Syria: No Cogent Alternatives

In its May 4, 2014 editorial “President Obama and the World,” The New York Times employed a customary administration talking point in an otherwise balanced and even critical review of the president’s foreign policy stewardship, including his handling of the Syria crisis: “His critics are inconsistent in their philosophies [i.e. some want airstrikes, some want more weapons for the rebels] and have failed to offer cogent alternatives to Mr. Obama’s policies.”  The administration and The Times are flatly wrong in saying that no sensible alternatives have been offered to a failed policy.  The administration knows it. The Times should. 

The apparent belief of The New York Times that all critics of Syria policy should sing, on-key, from the same hymnal is interesting, if impractical.  Some critics do indeed merely criticize without offering operationally literate alternatives: a regrettable practice.  Those who do offer policy alternatives often, and quite naturally, differ with one another in identifying interests, setting objectives, and crafting strategies.  It may come as news to The Times, but this is just as true inside government as outside.  DoesThe Times imagine that all federal government officials working on Syria—including some very senior ones—agree with President Obama’s handling of the crisis?  Does it think that those officials who do not agree with the president all have the same policy prescription?

As for cogency, The Times has an obvious escape hatch: ultimately it is in the eye of the beholder.  When President Obama’s key national security officials suggested to him in the summer of 2012 that the arming, training, and equipping of the Free Syrian Army be ramped up in light of Iranian support for the regime and a growing Al Qaeda presence in Syria, did the recommendation lack cogency?  When military strikes were mooted by the administration in the summer of 2013, was it irrational to suggest that the Assad regime’s instruments of mass homicide—artillery, aircraft, rockets, and missiles—be targeted and neutralized?  When the Syrian National Coalition was recognized by the United States and others as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people in December 2012, was it unreasonable to suggest that Washington and its partners help that Coalition link up with local committees to establish a functioning governmental authority in liberated Syria?  Has the filling of the subsequent vacuum by al-Qaeda affiliates and other jihadists been a monument to the cogency of a policy featuring inaction?

Since November 2012 this blog’s writings on Syria have focused on practical, implementable, and operationally relevant alternatives to the administration’s approach to Syria.  Cogent?  One is free to argue that the systematic, disciplined, interagency identification of interests, objectives, and strategic options is oh so twentieth century: that the president and his closest aides can play Syria by ear.  One is free to say that the president’s “step aside” directive to Assad in August 2011 was just a rhetorical device: that a national security objective of replacing the Assad regime with something legitimate, pluralistic, and decent is simply too ambitious, too hard to do.  One is free to say that building a strategy around promoting a governmental alternative to Assad and al-Qaeda—an alternative surely requiring the build-up of opposition nationalist military forces—is too heavy a lift for a White House team content, to use the president’s recent baseball analogy, to hit singles, make no errors, and monopolize the public address system so as to stimulate the crowd.

Indeed, one is free to say—as White House officials have done repeatedly—that its critics counsel war: Iraq-style invasion and occupation.  Truth is never a price of admission when it comes to political speech.  Yet the national interests of the United States are not well-served by what is happening.  It is one thing for the president, his aides, and The New York Times to trivialize, satirize, caricature, and otherwise dismiss the good-faith efforts of people who actually want this president to succeed and want him to take the lead in mitigating and ultimately ending a humanitarian abomination and political catastrophe.  These things are, after all, imperiling American allies and friends and subjecting Syrian civilians to genocide-like effects.  Perhaps the White House simply has a one-size-fits-all label for all of its external critics, even the constructive ones: enemies.

The politics of mischaracterizing external critics are understandable, if regrettable.  It would be another thing, however, for the president and his aides to disregard and discourage the thorough discussion of alternatives from within.  I know of no one working on Syria anywhere in the executive branch’s interagency system who is remotely a political enemy of President Obama.  Indeed, former administration officials deeply disappointed by the evolution of Syria policy and now offering alternatives from the outside wish no ill fortune to a president whose fate it is to wrestle with a real problem from hell, one featuring horrific human suffering authored in the main by men in Damascus, Tehran, and Moscow: people for whom literally no crime is unthinkable.

Mr. President: there are, as there always have been, cogent Syria policy alternatives in the brains of officials who are serving you and trying to facilitate your success as commander-in-chief.   There are reasoned and reasonable alternatives—for sure no silver bullets or fairy dust—to a policy that has not worked and will not work.  You may like none of them.  But they are practical, implementable, and—with no apology to The New York Times—even cogent.

Frederic C. Hof is a resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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Image: Photo: President Barack Obama walks through the Cross Hall of the White House, Aug. 8, 2013 (Pete Souza/White House)