The commentariat has been in overdrive lately dissecting President Obama's approach to Syria: It is dizzying, incompetent, deceptive, confused or, as columnist Jonah Goldberg put it Tuesday in The Times, a case of "bait-and-switch."
Goldberg has a point, if you come from the camp whose top priority is removing Syrian President Bashar Assad from power. Over the years, the Obama administration has evolved from criticizing Assad to denouncing him and then to calling for his ouster. But in the last week it has spoken only of eliminating his stockpile of toxic weapons, a task that may require Assad's continued rule to be completed. As Douglas J. Feith, a former top Pentagon official under President George W. Bush (and one of the folks responsible for the Iraq war), put it, "Assad has risen from outlaw butcher to partner in disarmament."
But maybe what's playing out here is more like Brer Rabbit and the briar patch.
Obama has been reluctant to involve U.S. troops in any of the Arab Spring conflicts; witness the "leading from behind" approach in Libya, where Obama supported efforts to oust Moammar Kadafi while ostensibly limiting the U.S. role to protecting innocent Libyans from slaughter by the regime. Obama's desire to keep his distance from Syria was yet more evident; he wouldn't even provide arms to the rebels, despite his public support for their efforts to evict Assad from power.
How people felt about that stance depended to a great degree on what they thought the United States' interests were in the conflict. Did we have a moral obligation to stop the slaughter of civilians? Did we need to intervene for the sake of having some influence over whoever replaces Assad, should he be ousted? Even for those who felt strongly that the civil war in Syria was a humanitarian disaster, these questions weren't easy to answer.
The conflict took on a new dimension last year when reports emerged that Assad's forces were using chemical weapons against rebels and civilians in rebel-held territory. By flouting a clear global taboo, Assad put Obama in a bind. If the president ignored Assad's gassing of his opponents, that would only encourage Assad and other despots to build and use more such weapons, increasing the likelihood that they'd wind up in terrorists' hands. Obama had to do something, even though he, like most Americans, wanted the United States to stay on the sidelines in the Syrian conflict.
The first step was to warn Assad by drawing a "red line" that implied a U.S. response if he got caught using toxic arms, but didn't specify what that response would be. After compelling evidence emerged that the regime had, in fact, continued to gas its adversaries, the Obama administration announced in June that it would increase its support for the rebels significantly -- including, as was later made apparent, agreeing to arm them.
Stop and think about what the administration was doing there. Given two excuses to intervene deeply in Syria -- and pushed hard by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and other hawks -- Obama insisted that U.S. troops stay out of the conflict.
So what did the Syrian regime do? It allegedly increased its use of chemical weapons. That led Obama to call for the military action that he had been long resisting -- albeit on an extremely limited scale (Secretary of State John F. Kerry said it would be "unbelievably small," drawing brickbats from some pundits). In fact, the administration made clear that the intent of the intervention would not be to oust Assad or tip the balance in the civil war but just to prevent the further use of chemical weapons.
Then Obama said he would seek authority from Congress before acting -- a "head-spinning reversal," as the Wall Street Journal put it, that raised the possibility of lawmakers vetoing the planned military action. Days later, Obama seized on a Russian proposal -- which came after an apparently offhand remark by Kerry -- to have Assad turn over his chemical stockpiles to international authorities rather than punishing him with airstrikes. Now the prospect of military action seems dim as the United Nations tries to come up with a verifiable way to collect Syria's toxic arms.
Yet all the twists and turns the administration has taken on Syria recently have merely brought us back to the place we were before the last big gas attack allegedly perpetrated by the regime. The United States remains on the sidelines, which is where Obama seems determined to stay. To the president's backers, the maneuvering represents a policy victory for Obama because he extricated himself (and us) from the bind created by the repeated and escalating use of chemical weapons in Syria. Brer Rabbit has emerged from the other side of the briar patch, no longer stuck to the tar baby.
Of course, the fox is still out there, killing his countrymen by the thousands.