Playing Patience While Syria Burns

Roundup
tags: Syria, Putin, Obama



Niall Ferguson, MA, D.Phil., is the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University and a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

Related Link The Kissinger Diaries: What He Really Thought About Vietnam By Niall Ferguson

… The first great flaw in Obama's strategy has been his insistence that the only alternative to doing next-to-nothing was all-out invasion à la Bush. Every time Senator John McCain has urged him to act in Syria, Obama has accused him of wanting another Iraq. This is so simplistic that the president cannot possibly believe it. There are many degrees of intervention in a war like the one raging in Syria. Think only of the successful interventions Bill Clinton undertook, albeit belatedly, in the former Yugoslavia. Think, more recently, of how effectively the French took out Al Qaeda when they marched into Mali. 

But the bigger flaw in "strategic patience" is one identified long ago by Henry Kissinger. In 1963 Kissinger summed up what he called the "terrible dilemma" confronting any strategic decision-maker: 

Each political leader has the choice between making the assessment which requires the least effort or making an assessment which requires more effort. If he makes the assessment that requires least effort, then as time goes on it may turn out that he was wrong and then he will have to pay a heavy price. If he acts on the basis of a guess, he will never be able to prove that his effort was necessary, but he may save himself a great deal of grief later on. ... If he acts early, he cannot know whether it was necessary. If he waits, he may be lucky or he may be unlucky.

Obama, with his lawyer's training, is risk averse, so he naturally prefers the line of least resistance. As the anti-Bush, his approach to strategy boils down to "Don't do stupid s***." But that, like "strategic patience," is just another way of saying, "Always kick the can down the road." Sometimes, as Kissinger says, that can work out. Procrastinators can get lucky. Sometimes, however, the can being kicked down the road turns out to be packed with explosives.

Syria has been Obama's nemesis, his very own improvised explosive device. In Cairo in 2009 he promised a new era of peace and understanding between the United States and the Muslim world. Five years later, a caliphate has been proclaimed by a fanatical and bloodthirsty Islamist movement that not only controls large tracts of Syria and Iraq but also has the capacity to recruit followers from the U.S. itself. America's European allies are being overwhelmed by millions of refugees. And Russia has re-established itself as a power-broker in the Middle East, a role Henry Kissinger successfully removed from Moscow 45 years ago.

In an interview shortly after Obama's Cairo speech, Kissinger described the president as being "like a chess player who ... has opened his game with an unusual opening." He was wrong. No great student of strategy, Obama has played patience with himself -- and lost. 




comments powered by Disqus