Syria has become Barack Obama’s Iraq—a foreign policy debacle rooted in faulty assumptions about the utility of American power. Where George W. Bush overstated what U.S. military intervention could achieve in Iraq, Obama has underestimated the risks and costs of non-intervention in Syria.
The analogy will rankle many progressives, as well as conservative “realists” who have praised Obama’s doctrine of U.S. restraint. But any administration’s policies must be judged by their results, not the elegance of their conceptual underpinnings. And the results of Obama’s decision to stand aloof from the Syrian crisis have gone from bad to worse.
Despite declaring early on that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad must go, Obama in 2012 overruled his national security team — including then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — which urged him to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels not allied with jihadists groups. Having decided the previous year to pull all U.S. troops out of Iraq, Obama was not about to get sucked into Syria.
But power vacuums invite trouble, especially in the combustible Middle East. The Syrian caldron soon boiled over, morphing into a regional conflict as Iran and Hezbollah rushed to Assad’s rescue, while Saudi Arabia and Arab states came to the aid of Sunni rebels. Then came the hard-core Islamists of al-Qaeda and the even more fanatical spinoff, the Islamic State (commonly called Daesh), which proclaimed a new caliphate centered in Raqqa.
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