President Barack Obama delivered a commencement address at the Air Force Academy on Thursday — not really an occasion for a big partisan political speech. But he did briefly offer a defense of his decision not to intervene more forcefully in the Syrian civil war, an aspect of his presidency that's met with the least approval from the bipartisan foreign policy establishment and an area where his thinking is likely somewhat different from Hillary Clinton's.
Part of what makes it a tough argument for Obama is that he obviously can't point to Syria and call it some kind of shining success. Instead, he says, "In Syria, the suffering in the civil war has been heartbreaking to see a nation shattered, and hundreds of thousands killed and millions driven from their homes."
That's a tough lead-in to a defense of your policy. But Obama's argument is that Russian and Iranian involvement in Syria has ultimately been a waste of resources for those countries, and that matching them would have been a waste of American resources.
Obama on Syria: avoiding "mission creep"
Speaking to a military audience, Obama framed his concerns about Syria in terms of "mission creep" — something military professionals really don't like — where a limited mission becomes a bigger one. This is important, because to my knowledge nobody has ever proposed that the United States should send an enormous land force into Syria and attempt to occupy and run the country:
But suggestions for deeper US military involvement in a conflict like the Syrian civil war have to be fully thought through, rigorously examined with an honest assessment of the risks and trade-offs. How will it alter the conflict? What comes next? When we ask those questions, we prevent the kind of mission creep that history teaches us to avoid.
If Iran and Russia want to spill their blood and treasure trying to prop up their Syrian client and get sucked into a quagmire, that is their choice. As president of the United States, I’ve made a different choice. And the only real solution to the Syrian conflict is a political solution, including a transition away from Assad. And that takes diplomacy — not American soldiers being dragged into the middle of another civil war in the Middle East. Our foreign policy has to be strong, but it also has to be smart.
Obama's view, essentially, is that the kind of small force with a limited mission that people have proposed is a mirage. The Iranians must have initially envisioned a small force with a limited mission, too. But once they committed themselves to propping up Assad, they had to keep pouring more and more into the mission. By the same token, if Obama had put American troops on the ground to try to help the rebels win the war, he would, in practice, have had to keep doing more and more until they eventually won the war.
What Obama didn't say: The Middle East doesn't matter
On one level, Obama's argument on this score is indisputable. Staying out of Syria is cheaper and easier than going in.
The real disagreement between Obama and the bulk of the Washington foreign policy community is about the bigger picture. Starting with the Persian Gulf War, continuing through the Clinton administration's policy of "dual containment," and accelerating with the 2003 invasion of Iraq and 2007 troop surge, the United States has been continually and forcefully present on the ground in the Middle East.
This has built up an expectation in the media that political crises in the region are problems that the United States ought to solve with military force, if necessary — an expectation that doesn't exist with regard to, say, Central Africa.
That expectation is backed up by a big group of regional experts in Washington, who are often directly subsidized by Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf monarchies, and by pro-Israel groups that have partially overlapping reasons to favor deep American involvement in the region.
Obama sees this as fundamentally myopic — a perpetual motion machine of intervention in which the United States is perennially putting out fires whose root causes can only be addressed by the governments in the area. It's not that he wants to do nothing in the Middle East, but he wants to see more of America's attention focused on East Asia and on our longstanding relationships with Europe and Latin America.
In that view, the odd thing about Syria isn't that he didn't send troops in to fix everything. It's that a strange presumption exists that it's somehow incumbent on the United States to fix that specific problem. Especially when the world actually has a ton of problems and Syria doesn't seem highly amenable to fixing.
This could be a major difference with Hillary Clinton
In most respects, we can expect a Hillary Clinton presidency to feature overwhelming policy and personnel continuity with Obama. If there is a major exception to that trend, this specific question is likely to be where you find it.
On the campaign trail, Clinton proposed a no-fly zone for Syria — precisely the kind of limited but potentially growing military involvement that Obama sought to avoid.
But beyond that, Clinton has strongly hinted that she simply doesn't share Obama's dour view of the Middle East and America's allies there. She's promised to "reaffirm" an "unshakable bond" with Benjamin Netanyahu. As secretary of state she enthusiastically brokered arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The United Arab Emirates has donated generously to the Clinton Foundation. And Gulf officials who speak with terror about a possible Trump administration are optimistic that they'll get a more sympathetic ear from Clinton.
In personnel terms, the current senior US officials most skeptical of deep engagement in the Middle East are generally people who backed Obama over Clinton in the 2008 primary, and are relatively unlikely to stay on if she becomes president.
None of this is certain, by any means, and US foreign policy generally features a great deal of continuity from administration to administration. But dating all the way back to their primary run against each other, this has been the area with the clearest and longest-standing contrast between Obama and Clinton. His thinking has always featured a strain of skepticism — not just of George W. Bush's war in Iraq but of the larger strategic concept from which it emerged. Clinton has always embraced that concept, and had at least a toe or two in the camp that sees the big problem in US foreign policy as being excessive reluctance to engage rather than excessive eagerness.