mindful of the recent and debilitating war of choice in Iraq and war of necessity in Afghanistan, overwhelmingly rejects the use of force in Syria. Obama is thus now in the awkward position of trying to rally congressional Republicans, his main legislative nemeses, to authorize military force.

Meanwhile, African Americans, the president’s most vocal political bloc, are also not in favor of war with Syria. The Congressional Black Caucus, which has been rendered largely irrelevant because of Obama’s special rapport with black voters, is now being called upon to stand with the president during his time of need. It would be especially ironic, and a huge moral failing, if the CBC gave the first black president the political cover to wage a war that most Americans — black and white — disapprove of.

The Syrian crisis also reflects a strategic pivot away from the Obama administration’s foreign policy. Several years ago the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza famously reported on the administration’s efforts to “lead from behind,” an unfortunate choice of words that sparked ridicule from Republicans who accused Obama of being a naive foreign policy amateur unwilling or unable to comprehend the proper use of the world’s greatest military force. But in truth the phrase articulated the broad outlines of the “Obama doctrine”: prevention of the U.S. from being drawn into new global conflicts even while supporting the escalation (in Afghanistan) of existing military missions.

Yet this clarity of purpose regarding the proper use of military force has also induced paralysis, as witnessed by the administration’s uneven and slow-witted responses to the proliferating popular revolts dubbed the “Arab Spring” two years ago. The challenge of crafting a muscular and effective foreign policy strategy that stops short of regime change but promotes human rights and the broader interests of America and its regional allies has confounded the Obama administration.

We are still dealing with the collateral damage and pitfalls of America’s invasion of Iraq, and President Obama’s rush to war in Syria invites unfavorable comparisons to his predecessor, George W. Bush. But American diplomacy can still be a decisive force for good in Syria and the wider Middle East, as well as an alternative to military intervention and the open-ended conflicts that invite dangerous and unforeseen reverberations.

Obama’s historic election largely pivoted on themes of “hope and change” that presented the dashing young African-American candidate as a breath of fresh air, a man who could wind down raging conflicts abroad and focus on “nation building” right here at home. This is what candidate Obama promised. If President Obama has, because of politics, forgotten this promise, now is the time for the American people to remind him.

Peniel E. Joseph is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. Follow him on Twitter. The center will convene a National Dialogue on Race Day on Sept. 12, 2013, and invites all to join in the conversation. Follow the center on Twitter.