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Barack Obama: Skillful strategy in Syria

Anti-Syria Rally in Washington, DC on Sept. 9, 2013
Anti-Syria Rally in Washington, DC on Sept. 9, 2013
Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The chemical weapons attack in Syria seemed to put the U.S. in a no-win situation. Americans don’t want to be the world’s policeman or get bogged down in another war. Yet we don’t want the atrocities committed by Assad to continue and we don’t want to get too involved with the rebels, some of whom are from Islamic extremist groups like al Qaeda.

When President Barack Obama insisted that the United States should get involved militarily in Syria, Americans questioned his judgment. Many Americans believed there must be some way we could respond to the horrible chemical attacks that killed civilians in Syria, without getting involved in another military conflict.

Now, however, it looks like the way President Obama handled the Syrian crisis was almost flawless. Obama pushed for military strikes on Syria specifically to get Syria and their ally Russia to accept a diplomatic solution. Less than a week after speaking to Russian President Putin at the G20 summit, Obama successfully used the threat of military action to maneuver Syria into giving up their chemical weapons – with Russia’s help no less.

Without the threat of military strikes, Syria’s president would never have accepted the demands to give up his chemical weapons.

Good Cop/Bad Cop

Shortly after Obama and Putin spoke at the G20 summit, they did a Good Cop/Bad Cop routine on Syrian President Assad. This may be an over-simplification, but it essentially went like this: Obama convinced everyone that he was going to bomb Syria. Then Putin went to Assad and said, I can’t control this guy, but if you give up your chemical weapons and agree to the international ban, I can get him to back off. Assad decided it was better to turn over his chemical weapons stockpile than to suffer an attack from the U.S.

Even Putin’s Op-Ed piece in the New York Times criticizing Obama helps give more credibility to Obama’s threat of military action and, consequently, gives Syria more incentive to accept the proposal to remove their chemical weapons.

It does not matter to President Obama who gets credit for removing Syria’s chemical weapons.

In order for the proposed solution to work, Obama has to keep up the military threat, otherwise Putin has no leverage in getting Syria to drop their chemical weapons program. Although Putin and Obama have different interests and disagree with one another on many issues, it's in both Russia’s and America’s best interests to remove Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons.

The Real Meaning of Peace Through Strength

When dealing with a dictator, it is not uncommon for an American president to use the threat of military action in order to get a tyrant to accept a diplomatic solution.

President GW Bush used a similar tactic against Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

At first, Bush threatened to attack Iraq if Saddam didn't allow UN weapons inspectors back into the country to search for weapons of mass destruction.

Then, when Saddam gave in and allowed the weapons inspectors free access into the country, Bush made a new demand; that Saddam must begin destroying some of his missiles.

When Saddam gave in to that demand and began dismantling his missiles, it looked like President Bush had successfully used the threat of a military attack to achieve an important goal to contain a dictator.

Unfortunately, President Bush’s goal was not to contain Saddam Hussein. Despite the absence of WMDs, Bush was determined to find an excuse to go to war and continued to set new demands until we ultimately went to war.

The difference between Presidents Bush and Obama.

Obama is accepting a diplomatic solution without going to war because a non-military solution is what he has been seeking all along. Although he was willing to order air strikes on Syria if necessary, Obama is clearly not hell-bent for war as President Bush was in Iraq.

Obama used the very real threat of military action to get the Syrian president to give up his arsenal of chemical weapons which Assad previously denied even existed.

This is the very definition of the term “Peace through strength”.

Obama's Failure

It’s fun watching some people try to spin this as a “failure” by Obama or a sign of weakness while others are calling President Obama a war-monger.

One side is disappointed that we didn't actually bomb anybody, while the other is too short-sighted to see the complicated chess game that is going on.

In reality, President Obama has demonstrated a higher level of skill and careful deliberation than we've seen from any president in a very long time.

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