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

Captured IS Militants Explain Why They Fought

Fighters from Turkey, Syria tell VOA Kurdish Service what drew them to extremism, jihad More

Security Experts Split on Kenyan Barrier Wall

Experts divided on whether initiative aiming to keep out al-Shabab militants is long-awaited solution or misguided effort More

Video Philippines Wants Tourists Spending Money at New Casinos

Officials say they hope to turn Manila into the next Macau, which has long been Asia’s gambling hub More

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.
Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grievingi
X
Benno Muchler
March 26, 2015 3:41 PM
Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grieving

Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Cambodian Land Grabs Threaten Traditional Communities

Indigenous communities in Cambodia's Ratanakiri province say the government’s economic land concession policy is taking away their land and traditional way of life, making many fear that their identity will soon be lost. Local authorities, though, have denied this is the case. VOA's Say Mony went to investigate and filed this report, narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video US, South Korea Conduct Joint Military Exercises

The Eighth U.S. Army Division and the Eighth Republic of Korea Mechanized Infantry Division put on a well orchestrated show of force for the media this week during their joint military training exercises in South Korea. VOA’s Seoul correspondent Brian Padden was there and reports the soldiers were well disciplined both in conducting a complex live fire exercise and in staying on message with the press.
Video

Video Space Program Status Disappoints 'Last Man on the Moon'

One of the films that drew big crowds last week at the annual South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, tells the story of the last human being to stand on the moon, U.S. astronaut Eugene Cernan. It has been 42 years since Cernan returned from the moon and he laments that no one else has gone there since. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Young Filmmakers Shine Spotlight on Giving Back

A group of student filmmakers from across the United States joined President Barack Obama at the White House this month for the second annual White House Student Film Festival. Fifteen short films were officially selected from more than 1,500 entries by students aged 6 through 18. The filmmakers and their families then joined the president and a group of celebrities for a screening of their films. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video VOA Exclusive: Interview with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, during his first visit as president to Washington, gave a one-on-one interview with VOA Afghan Service reporter Said Suleiman Ashna, about his request for a change in U.S. troop levels, the threat from the Islamic State, and repairing relations with the United States and Pakistan. The interview was held at Blair House, late Sunday, in Pashto.
Video

Video California Science Center Tells Story of Dead Sea Scrolls

The ancient manuscripts were uncovered in the mid-20th century, and they are still yielding clues about life and religious beliefs in ancient Israel. As VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports, an exhibit in Los Angeles shows how modern science is bringing the history of these ancient documents to life.
Video

Video Angelina Jolie Takes Another Bold Step

Hollywood actress and filmmaker Angelina Jolie has revealed she had her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed to lower her odds of getting cancer. Doctors say the huge publicity over her decision will help raise awareness about the importance of cancer screening. VOA’s George Putic has more

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More