Just Give War A Chance: Obama’s Realpolitik Approach to the Syrian Civil War.

17 June 2013

4:31 PM

17 June 2013

4:31 PM

Boris Johnson makes a strong case in today’s Telegraph that even if the west wanted to intervene in the Syrian civil war the point at which is was plausible to do so has long since passed. The benefits of intervention no longer outweigh the risks. Meanwhile, Paul Goodman reiterates that there’s no obvious British national interest in intervening. It is difficult to disagree with either analysis.

Across the Atlantic, meanwhile, Andrew Sullivan is appalled by the Obama administration’s decision to offer a modest quantity of modest weaponry to the Syrian opposition. This isn’t just unwise; it’s close to insane, he suggests. Don’t be fooled into thinking this will shorten the conflict or save lives, he argues.

But what if it’s not supposed to shorten the conflict or save lives? What if American policy has the opposite aim in mind? I  can’t help but think Dan Drezner’s analysis seems plausible:

[T]his is simply the next iteration of the unspoken, brutally realpolitik policy towards Syria that’s been going on for the past two years.  To recap, the goal of that policy is to ensnare Iran and Hezbollah into a protracted, resource-draining civil war, with as minimal costs as possible.  This is exactly what the last two years have accomplished…. at an appalling toll in lives lost.

This policy doesn’t require any course correction… so long as rebels are holding their own or winning. A faltering Assad simply forces Iran et al into doubling down and committing even more resources.  A faltering rebel movement, on the other hand, does require some external support, lest the Iranians actually win the conflict.  In a related matter, arming the rebels also prevents relations with U.S. allies in the region from fraying any further.

So is this the first step towards another U.S.-led war in the region?  No. […] Everything this administration has said and done for the past two years, screams deep reluctance over intervention.  Arming the rebels is not the same thing as a no-fly zone or any kind of ground intervention.  This is simply the United States engaging in its own form of asymmetric warfare.  For the low, low price of aiding and arming the rebels, the U.S. preoccupies all of its adversaries in the Middle East.

The moment that U.S. armed forces would be required to sustain the balance, the costs of this policy go up dramatically, far outweighing the benefits.  So I suspect the Obama administration will continue to pursue all measures short of committing U.S. forces in any way in order to sustain the rebels.

I think that’s right. The Obama administration is not, despite the recent promotions handed to Susan Rice and Samantha Power, in the business of rehabilitating liberal interventionism. On the contrary, this is a remarkably cold-blooded administration.


Washington doesn’t much care about Syrian lives (and it bets, with good reason, that public opinion in other western countries doesn’t really care about them either). Humanitarian appeals for intervention leave the Obama administration unmoved. The whole Syrian agony isn’t worth the bones of a single US Navy pilot.

If peace in Syria is neither imminent nor useful to American interests, the chilly logic of realpolitik dictates that the west help keep the Syrian opposition fighting but that any assistance be limited for fear that the rebels might actually win. Since we’ve no idea what any replacement Syrian regime would look like – though we have a pretty good idea it would be a pretty rancid regime – the status quo of an ungoverned Syria is, for the time being anyway, preferable to at least some, and perhaps all, of the alternatives.

As Professor Drezner says, calling this a “morally questionable” approach might under-estimate its frosty “realism”. And, of course, like every other possible Syrian policy it comes with risks of its own. There are no good options in Syria. There aren’t really even any acceptable ones.

But if we’ve learnt anything about Obama these past few years it is that he’s less emotional than the average American president. Bill Clinton may argue that you need to intervene in Syria because otherwise you look like “a wuss” but I fancy Obama finds that logic contemptible and juvenile. There’s a ruthless streak to Obama’s style that has been apparent, really, ever since he first went hunting for Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary.

Now little of this is the kind of stirring, inspirational stuff of the Obama legend. But all the lofty rhetoric camouflaged an administration that is, in the main, strikingly non-ideological. As a general rule, and especially in foreign policy, it prefers hard pragmatism to the comforts of grand theory. That is, of course, a reaction against its predecessor but it is more than just that.

Since this is a war between rival versions of Islam and a battle, in the end, for regional supremacy, one of the challenges is to prevent it from leaking into other countries. That in turn means the Syrian war must drag on for some time yet and that, for now, it may not be in the American or western interest for either side to prevail. Settling the Syrian question will not end the matter and may, from a western point of view, make matters even more dangerous and complicated than they currently are.

This may not be a very noble view of the world or a satisfying foreign policy that allows anyone to hitch their wagon to Team Good Guys. But there you have it. It is almost as though Henry Kissinger still stalks the White House.


Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.

Show comments
  • ProffessorPlum

    ” Dan Drezner’s analysisseems plausible:”

    Not only does seem plausible it seems likely. However, there is another possibilty and that is that America wants to draw Russia, or China, or both into a war and that the war in Syria is just one more step on the road to Armegeddon.

    • Plum_is_an_idiot

      After a week without Plum, the idiot returns, presumably from his debriefing on middle eastern events.

      • jjjj

        Yes, I was just wondering where Proffessor ‘How do we really know that Dreyfuss was innocent’ Plum, had got to. After all, the elections in Iran ended a few days ago, more than enough time to get back to the UK.

  • Sean Lamb

    I think it would be a mistake to ascribe a unity of purpose or direction to the actions of the Obama administration.
    Instead I would see it as a result of an uneasy and unsatisfactory compromise between the actions of the US Shadow State and the US Legitimate State. The US Shadow State can be thought of the sum of influential sectors of CIA, DoD, State Department, Think tanks, Opinion formers in academia and media. It is heavily represented within these institutions but it is independent of these institutions. The US Legitimate State is the official policy of the government as determined by the Executive.
    The US Shadow State is not under the control of the Executive nor does it totally control the Executive itself. The Shadow State represents itself as being the true representation of America to the regimes of the Gulf and elsewhere The Shadow State created the mess in Syria, assuring the Legitimate State that it would not have to get involved, however it appears that underestimated the resilience of the Syrian people. Hence it has needed to go back begging to the Executive to dig it out of the hole it has created. However, the Syrian conflict is the most unpopular in living memory and the outcomes of formal involvement are so uncertain that the Legitimate State is unwilling to do anything significance and yet unable to totally deny the assurances that the Shadow State has been making on its behalf to regional allies.
    Instead of seeing this as some Machiavellian realpolitik it is more the consequence of a weak and vacillating president caught between the rock of the Shadow State and hard place of public disquiet.
    Previously, this division of labour – the Shadow State creating the mess and then the Legitimate State coming in to clean up – has worked rather efficiently as a mechanism of manufacturing consent.

    • ProffessorPlum

      “Instead I would see it as a result of an uneasy and unsatisfactory compromise between the actions of the US Shadow State and the US Legitimate State. ”

      And then there is this, which seems to have been missed by the BBC, along with Richard Falk’s statements about Israeli war crimes, who were busy concentrating on some bat and ball game that is all the craze in Israel

      “In an interview with the French TV station LCP, former French minister for Foreign Affairs Roland Dumas said:

      ‘’ I’m going to tell you something. I was in England two years before the violence in Syria on other business. I met with top British officials, who confessed to me that they were preparing something in Syria.”

      • jjjj

        This is the second time you have posted this piece of crap. Every country has machinations going on in Syria you nitwit. Dumas is a convicted criminal with a bee in the bonnet about the Jews. Did it never occur to you that he might have financial interests in the Arab world, avenues that are now closed to him?

        Rod tore you apart on his blog so you seek refuge here. How much are you being paid as a matter of interest? Or are you doing it out of ideology?

        • ProffessorPlum

          “Every country has machinations going on in Syria you nitwit.”

          really, even Argentina?

          Regardless, one would expect the media in Britain at least to pick up the story of Britain planning this war in Syria to help Israel get a government there which is friendly enough to allow them to keep the Golan.

          “Rod tore you apart on his blog so you seek refuge here.”

          If you call one insulting post and a refusal to back up his rubbish, running away starting another and continuing to avoid the questions I had asked blog as a ‘tearing apart’ then you are a bigger moron than you appear.

          Liddle is a loser who wouldn’t dare engage me in open debate.

      • ganef_returns

        More crap from Plum.

      • independent_voice1

        Why does the Spectator allow this crackpot to continue posting?

      • Plum_is_an_idiot

        Does anybody care about what you post? You get a lot more negatives than positives. You must be proud?

        • ProffessorPlum

          “Does anybody care about what you post?”

          Yes, you.

  • C.E.Chase

    You nailed it Alex…..and the Obama administration, its policy on Syria and Obama himself. Excellent piece.

  • Evo Immorales

    This analysis is surprisingly good but the implications are just that much more horrific. That Obama wants to supply the rebels enough to survive on fits the Zionist agenda perfectly: let ’em kill each other off. So even the neutral stance of the miserable Sarah Palin – “let al-Lah sort it out” – is proving more principled than the President!

  • kidmugsy

    Is it usual for the US to adopt such a subtle and cool-headed policy?


    This is the first theory on what the Obama administration’s Syria policy may be that truly makes sense. And, if you think about it, it’s almost an updating of what Reagan did during the Iraq-Iran war — let both sides fight it out, surreptitiously boost one over the other when necessary. If that’s what’s going on, good for the administration.

    • Keith D

      Ah,good old Ronnie.Bit nostalgic for Maggie too.She’d know what to do with these jihadists alright.