from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

The President’s Syria War Scare

April 2, 2014

Blog Post
Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

In an interview this week on the CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley, the President defended his passivity on Syria with a remarkable and misleading argument: that the choices were doing nothing, and all-out war.  Here is the exchange:

PELLEY: When you see those children starving and dying, as you put it, do you regret not applying U.S. force and not applying it early?

OBAMA: It is, I think, a false notion that somehow we were in a position to, through a few selective strikes, prevent the kind of hardship that we’ve seen in Syria.

PELLEY: And Syria’s not worth that to you?

OBAMA: Well, it’s not that it’s not worth it. It’s that, after a decade of war, you know, the United States has limits. And our troops who’ve been on these rotations and their families and the costs and the capacity to actually shape, in a sustained way, an outcome that was viable without us having a further commitment of perhaps another decade, you know, those are things that the United States would have a hard time executing. And it’s not clear whether the outcome in fact would have turned out significantly better.

Troops? Who was mentioning troops? Where did that come from?  The decision back last summer was for a one-time air strike that Secretary of State Kerry called "unbelievably small." Asked why an "unbelievably small" air strike could not have been done, Obama replied that we don’t want another decade of war and longer troop rotations. Equally misleading is the notion that we would achieved almost nothing in preventing hardship. Surely the President, and his Secretary of State, thought then that we might well achieve that--and logically so. Any constraint on Assad’s butchery would have prevented serious hardship and saved lives.

There may be ways to defend the President’s decision last year--hiding behind public opinion polls, for example, or hiding behind Congress--but the claim that our troops had to be spared ten more years of land wars is not one of them.