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

Myanmar Fighting Poses Dilemma for China

To gain some insight into conflict, VOA’s Steve Herman spoke with Min Zaw Oo, director of ceasefire negotiation and implementation at Myanmar Peace Center More

Australia Concerned Over Islamic State 'Brides'

Canberra believes there are between 30 and 40 Australian women who have taken part in terror attacks or are supporting the Islamic State terror network More

Recreational Marijuana Use Now Legal in Washington, DC

Law allows adults 21 and over to privately possess and smoke 0.05 kilogram of pot, and to grow small amounts of the plant 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.
US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Casei
X
Katherine Gypson
February 25, 2015 11:30 PM
The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Hurt Nascent Illinois Hydraulic Fracturing Industry

Falling oil prices are helping consumers purchase cheaper petroleum at the pump. But that’s made hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” less economically viable for the companies in the United States invested in the process. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports on one Midwestern town that was hoping to change its fortunes by cashing in on the next big U.S. oil boom.
Video

Video Fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan Fuels Mass Displacement

Heavy fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan state is causing hundreds of thousands to flee into uncertain conditions. Local aid organizations estimate as many as 400,000 civilians have been internally displaced since the conflict began more than three years ago, while another 250,000 have fled across the border to refugee camps in South Sudan. VOA's Adam Bailes reports.
Video

Video Lao Dam Project Runs Into Opposition

A Lao dam project on a section of the Mekong River is drawing opposition from local fishermen, international environmental groups and neighboring countries. VOA's Say Mony visited the region to investigate the concerns. Colin Lovett narrates.
Video

Video A Filmmaker Discovers Her Biracial Identity in "Little White Lie

Lacey Schwartz grew up in an upper middle-class Jewish family, in a town in upstate New York where almost everyone she knew was white. She assumed that she was, as well. Her recent documentary, Little White Lie, tells the story of how she uncovered the secret of her true racial background. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more on the film.
Video

Video Deep Under Antarctic Ice Sheet, Life!

With the end of summer in the Southern hemisphere, the Antarctic research season is over. Scientists from Northern Illinois University are back in their laboratory after a 3-month expedition on the Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating ice sheet. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, they hope to find clues to explain the dynamics of the rapidly melting ice and its impact on sea level rise.
Video

Video US-Cuba Normalization Talks Resume Friday

Negotiations aimed at normalizing diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba resume Friday. On the table: lifting a half-century trade embargo and easing banking and travel restrictions. There's opposition in Congress, but some analysts say there may be sufficient political and economic incentives in both nations for a potential breakthrough this year. VOA's Mil Arcega reports.
Video

Video Pakistan's Deadline For SIM Registration Has Cellphone Users Scrambling

Pakistani cell phone users have until midnight Thursday to register their SIM cards, or their service will be cut off. While some privacy experts worry about government intrusion, many Pakistanis are just worried about keeping their phone lines open. VOA Deewa reporter Arshad Muhmand has more from Peshawar.
Video

Video Myanmar Warns Factory Workers to End Strikes

Outside Myanmar's main city Yangon, thousands of workers walked off their jobs earlier this month demanding a doubling of their wages, pay raises after a year and input from labor unions on industrial regulations. Since Friday, the standoff has grown more tense as police moved in to disrupt the sit-ins, resulting in clashes that injured people from both sides. VOA correspondent Steve Herman visited industrial zones which have become a focus of Myanmar's fledgling workers rights movement.
Video

Video Oscar Winners Do More Than Thank the Academy

The Academy Awards presentation is Hollywood’s night to reward the best movies from the previous year. It’s typically a lot of glitter, a lot of thank you’s, a lot of speeches. But many of this year’s speeches carried messages beyond the thank you's. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti takes a look.

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