Foreign Policy

With Syria chemical attack, another Obama foreign policy deal fails hard


Lost in the debate over President Donald Trump’s decision last week to order a missile strike against the Al Shayrat airfield in Syria is the uncomfortable but obvious fact that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had not given up his chemical weapons.

Assad claimed he did so under the terms of a 2013 agreement brokered by the United States and Russia — often touted by veterans of the Obama administration as one of their signal achievements, proof that diplomacy works, and evidence for the resilience of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Assad’s mendacity should now lead scholars and policymakers to reassess such claims.

{mosads}In 2012, then-President Barack Obama warned that the use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against the rebels contesting his regime was a “red line” that would “change my calculus,” about U.S. policy towards the civil war there. A year later, faced with evidence that Assad had used sarin gas against his own people, Obama chose not to order military action. Instead, responding a Russian initiative, Assad agreed to join the Chemical Weapons Convention, declare his stockpile of poisons, and allow the United States and Russia to jointly monitor its destruction.


To conservative internationalists, who stress the importance of hard power and armed diplomacy, it was obvious that Assad would cheat. Obama — and his partners in the United Kingdom — had already telegraphed that he would not resort to military force. Indeed, his failure to enforce his red line became one of the signature moments of his presidency.

Assad faced some pressure from his Russian patrons not to embarrass them; but, after Obama backed away from his threat of force, Assad never faced a serious threat of military action by the West. He had no particular reason to give up one of his regime’s most potent lines of survival.

The Obama administration (and its liberal internationalist cheerleaders) claimed the 2013 agreement was proof of diplomacy’s success. Obama claimed the agreement would lead to the “elimination of Syrian chemical weapons in a transparent, expeditious, and verifiable manner.” The agreement itself stated its goal was “to eliminate the Syrian chemical weapons program (CW).”

Obama embraced his decision not to use force in Syria. “I’m very proud of this moment,” Obama told Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, “The overwhelming weight of conventional wisdom and the machinery of our national-security apparatus had gone fairly far (towards military action) … the fact that I was able to pull back from the immediate pressures and think through in my own mind what was in America’s interest…was as tough a decision as I’ve made — and I believe ultimately it was the right decision to make.”

And Obama believed his policy succeeded. In 2014 he claimed “an important achievement … by eliminating Syria’s declared chemical weapons stockpile.” Derek Chollet, who served as assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs in the Obama administration, later argued that “the United States achieved something through diplomacy with Russia that the use of force against Syria would not have accomplished: the removal of nearly all Syria’s chemical weapons, which at that time constituted one of the world’s largest stockpiles.”

Such claims, we now know, were false. Obama and his apologists try to evade this conclusion by stressing that their policy destroyed Syria’s “declared” stockpile or removed “nearly all” its weapons. But such careful language was missing from Obama’s first statements on the issue, and the 2013 agreement very clearly aimed at the complete elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons capability. By any reasonable measure, Obama’s policy failed.

The failure of Obama’s policy should lead scholars and policymakers to revise their estimate of Obama’s foreign policy legacy.

For example, Gideon Rose, editor of Foreign Affairs, wrote in late 2015 that Obama “will likely pass on to his successor an overall foreign policy agenda and national power position in better shape than when he entered office.” In the face of growing evidence that Russia and Syria took advantage of the Obama administration’s naiveté and passivity in the Middle East, and a growing awareness among careful observers of the weakness of the United States’ position in the world, a reappraisal seems due.

It should also lead American officials to reassess the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. Like the deal with Syria, the Iran deal was not and is not backed by a credible threat of force. It contains too many loopholes in its enforcement and inspections provisions. Iran, like Syria, has few incentives to give up what it believes is one of the most important props of its own survival.

The Obama administration claimed the Iran nuclear deal was a major achievement — but it said the same about thing about Syria. The Iran nuclear deal is little more than a face-saving piece of paper that allows Iran to keep its nuclear breakout capability — including much of its nuclear infrastructure, expertise, and materials — in place.

As conservative internationalists have long argued, just because a country signs a piece of paper does not mean a foreign policy has been accomplished. The United States can and should continue to invest in and support the liberal international order, but that does not mean it must be guileless in how it goes about upholding that order. Hard power is still a crucial sine qua non of international politics.

Dr. Paul D. Miller is the associate director of the Clements Center for National Security at The University of Texas at Austin. He served as Director for Afghanistan and Pakistan on the NSC staff in the Bush and Obama White Houses.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags Assad family Barack Obama Barack Obama Bashar al-Assad Donald Trump Foreign policy of the Barack Obama administration International reactions to the Ghouta chemical attack International relations Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action Middle East Politics

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