Whatever happened to the "imperial presidency"? In mid-September, in the midst of the serial collapse of a $500-million Pentagon program to train "moderate" Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State (ISIS), President Obama suddenly claimed, through White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, that it wasn't really either his program or his fault. He was only the president, after all. In fact, he had, in essence, been forced into it. Here's the way Peter Baker of the New York Times put it:
"But the White House says it is not to blame. The finger, it says, should be pointed not at Mr. Obama but at those who pressed him to attempt training Syrian rebels in the first place -- a group that, in addition to congressional Republicans, happened to include former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton... In effect, Mr. Obama is arguing that he reluctantly went along with those who said it was the way to combat the Islamic State, but that he never wanted to do it and has now been vindicated in his original judgment."
The right wing, not surprisingly, had a field day with this explanation and who could blame them? After all, as commander-in-chief, a twenty-first-century American president can essentially order the U.S. military to do just about anything, just about anywhere, without having to worry much about Congress or anyone else. Indeed, Obama did exactly this when he launched Syrian War 1.0 in September 2014 under a congressional resolution from 2001 allowing "all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons [the president] determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001." That moment, of course, long preceded the rise of ISIS. Yet Congress barely weighed in, passing no new or updated resolution to authorize this particular war or, for that matter, Iraq War 3.0. It did, however, put a stamp of approval on, and $500 million into, the training program for Syrian rebels.
Given the ultimate power of a president -- especially one finishing up his second term in office and hardly beholden to a Republican Congress -- to say "no," Obama's explanation for the dismal failure of part of this country's war policy is, in its admission of weakness, possibly unique in the annals of the modern White House. It may indeed have reflected his own doubts from the beginning about what a war in Syria and Iraq could produce other than a quagmire of the first order. (That, of course, is something he now predicts the Russians are in for, and who should know better?) Whatever he may say and whatever fears he may have harbored, he now owns the Syrian and Iraq wars, whether he likes it or not. Those linked conflicts represent the flowering (or is it withering?) of what Juan Cole has dubbed the Obama Doctrine of airborne counterinsurgency (which Russian President Vladimir Putin has essentially just put his own stamp of approval on).
By now, Obama must sense that his doctrine has visibly failed. What he owns is a war policy in the Greater Middle East that is tottering in Afghanistan and dead on arrival in Iraq and Syria, which means it's certainly a propitious moment for something new from a president who previously couldn't say no.
Of course, under the circumstances, you might wonder what's left to be done. But as TomDispatch regulars Jo Comerford and Mattea Kramer suggest today, there is indeed another avenue to head down, one the president has already taken successfully with Iran, and it goes by the quaint name of diplomacy. Tom
As war between President Bashar al-Assad and various rebel forces raged across Syria, as the Obama administration and the CIA armed rebel factions of their liking while continuing an air campaign against the militants of the Islamic State (ISIS), as Russia entered the quagmire with its own airstrikes, and as millions of Syrians fled for their lives amid untold violence, a Connecticut congressman decided to do something.
At the end of September, Connecticut Representative Jim Himes, a House Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, corralled 54 of his colleagues into sending a letter to President Obama calling for the start of international negotiations that would include Iran and Russia and be aimed at ending the Syrian civil war. President Obama is reportedly listening.
This could prove to be a critical turning point in a brutal conflict that has, until now, seemed without end -- not because Himes has a quick, sure-to-succeed solution, but because every other course of action is overwhelmingly likely to fail. To understand why, it's necessary to take a brief look backward.
Pouring Gasoline on Syria's Fire
More than four years ago, in 2011, passionate Arab Spring protesters rose up to overthrow despised leaders from Tunisia to Libya, Egypt to Yemen. In Syria, citizens filled the streets, voicing their opposition to the murderous regime of President Bashar al-Assad. His government responded by unleashing its military on the protesters. Some of them, along with soldiers from Assad's forces, went on to form the Free Syrian Army (FSA), thanks, in part, to financing from the CIA and the Saudis, and a civil war began. As months of fighting turned into years, hundreds of thousands of civilians died, and millions more were uprooted.- Advertisement -
In the process, more extreme factions among the rebels, including the al-Qaeda-aligned al-Nusra Front, gained ever greater traction, while ISIS spread across parts of Syria and Iraq, proclaiming a "caliphate" and drawing foreign volunteers by the thousands. ISIS had grown and prospered within the mayhem and power vacuum created by the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq and then its dismantling of Saddam Hussein's army. (Some future ISIS leaders, in fact, first met inside U.S. military prison camps during those years.)
Turning the fog of the Syrian civil war to its advantage, ISIS claimed ever more land in northern Syria and, emboldened, launched an offensive in Iraq, routing the army the U.S. had created there and taking the country's second largest city, Mosul. But ISIS was more than a brutal, terrorist insurgency. It was also a darkly savvy PR operation. In September 2014, it filmed beheadings of American prisoners and put them online.
That was the moment when the U.S. public really began paying attention to Syria.