The Unintended Implications of Obama's Syria Statements

by John Judis | February 6, 2014

photo credit: AFP/Getty Images

After I wrote two weeks ago that the Obama administration’s Syria policy was an “unmitigated disaster,” I got some pushback from a former administration official. He thought I was much too harsh, and perhaps I was—the web encourages that. But what interested me about our discussion was the former official’s response when I compared what the President and Secretary of State had said to what the administration had achieved: “Well, he should have not said that, because that wasn’t really the policy.” And then he would explain what the policy actually was.

My rejoinder is that the statements that an American President makes are very important and also—and this is the key point—mean something different from what the same statements would mean if I made it or an official of a lesser power made them. Language is important, and American diplomatic language has a special importance and meaning that sometimes evades those who use it. And that’s part of what has gotten us in trouble in the Middle East.

Here’s the starting point: If I write that the King of Bahrain should step down, I may get some angry or congratulatory emails, and my arguments may be dissected, but it’s unlikely anything will happen. If an American president or secretary of state says this, then there will be repercussions. The king may actually step down, and if he doesn’t, the United States will be expected to take further steps to make him do so. That’s because when a president or secretary of state says these things, they carry weight. Similarly when a president or secretary of state says a vital interest is or is not at stake in a part of the world, that conveys something that the United States will or won’t do. 

The classic example of a diplomatic statement that carried unexpected weight was Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s off-the-cuff statement at a National Press Club speech on January 12, 1950 that the American “defensive perimeter” ran “along the Aleutians to Japan and then goes to the Ryukus” and then to the Philippines. That put South Korea outside the region that would trigger a U.S. war in the event of an attack by a hostile power. Five months later, North Korea invaded the South. Controversy has raged ever since over the impact of the Press Club speech. Acheson later insisted only “acts and facts” could have influenced the North Korean decision, but it seems the speech may have encouraged Kim Il Sung and Stalin to believe an invasion could succeed. Acheson tried afterwards to clarify his remarks, but it was too late. (Robert L. Beisner has a good account in his biography of Acheson.)

This brings me to the Obama administration’s diplomacy. I want to look at two statements that President Obama made that turned out to have what I think were unintended meanings. On August 18, 2011, Obama issued a statement calling for Syrian President Bashar al Assad to leave office. “The future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al Assad is standing in their way,” Obama said. “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” On December 14 that year, Frederic Hof, a spokesperson for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that Assad was a “dead man walking.” Hof’s words were repeated in hundreds of news articles and were attributed to Clinton herself. 

If the Prime Minister of Mauritania had made these statements about Assad, they would have been ignored. But when Obama and Clinton’s spokesman made them, they had the character of threats or commands. They said that the United States, the main outside power in the region, wanted to get rid of Assad. I’ve since learned that the White House never intended to use military force to topple Assad and never even wanted to provide military aid to the rebels. Caught up in the heady optimism of the Arab Spring, the White House believed that the opposition would oust Assad. By calling for his ouster, Obama intended to position the U.S. on the right side of history. But when an American president says that a foreign leader must go, that conveys a commitment to doing something about it.

When an American president says that a foreign leader must go, that conveys a commitment to doing something about it.

As a commitment to action, Obama’s statement had two implications that the administration didn’t intend and that would hamper its diplomacy over the next years. First, it ruled out any attempt to reach a compromise at the time between Assad and the opposition. Second, it suggested that if the opposition failed on its own to oust Assad, the United States would come to its aid. Clinton, along with Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and CIA chief David Petraeus, apparently took this to be implied, and when the opposition began to falter the next year, she proposed aiding it militarily, but the White House balked. That set off recrimination between the White House and Republican leaders in Congress and also between the United States and Arab regimes that favored the rebels. 

I am not saying here that the United States should have intervened militarily, although at the time I favored aiding the rebels. That was and remains a thorny question. What I am saying is that in calling for Assad’s ouster, Obama appeared to commit the United States to aiding the rebels militarily, and when it did not aid them, it created questions about its credibility and demoralized the opposition. The administration could have strongly condemned Assad’s brutality, as it has other rulers, but not gone so far as to demand his ouster. If it did not intend to intervene militarily, that would have been the better course. It would have given the administration more flexibility in encouraging negotiations.

Last month, New Yorker editor David Remnick reports in a long interview with the president that: 

Obama told me that in all three of his main initiatives in the region—with Iran, with Israel and the Palestinians, with Syria—the odds of completing final treaties are less than fifty-fifty.” “On the other hand,” he said, “in all three circumstances we may be able to push the boulder partway up the hill and maybe stabilize it so it doesn’t roll back on us. And all three are connected. I do believe that the region is going through rapid change and inexorable change. Some of it is demographics; some of it is technology; some of it is economics. And the old order, the old equilibrium, is no longer tenable. The question then becomes, What’s next?”

Obama is a thoughtful man, and this is a thoughtful statement about America’s prospects in the Middle East. But in international relations, and particularly in relations between the United States, the world’s most powerful nation and other countries, there is simply no room for dispassionate reflection. Obama is the President, and when he says that the “odds of completing final treaties are less than fifty-fifty,” he is suggesting that America would have reason not to expend enormous energy on these negotiations. His message, particularly to the Israelis and Palestinians, was that the United States would not spend diplomatic capital to get them to make the concessions necessary to achieve a two-state solution.

Leon Hadar, who has written extensively on the Middle East, commented in The National Interest on Obama’s statement that “the Obama administration's continuing engagement in the Israeli Palestinian peace process seems to be driven more by the need to burnish Kerry's ego and less by a consideration of core national interests became clear when President Obama told a New Yorker interviewer recently that there the chances of Kerry brokering a peace deal was ‘less than fifty-fifty’ (imagine President Kennedy telling the world that the chances of resolving the Cuban missile crisis was ‘less than fifty-fifty’).” Hadar is right about what Obama’s statement seems to portend; but I don’t think it was what Obama thought he was saying. I think he believed he was offering his reflections on U.S. diplomacy. He was forgetting that he is the President of the United States and not a Professor of International Relations.

The administration is at a critical time in its Middle East diplomacy. The chances in Syria are less than fifty-fifty, but in the negotiations with Iran and with the Israelis and Palestinians, the administration stands a chance of making a breakthrough. That’s all the more reason to be careful in establishing a close relationship between what it wants to do, what it can do, and what it says it wants to do and can do. It needs to avoid declaring objectives that it can’t or won’t take the steps to achieve—high among these, the ouster of the Assad regime in Syria—while avoiding any statements that would indicate other than an iron determination to achieve those objectives that are within its reach.

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