We finally have an Obama Doctrine. It is not quite the one outlined in various major speeches — Cairo, Berlin or the Greco-Roman one delivered at the 2008 Democratic National Convention — but one that has been ingloriously revealed through news leaks and virtually coerced congressional testimony regarding Syria: In a pinch, look the other way.
We know now that much of the national security apparatus favored taking some action. Leon Panetta, the departing secretary of defense, and Hillary Clinton, until recently the secretary of state, wanted to arm the Syrian rebels. So did then-CIA Director David Petraeus. The White House vetoed this proposal, ostensibly on the grounds that the very weapons provided could wind up in the hands of al-Qaida and its affiliates and be used against America or American interests. This is the dreaded — and often hyped — blowback.
But after well more than a year into the civil war — it started nearly two years ago — the CIA should have had some notion of who could be trusted with the weapons and who could not. (An intelligence budget in excess of $50 billion a year ought to buy something.) More to the point, the winners would be grateful to the U.S. for the weapons and maybe, just maybe, become our pals once the war was over.
Providing arms was just one way the Obama administration could have aided the Syrian insurgents. The U.S. and NATO could have instituted a no-fly zone, keeping Bashar al-Assad’s helicopters and warplanes on the ground. This could have made a major difference. And none of this, mind you, entailed putting boots on the ground. Syria has formidable air defenses, but not so formidable that Israel, when it wants, can’t bomb installations of its choosing.
President Barack Obama’s inaction has cost the region plenty. It has permitted a humanitarian calamity to metastasize — 5,000 refugees a day, according to the U.N. It has allowed the most radical of the insurgents to come to the fore and has flooded nearby countries with refugees, upsetting carefully calibrated ethnic balances. Jordan, a nation of 6.5 million people, has 300,000 Syrian refugees; Lebanon has nearly as many. The size of the influx could overwhelm these small and contrived nations.