News / USA

    US Invasion of Iraq Haunts Obama's Syria Policy

    President Barack Obama walks from his residence to the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, Sept. 10, 2013, ahead of an address on the war in Syria.
    President Barack Obama walks from his residence to the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, Sept. 10, 2013, ahead of an address on the war in Syria.
    Catherine Maddux

    “Don’t do stupid stuff.”

    President Obama is known for saying that – or a more colorful version of that sentence – in private conversations, according to those close to him. It’s a lesson he drew watching his predecessor, former President George W. Bush, invade Iraq six years earlier. Bush decided to topple Saddam Hussein, deploying tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers into what turned out to be a very difficult and messy conflict.

    U.S. Marine Corp Assaultman Kirk Dalrymple watches as a statue of Iraq's President Saddam Hussein falls in central Baghdad April 9, 2003. (Reuters)U.S. Marine Corp Assaultman Kirk Dalrymple watches as a statue of Iraq's President Saddam Hussein falls in central Baghdad April 9, 2003. (Reuters)
    x
    U.S. Marine Corp Assaultman Kirk Dalrymple watches as a statue of Iraq's President Saddam Hussein falls in central Baghdad April 9, 2003. (Reuters)
    U.S. Marine Corp Assaultman Kirk Dalrymple watches as a statue of Iraq's President Saddam Hussein falls in central Baghdad April 9, 2003. (Reuters)

    That war would come to influence much of Obama’s approach to U.S. foreign policy, which has been described variously by critics as “cautious,” “restrained,” “unengaged” and, even, “timid.”

    “I think the philosophy that the president brought to governing…was that the United States needed to exercise smart leadership on the world stage,” says former Obama administration official Vikram Singh, now vice president of National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress.

    Among Obama’s top foreign policy objectives, said Singh, a counter-terrorism expert who served in a number of high level foreign policy positions for the president, was extricating the United States from Iraq, a conflict Obama had termed “the wrong war.”

    Syria

    But Iraq continues to bedevil the administration today, with the rise of the Sunni extremist group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). In June, ISIL, one of the main rebel groups fighting the Assad government in Syria, made stunning territorial grabs across parts of Iraq.

    That development forced Obama to rethink his strategy of keeping a safe distance from Syria.

    "The [ISIL] stampede into Iraq has, I think, concentrated the minds of the president and policy makers in the administration, and perhaps made them realize that our current policy in Syria isn't working," says Michael Crowley, chief foreign affairs correspondent for TIME.

    Last month, Obama asked Congress to authorize $500 million in direct assistance to train and equip what the White House described as "appropriately vetted elements of the moderate Syrian armed opposition.” That’s a notable policy turnaround from the low-level support and CIA training program of small groups of Syrian rebels in Jordan the administration previously authorized.

    The shift prompted critics to say Obama missed a window of opportunity in late 2012 when the president decided against a plan presented by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other senior officials to step up training and arming of the rebels in Syria.

    “I am doubtful that currently we will be successful in supporting moderate forces,” says Ariel Cohen, Principal at International Market Analysis, an energy and natural resources advisory company and a scholar at the Heritage Foundation.

    “We’ve missed that train at least by two years, maybe more. In the beginning of the conflict this may have been feasible,” Cohen said. “However, today these forces are weak.”

    Mideast upheaval

    The administration is changing course in Syria – and deeply worried about the situation in Iraq – just as public opinion polls show Americans are increasingly unhappy with the president’s handling of the Iraq war – a conflict Obama technically ended by withdrawing U.S. combat troops in late 2011. 

    But even Obama critics acknowledge the president has been confronted by an unprecedented level of upheaval in the Middle East, not the least of was the Arab Spring that erupted seemingly without warning in late 2011.

    Those popular revolutions, beginning in Tunisia and spreading rapidly to Libya, Egypt, Syria and beyond, helped set the stage for the current turmoil in Iraq and Syria – and Obama’s policy, says Marina Ottaway, a senior scholar at the Wilson Center.

    "As long as it was the Arab Spring – that is, something that looked very much like a popular insurrection – the Obama administration, for better or worse, at least verbally, supported it,” Ottoway said. “When it became clearly a war, as it was in the case of Syria, and even more a case of Iraq now, the Obama administration drew the line and said we are not going to go to war again."

    The angst over Syria inside the administration became very public in February, when Robert Ford, Obama’s ambassador to Syria resigned, saying he could no longer defend U.S. policy. Ford called it “consistently behind the curve” and said the administration failed in not backing opposition forces in Syria much earlier in the conflict.

    “I think he [Obama] had decided that Syria fell below the line of vital American interests,” says Daniel Serwer, professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and scholar at the Middle East Institute.

    “Anyone, any president would have been enormously challenged by what has gone on in the Middle East in the last several years,” Serwer said, who also believes that Obama waited too long on Syria, but dismisses the notion that the president is disengaged.

    And therein lies the very difficult balancing act for any president during current times, said Singh, who adds that much of the job boils down to answering one simple question:

    “What are the best of very complicated and bad options for the United States?”

    A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that President Obama has asked Congress for $500 billion to aid Syria rebels. VOA regrets the error.

    You May Like

    US-Russia Tensions Complicate Syria War

    With a shared enemy and opposing allies, Russia and the US are working to avoid confrontation

    Video Re-opening Old Wounds in Beirut's Bullet-riddled Yellow House

    Built in neo-Ottoman style in 1920s, it is set to be re-opened in Sept. as ‘memory museum’ - bullet-riddled walls and bunkered positions overlooking city’s notorious ‘Green Line’ maintained for posterity

    Cambodian-Americans Lobby for Human Rights Resolution

    Resolution condemns all forms of political violence in Cambodia, urges Cambodian government to end human rights violations, calls for respect of press freedom

    This forum has been closed.
    Comment Sorting
    Comments
         
    by: Sunny Enwerem from: Lagos Nigeria
    July 18, 2014 11:05 AM
    “I am doubtful that currently we will be successful in supporting moderate forces,” says Ariel Cohen,....we never needed a crystal ball to know that when u fail to support a true moderate course it will create a ripple of extremism which we all see in the Meddle East......now any support is like Medicine after Death,its obvious this will linger till we have a new president after Obama and then the debate starts all over again with continuous live being lost.

    by: Hello from: Hello
    July 18, 2014 4:54 AM
    500 billion sounds like a typo. Maybe 500 million??

    by: Paul Dimino
    July 18, 2014 3:24 AM
    oh my god not the its bushes fault, thats why i am so bad at doing my job he needs to come back with something more tangible then the same excuse as to why he can not do his job as president 6 years into it

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Brexit Vote Plunges Global Markets Into Uncharted Territoryi
    X
    June 24, 2016 9:38 PM
    British voters plunged global markets into unknown territory after they voted Thursday to leave the European Union. The results of the Brexit vote, the term coined to describe the referendum, caught many off guard. Analysts say the resulting volatility could last for weeks, perhaps longer. Mil Arcega reports.
    Video

    Video Brexit Vote Plunges Global Markets Into Uncharted Territory

    British voters plunged global markets into unknown territory after they voted Thursday to leave the European Union. The results of the Brexit vote, the term coined to describe the referendum, caught many off guard. Analysts say the resulting volatility could last for weeks, perhaps longer. Mil Arcega reports.
    Video

    Video Orlando Shooting Changes Debate on Gun Control

    It’s been nearly two weeks since the largest mass shooting ever in the United States. Despite public calls for tighter gun control laws, Congress is at an impasse. Democratic lawmakers resorted to a 1960s civil rights tactic to portray their frustration. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti explains how the Orlando, Florida shooting is changing the debate.
    Video

    Video Tunisian Fishing Town Searches for Jobs, Local Development Solutions

    As the European Union tries to come to grips with its migrant crisis, some newcomers are leaving voluntarily. But those returning to their home countries face an uncertain future.  Five years after Tunisia's revolution, the tiny North African country is struggling with unrest, soaring unemployment and plummeting growth. From the southern Tunisian fishing town of Zarzis, Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at a search for local solutions.
    Video

    Video 'American Troops' in Russia Despite Tensions

    Historic battle re-enactment is a niche hobby with a fair number of adherents in Russia where past military victories are played-up by the Kremlin as a show of national strength. But, one group of World War II re-enactors in Moscow has the rare distinction of choosing to play western ally troops. VOA's Daniel Schearf explains.
    Video

    Video Experts: Very Few Killed in US Gun Violence Are Victims of Mass Shootings

    The deadly shooting at a Florida nightclub has reignited the debate in the U.S. over gun control. Although Congress doesn't provide government health agencies funds to study gun violence, public health experts say private research has helped them learn some things about the issue. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
    Video

    Video Trump Unleashes Broadside Against Clinton to Try to Ease GOP Doubts

    Recent public opinion polls show Republican Donald Trump slipping behind Democrat Hillary Clinton in the presidential election matchup for November. Trump trails her both in fundraising and campaign organization, but he's intensifying his attacks on the former secretary of state. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.
    Video

    Video Muslim American Mayor Calls for Tolerance

    Syrian-born Mohamed Khairullah describes himself as "an American mayor who happens to be Muslim." As the three-term mayor of Prospect Park, New Jersey, he believes his town of 6,000 is an example of how ethnicity and religious beliefs should not determine a community's leadership. Ramon Taylor has this report from Prospect Park.
    Video

    Video Internal Rifts Over Syria Policy Could Be Headache for Next US President

    With the Obama administration showing little outward enthusiasm for adopting a more robust Syria policy, there is a strong likelihood that the internal discontent expressed by State Department employees will roll over to the next administration. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports.
    Video

    Video Senegal to Park Colorful ‘Cars Rapide’ Permanently

    Brightly painted cars rapide are a hallmark of Dakar, offering residents a cheap way to get around the capital city since 1976. But the privately owned minibuses are scheduled to be parked for good in late 2018, as Ricci Shryock reports for VOA.
    Video

    Video Florida Gets $1 Million in Emergency Government Funding for Orlando

    The U.S. government has granted $1 million in emergency funding to the state of Florida to cover the costs linked to the June 12 massacre in Orlando. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced the grant Tuesday in Orlando, where she met with survivors of the shooting attack that killed 49 people. Zlatica Hoke reports.
    Video

    Video How to Print Impossible Shapes with Metal

    3-D printing with metals is rapidly becoming more advanced. As printers become more affordable, the industry is partnering with universities to refine processes for manufacturing previously impossible things. A new 3-D printing lab aims to bring the new technology closer to everyday use. VOA's George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Big Somali Community in Minnesota Observes Muslim Religious Feast

    Ramadan is widely observed in the north central US state of Minnesota, which a large Muslim community calls home. VOA Somali service reporter Mohmud Masadde files this report from Minneapolis, the state's biggest city.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora