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

    Turkey, US Splits Deepen Over Support for Kurdish Militants

    Ankara summons American ambassador to protest remarks by State Department spokesman who said Washington does not consider Syria's Kurdish Democracy Union Party (PYD) a terrorist organization

    Obama Seeking $19 Billion for National Cybersecurity

    Move, touted as attempt to build broad, cohesive federal response to cyberthreats, calls for increase in cybersecurity spending across all government agencies

    Video Foreign Policy Weighs Heavy for Some US Voters

    VOA talks to protesters in Manchester, New Hampshire, who sound off on foreign policy issues such as the Guantanamo Bay prison, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the wars in Iraq, Syria and Yemen

    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.
    Valentine's Day Stinks for Lebanese Clownsi
    X
    February 09, 2016 8:04 PM
    This weekend, on Valentine's Day in Lebanon, love is not the only thing in the air. More than half a year after the country's trash crisis began, the stink of uncollected garbage remains on the streets. Step forward "Clown Me In," a group of clowns who use their skills for activism. Before the most romantic day of the year the clowns have released their unusual take on love in Lebanon -- in a bid to keep the pressure up and get the trash off the streets. John Owens reports from Beirut.
    Video

    Video Valentine's Day Stinks for Lebanese Clowns

    This weekend, on Valentine's Day in Lebanon, love is not the only thing in the air. More than half a year after the country's trash crisis began, the stink of uncollected garbage remains on the streets. Step forward "Clown Me In," a group of clowns who use their skills for activism. Before the most romantic day of the year the clowns have released their unusual take on love in Lebanon -- in a bid to keep the pressure up and get the trash off the streets. John Owens reports from Beirut.
    Video

    Video Rocky Year Ahead for Nigeria Amid Oil Price Crash

    The global fall in the price of oil has rattled the economies of many petroleum exporters, and Africa’s oil king Nigeria is no exception. As Chris Stein reports from Lagos, analysts are predicting a rough year ahead for the continent’s top producer of crude.
    Video

    Video Foreign Policy Weighs Heavy for Some US Voters

    VOA talks to protesters in Manchester, New Hampshire who sound off on foreign policy issues such as the Guantanamo Bay Prison, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Middle East Affairs and national security.
    Video

    Video 'No Means No' Program Targets Sexual Violence in Kenya

    The organizers of an initiative to reduce and stop rape in the informal settlements around Kenya's capital say their program is having marked success. Girls are taking self-defense classes while the boys are learning how to protect the girls and respect them. Lenny Ruvaga reports from Nairobi.
    Video

    Video New Hampshire Voters Are Independent, Mindful of History

    Once every four years, the northeastern state of New Hampshire becomes the center of the U.S. political universe with its first-in-the-nation presidential primary. What's unusual about New Hampshire is how seriously the voters take their role and the responsibility of being among the first to weigh in on the candidates.
    Video

    Video Chocolate Lovers Get a Sweet History Lesson

    Observed in many countries around the world, Valentine’s Day is sometimes celebrated with chocolate festivals. But at a festival near Washington, the visitors experience a bit more than a sugar rush. They go on a sweet journey through history. VOA’s June Soh takes us to the festival.
    Video

    Video 'Smart' Bandages Could Heal Wounds More Quickly

    Simple bandages are usually seen as the first line of attack in healing small to moderate wounds and burns. But scientists say new synthetic materials with embedded microsensors could turn bandages into a much more valuable tool for emergency physicians. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Bhutanese Refugees in New Hampshire Closely Watching Primary Election

    They fled their country and lived in refugee camps in neighboring Nepal for decades before being resettled in the northeastern U.S. state of New Hampshire -- now the focus of the U.S. presidential contest. VOA correspondent Aru Pande spoke with members of the Bhutanese community, including new American citizens, about the campaign and the strong anti-immigrant rhetoric of some of the candidates.
    Video

    Video Researchers Use 3-D Printer to Produce Transplantable Body Parts

    Human organ transplants have become fairly common around the world in the past few decades. Researchers at various universities are coordinating their efforts to find solutions -- including teams at the University of Pennsylvania and Rice University in Houston that are experimenting with a 3-D printer -- to make blood vessels and other structures for implant. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Houston, they are also using these artificial body parts to seek ways of defeating cancerous tumors.
    Video

    Video Helping the Blind 'See' Great Art

    There are 285 million blind and visually impaired people in the world who are unable to enjoy visual art at a museum. One New York photographer is trying to fix this situation by making tangible copies of the world’s masterpieces. VOA correspondent Victoria Kupchinetsky was there as visually impaired people got a feel for great art. Joy Wagner narrates her report.
    Video

    Video German Artists to Memorialize Refugees With Life Jacket Exhibit

    Sold in every kind of shop in some Turkish port towns, life jackets have become a symbol of the refugee crisis that brought a million people to Europe in 2015.  On the shores of Lesbos, Greece, German artists collect discarded life jackets as they prepare an art installation they plan to display in Germany.  For VOA, Hamada Elrasam has this report from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video E-readers Help Ease Africa's Book Shortage

    Millions of people in Africa can't read, and there's a chronic shortage of books. A non-profit organization called Worldreader is trying to help change all that one e-reader at a time. VOA’s Deborah Block tells us about a girls' school in Nairobi, Kenya where Worldreader is making a difference.
    Video

    Video Genius Lets World Share Its Knowledge

    Inspired by crowdsourcing companies like Wikipedia, Genius allows anyone to edit anything on the web, using its web annotation tool
    Video

    Video In Philippines, Mixed Feelings About Greater US Military Presence

    In the Philippines, some who will be directly affected by a recent Supreme Court decision clearing the way for more United States troop visits are having mixed reactions.  The increased rotations come at a time when the Philippines is trying to build up its military in the face of growing maritime assertiveness from China.  From Bahile, Palawan on the coast of the South China Sea, Simone Orendain has this story.