For foreign policy wonks, a 20,000-word interview with the sitting president on his foreign policy doctrine, like the one Jeffrey Goldberg published last week in the Atlantic, is a rare and delicious treat. We will be masticating it, in all of its glorious philosophical complexity, for months, probably years, to come.
But as Max Fisher pointed out, the immediate debate in the Washington policy community quickly reduced to what has become the central question of Obama’s foreign policy: "Was the president right or wrong to decline a military intervention in Syria?"
There is just one problem with this question: The United States did intervene in Syria.
Even though the president's own foreign policy doctrine of non-intervention in Middle Eastern civil wars clearly advises against just such an intervention, he nonetheless took various half-measures that, collectively, have deeply involved the United States in Syria, helped inspire counter-escalations by Iran and Russia, and threaten to involve the US further in the Syrian civil war.
In other words, Obama effectively compromised on his own doctrine. But why?
It turns out that while a president's philosophy does matter somewhat, bitter domestic politics, bureaucratic pressures, and what the president derisively referred to as the "Washington playbook" — the set of standard Washington responses to international crises — will have a powerful effect on any president's foreign policy.
The larger lesson of America’s screwed-up Syria policy is not that American inactivity produced chaos or that American meddling made a bad situation worse. It is that the Washington sausage factory tends to produce an incoherent foreign policy that satisfies no one, regardless of what the president thinks.
Intervention by another name would be just as harsh
The fact of US intervention in Syria is not really a debatable point — despite the endless hand-wringing over US inactivity. According to the New York Times, the United States has since at least early 2013 been providing military equipment, weapons, and training to armed Syrian rebel groups actively seeking to overthrow the Assad regime.
This meets any legal or commonsense definition of intervention.
If Russian President Vladimir Putin were to send anti-tank weapons to militias in the Pacific Northwest seeking the overthrow of the US government, there would not be much debate as to whether that constituted military intervention. It would rightly be seen as an act of war.
One can argue over whether US intervention in Syria was too little or too much, done poorly or done well, but not about whether it has happened.
To be fair, it is not just the critics who elide this point. The president does, too. In the Atlantic interview, Obama outlines a broad philosophy of non-intervention in Middle Eastern civil wars. He seems intent on providing a coherent answer to his critics’ charges that he has failed to act in Syria. He claims that getting involved in Syria would have bogged down the United States in yet another Middle Eastern quagmire and eroded American power, while failing to create stability. He rightly dismisses the claims of the Washington policy community that a failure to intervene in Syria reduces America’s credibility and emboldens America’s enemies.
Thus, for example, in September 2015 we learned that the US train-and-equip program had only trained a handful of Syrian rebels. But when the Russian airstrikes began later that month they somehow managed to find "more than enough US-supported rebels to bomb."
But if the level of US involvement in Syria went somewhat unnoticed in Washington, it certainly didn't go unnoticed in Moscow (though the Russians often failed to distinguish between US intervention and intervention by US allies such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey).
Last summer, as the Assad regime teetered on the brink of defeat under the assault of rebel groups, many backed by the US and its allies, Russia (and Iran) did what Obama’s own analysis predicted they would: They counter-escalated, and Russia began airstrikes aimed at preventing yet another US-sponsored regime change in the Middle East.
In this context, it hardly makes sense to endlessly debate whether the United States should have intervened in Syria. It did intervene. The more important question is why didn’t the president have the courage of his own convictions? Why has he consistently taken half-measures in Syria that accord with no one’s best policy recommendation, including, by the evidence of the Atlantic article, his own?
The dirty little secret of the American presidency
The answer goes some way to understanding just how hard it is to actually follow a coherent foreign policy philosophy in Washington. The dirty little secret of the American presidency is that it is not as powerful as it appears, even in foreign affairs.
The key reason is that an American president cannot, as many other leaders can, simply admit that there is nothing the United States can do about an urgent international problem dominating the headlines. After all, the US is a "can do" country with more military power than strategic sense. This spirit of action has helped make America the richest, most powerful country on Earth, but it has also gotten it into a lot of stupid wars.
The "Washington playbook" provides a menu of prefabricated solutions to such situations, most of which rely on America's unique military capacity. They range from shipping arms to training local armies to simply imposing peace through the application of superior force. None of them involves standing aside.
In the case of Syria, none of these proposals made much sense according to the president's own philosophy. But each had a past example of supposed success, each had adherents among the eternal optimists of military force in Washington think tanks, and each had its echoes in the press. Importantly, each also had a huge rhetorical advantage over doing nothing.
With such proposals dominating the headlines, it is simply not politically viable for the president to admit that he is powerless. But it's not just that it's hard for a president to wake up every morning to allied leaders, opposition politicians, and newspaper headlines declaring that he is feckless and weak. It's also that those headlines begin to erode his popularity and threaten his capacity to deliver on other parts of his political agenda.
This becomes even more difficult as disagreements within your administration leak into the press and provide ammunition for the idea that the problem is the president's personal lack of resolve or decisiveness.
Accordingly, at every stage of the Syrian crisis — when the Assad regime began firing on peaceful protesters in 2011, when it began its brutal air campaign against Syrian rebels in 2012, when it used chemical weapons in the Damascus suburbs in 2013, when ISIS took Mosul in 2014, and when the Russians intervened in force in 2015 — the political pressure on President Obama to "do something" grew.
Responding to that pressure, Obama sought at each stage to split the difference: to respond to the crisis while remaining true to his philosophy and keeping US involvement to a minimum. I took to calling this practice, somewhat indelicately, "salami-slicing the baby." As one US official put it during the response to the September 2013 Syrian chemical weapons attacks, the White House sought a response that was "just muscular enough not to get mocked."
This approach was perhaps most evident in the White House’s reaction to the revelation in September 2015 that the US military’s train-and-equip mission in Syria, intended to train 5,400 Syrian opposition soldiers in the first year, had been a complete failure: The program had only produced four or five in the first year.
In briefings after the disclosure, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest suggested that the president had never supported the program. To the contrary, he explained, the entire reason for the program was to placate critics of the administration’s Syria policy. "Many of our critics had proposed this specific option as essentially the cure-all for all of the policy challenges that we're facing in Syria right now," Earnest said. "That is not something that this administration ever believed, but it is something that our critics will have to answer for."
The result of this salami slicing has been a long, slow ride down a slippery slope toward ever-greater US involvement in Syria. If the current cessation of hostilities breaks down, that ride will likely continue, perhaps under a new president not so philosophically inclined.
The curious case of US Syria policy
This all means that the story of US policy in Syria is not a story of a president inspired by an ideology of restraint standing aside, for better or for worse, when he could have acted.
To the contrary, it is a story of a president pushed by domestic politics and overly optimistic schemes into interventionist half-measures that he didn't believe in and that satisfied no one.
The lesson is that even a president who has shown extraordinary awareness that the "Washington playbook" frequently dictates unwise military interventions often feels forced to compromise his policy. A foreign policy philosophy is great, and an Atlantic article outlining it is even better. It will likely launch a thousand dissertations. But just because a president has a philosophy doesn’t mean he gets to implement it.