WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is keen on portraying the president’s general bent on foreign policy as a derivative of realism. He isn’t a skeptic about America’s ability to shape international events. But he’s not a doe-eyed idealist, either. It’s why, time and again, President Barack Obama’s aides go back to that famous anti-Iraq War formula that helped launch his political trajectory.
“I don’t oppose all wars,” he said as a senator in 2002. “What I am opposed to is a dumb war.”
The rise of ISIS, or the Islamic State, has challenged this strain of realism in profound ways. It’s certainly clear that Obama is loathe to act hastily in response to the group’s sweep through the Middle East. It’s why he openly admitted last week that he didn’t have a strategy for handling ISIS’ sanctuary in Syria. The absence of a plan, his aides argued, is far better than the pursuit of a bad plan.
But Obama was only going to drag his feet for so long. It wasn’t just the immense political pressure domestically to act on a threat that, while not imminent to the country, has been hyped as such. His advisers see dangerous national security crises on the horizon, should ISIS remain unchecked. Lest we forget, while Obama may have waited to formulate a Syria-specific policy, he did authorize more than 150 airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq.
In the run-up to Wednesday’s prime-time address, the outlines of what the president would say weren’t exactly a state secret. He would pursue a variation of the policy that everyone else in the political establishment (save the minorities arguing for ground troops and for staying out) advocated. That included facilitating political reconciliation in Iraq, launching targeted strikes in Syria, formulating a productive coalition for action, and buttressing Sunni moderates in the region.
Just how widely shared is this prescription? Former Vice President Dick Cheney called more or less for the same ideas during his speech at the American Enterprise Institute earlier Wednesday:
ISIS does not recognize a border between Syria and Iraq –- so neither should we. We should immediately hit them in their sanctuaries, staging areas, command centers, and lines of communication wherever we find them. We should provide significantly increased numbers of military trainers, special operations forces, an intelligence architecture, and air power to aid the Iraqi military and the Kurdish Peshmerga in their counteroffensive against ISIS.
The one outstanding question — on the broad strokes, not the details — was what the president would do about the political infrastructure in Syria. He had previously called for sending $500 million to the rebels fighting against Syrian President Bashar Assad. But in the lead-up to Wednesday, the question suddenly presented itself: Wouldn’t the easiest path toward degrading and destroying ISIS involve working with the side already fighting ISIS? The enemy’s enemy and all that.
“We are going to have to make a choice,” said Richard Clarke, a former top counterterrorism adviser, during an appearance on ABC’s “This Week” a few weeks back. “If we want to eliminate this ISIS we are going to have to deal with people we don’t like. The president said we wanted Assad out. Well, we are going to have to say something to the Syrian government if we are going to start bombing in Syria. And if we are going to get rid of ISIS, we are going to have to start bombing in Syria.”
Wednesday night’s speech showed that on this matter too, Obama sees limits to this form of realism. Instead of partnering with Assad, he said, America would prop up the more moderate opposition in the country “as the best counterweight to extremists.” If that seems overly hopeful as far as foreign policy approaches go, it’s because it probably is. It wasn’t too long ago that Obama himself described these rebel groups as “former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth.” It had “always been a fantasy,” he proclaimed, that sending them arms would make a difference.
But jumping into bed with Assad was something that he wouldn’t do, even if it presented a convenient short-term shortcut. The president has repeatedly called for Assad’s ouster and came THISclose to bombing his regime after it used chemical weapons on its people. To do an about-face at this point would be a political pirouette in the absurd.
“I’m not at all surprised that the president indicated he wouldn’t cooperate with Assad — the notion that he might was pure fantasy and an academic debate among think tank analysts and newspaper editors,” Brian Katulis, a senior foreign policy analyst for the Obama-allied Center for American Progress, told the Huffington Post. “It seemed quite unlikely he’d go on that direction, and I’m glad President Obama reaffirmed we wouldn’t do it given the crimes Assad committed.”
But even if America doesn’t ally itself with Assad, there is the possibility that going after ISIS will end up helping him. On the surface, Obama’s plan isn’t a bad deal for the Syrian president. In exchange for the U.S. bombing his more extremist enemy, he is forced to deal with America sending weapons to his less-threatening one. Pushing back against this concern, Obama administration officials insisted this isn’t the tradeoff they’re making.
“We do not think that our efforts in Syria will provide an opening to Assad because frankly, the areas where ISIL has a stronghold in Syria would simply not accept Assad’s rule,” said a senior administration official. “These are Sunni majority areas in the eastern part of the country. We frankly believe that if ISIL degraded in these areas, the forces that are most likely to benefit are other opposition elements, particularly the legitimate Syrian opposition whom we work with.”