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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

In which Bernstein's "anti-quagmire president" conforms to type

Last week, I noted that in the unfolding of the news that Obama was stepping up aid to the Syrian rebels, it was possible to glimpse Obama pushing back, or holding back, against those trying to promote a more extensive commitment.  There was less to the step-up than meets the eye, the administration seemed to signal.

Last night I watched the Syria segment in Obama's interview with Charlie Rose. And there he made it quite clear that notwithstanding the Sully's fears, Larison's expectations and Marc Lynch's anxieties, he is determined not to get sucked in to another middle east quagmire.  When Rose challenged him on the perception of timidity, this exchange followed:

OBAMA: So when I hear debates out there on the one hand folks saying, you know, "Katie bar the door, let’s just go in and knock out Syria."

CHARLIE ROSE: They’re not asking that. I mean it seems to me what they’re asking is, you know, supply them with heavy artillery.

BARACK OBAMA: But here’s what happens, Charlie. The -- it is very easy to slip-slide your way into deeper and deeper commitments because if it’s not working immediately then what ends up happening is six months from now people say "Well, you gave the heavy artillery, now what we really need is x. And now what we really need is y," because until Assad is defeated -- in this view -- it’s never going to be enough, right? Now on the other side there are folks who say "You know we are so scared from Iraq, we should have learned our lesson, we should not have anything to do with it." Well I reject that view as well because the fact of the matter is that we’ve got serious interests there and not only humanitarian interests, we can’t have a situation of ongoing chaos in a major country that borders a country like Jordan which in turn borders Israel and we have a legitimate need to be engaged and to be involved. But for us to do it in a careful, calibrated way -- sometimes it’s unsatisfying because what people really typically want is a clean solution, a silver bullet, here’s what we’re going to do and we just move forward.
Note that perpetual Obama mental reflex of positioning himself between extremes. And the cardinal principles of first-do-no-harm and proceeding with caution.  Last week (as I noted in the prior post) Jonathan Bernstein, a student of presidential behavior patterns, reminded us that Obama has given cause to believe that he "really has earned the benefit of the doubt is about slippery slopes, quagmires, and otherwise getting trapped into military adventurism that expands despite everyone's best intentions." That hypothesis got some powerful corroboration on Charlie Rose.

As is often the case when one listens to Obama, I found myself at least prepared to be convinced that a policy that looks wavering, passive or pressure-cooked in the daily tick-tock is in fact consistent, fact-driven, and calibrated to avoid the worst outcomes and keep hell's exits open for all parties in a no-win-for-now situation.  Obama is striving to steer clear of sectarian side-taking, foster a moderate, viable opposition (or more likely, the best obtainable "good-enough" proxy for that lofty goal) and provide Assad with an exit short of a Qaddafi-style execution.

If that sounds like mission impossible, what exactly is the alternative? If you think, retroactively, it would have been possible to "provide more robust military aid to the rebels from the beginning,"  read what Obama had to say about that in the Rose transcript. The Syria exchange is near the beginning. I"m sure the narrative of what kind of help might have been viable when can be disputed, and I'm sure that Obama elides the truth. But I'm not all sure that a better course could be steered.

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