One of Obama's Greatest Accomplishments: What He Isn't Doing in Syria

April 30, 2013

Presidents don't often get credit for what they don't do, but it's among the most important ways to judge their tenure. High on the list of things to avoid is unnecessary war.

If President Bush had chosen not to go to war in Iraq, and instead kept our military focused on Afghanistan, it would rank as his greatest achievement in office. Consider the thousands of lives and trillions of dollars that would have been saved, and the international alienation America would have avoided. Of course, our policy in Iraq is a complicated question -- it is wonderful that Saddam Hussein is gone, the alternatives to war had their own problems, and much of the fault lay in the decisions made after the initial invasion -- but on the whole, I believe that the Iraq War was a great and costly tragedy for America and the world. 

In the same way, President Obama is now working towards one of his greatest accomplishments by keeping the United States out of the civil war in Syria. There is tremendous pressure for him to take action in that brutal war, on behalf of those fighting the awful Assad regime. Reports indicate that our international allies, leading Senators, and even many in his own Administration want greater U.S. involvement.  

Those who are calling for deeper involvement aren't asking for American ground troops, but seemingly "easier" actions like air support or arming the Syrian rebels. (Right now we are only providing support other than weapons.)  But the President knows that history is full of small steps leading to larger involvement. You cannot simply provide air cover or a no-fly zone and then -- if it doesn't work (which it usually doesn't in a civil war) -- say "oh well, we tried."  At that point, pressure would be enormous to increase our involvement in order to prove we aren't ineffective. The same is true with arming the rebels, with the additional problem that many of them have Al Qaeda ties and the weapons could end up being used against us.

The fact that there have been some reports of chemical weapons being used by Assad's forces may mean that the United States will have to take some action. But be wary of these reports. War, particularly civil war, produces a lot of false intelligence -- especially when everyone knows that certain "information" might induce American involvement.  

None of this is to say that the Syrian civil war is not an awful event, with suffering I cannot even imagine. Or that Assad isn't one of the worst and cruelest dictators on Earth. But that doesn't complete the case for American involvement. We cannot spend the lives of our soldiers everywhere, and we cannot ignore the recent history of American involvement in Arab civil wars. When Iraq was at its worst, and the backlash and casualties were at their highest for the United States, it most resembled the chaos of Syria now.

It cannot be easy to choose not to be involved when a dictator is doing such awful things, and you have the world's most powerful military at your disposal. Every day, people are screaming that you are allowing the bloodshed to continue. But if history tells you that military action will lead to more suffering and more instability, it is the right choice. We need leaders who are strong enough to choose the better course of action, even when it is only less terrible than the other options.


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