“no good options” (Obama Doctrine Notes)


(replies to various commenters at Ordinary Times)

Francis: There are no good options whatsoever in Syria and never were. Now what?

“No good options” at some point becomes a rule of moral abdication – a declaration of incapacity to distinguish between worse and better, or of paralysis. Obama himself seems to oscillate between the two views: On the one hand, since there is no good option, judgment has to be suspended, but on the other hand he wants to view or wants us to accept inaction or maximal distance as the better option, so “as good as we can get if not perfect.”

“No good options” means “for all intents and purposes refusing to act or resisting action is the only good option.” We’ll leave aside “good for whom and in what ways” for now. If he and his supporters were really throwing up their hands at the lack of any good options, then they wouldn’t be offering resistance at all: We might as well intervene up to our necks with a commitment to transform Syria into Middle East Switzerland, since, after all, there are no good options anyway. If all you mean is that there are no options that do not entail risks and uncertain consequences, we all already knew that. An alternative to piling up a list of sub-optimal outcomes and declaring ourselves powerless to have altered them or powerless to repair them, while seeking the right enemies to blame, is to attempt to compare alternatives for all their betters and worses, not giving yourself – or the President – an easy out.


I wrote, emphasis added, “‘No good options’ at some point becomes a rule of moral abdication – a declaration of incapacity to distinguish between worse and better, or of paralysis.” The Syrian civil war began just about exactly five years ago as a set of peaceful protests to which the regime responded with violence, and things deteriorated, escalated, and fell apart from there. At every stage there were “betters” and “worses,” and doing nothing has been among them. Five years later it represents a clear choice just like any other choice. “No good options” includes the current option of doing nothing – or doing very little, or doing, as many will argue, worse than nothing.

No one proposing a different course of action, or criticizing the way that a particular decision was handled, is pretending that the option would produce some never-to-exist-on-Earth absolutely “good” situation. The common criticism of the Obama policy is that it has been feckless; that the administration’s rhetoric, from the top down, has frequently failed to match its action; that its various initiatives have been embarrassingly poorly handled, and in ways possibly deleterious to American interests well beyond the Syrian situation.

We’ve already discussed the embarrassing spectacle of the East Ghouta decision, with which Goldberg’s piece begins. Here are two fairly brief critical responses to the interview and what it says about Obama’ s approach to his office.

It Begins

I found the first half of the following post from Shadi Hamid easier to interpret than the second:


If at the end of some careful examination of the real options for the U.S., either now or at any previous point, we might still come to the conclusion that we simply could not have done any better than we did in relation to Syria specifically – that active intervention was off the table for us for whatever reasons. The same could conceivably be said for some of the other areas that have been brought up on this thread, although critics will argue that the Obama approach produced a vicious spiral that better leadership might have avoided.

Either way, we could still take account of the Obama Administration’s errors without blowing them out of proportion, or straw-manning the whatever criticisms (see the Hamid piece on that subject). I tend to think that many of Obama’s mistakes originated in over-corrections for Bush 43, and in some ways mirrored Bush’s failings.I think the larger problem is that Obama’s admitted over-rationalism produces a hunger for yet another round of corrections in the opposite direction.


Five years into the Syrian Civil War, no one’s going to come up on a comment thread with some brand new plan.

Everyone who’s been following the story knows what the main options have been, though their shape changes as circumstances do. Supporting the opposition looks a lot different now than it did in 2011, well before the rise of IS, or before then during the rise of an armed opposition and the general destruction of its non-Islamist elements other than the Kurds.

All along the Administration produced various half-hearted and in a few instances humiliatingly ridiculous initiatives, often accompanied by false promises – like investing in the training and vetting of “good” rebels who were not even allowed to oppose Assad, sending a paltry number into the field, and watching them disappear.

After five years, production of false promises and diplomatic and military tragicomedy is no longer dismissable as an unfortunate byproduct of your general inability to distinguish between “bad options”: It’s who you are.

The crystallizing moment occurred at the mid-point of the five-year Operation Syrian Catastrophe, when we learned something important. We now know, among other things, that embattled leaders can commit acts of genocide, using weapons of mass destruction, against civilian populations, in direct defiance of the American superpower acting as leader of the international community, and get away with it – because, it turns out, we have other priorities or just aren’t interested enough.

Before the events transpired as they did, even the President didn’t know that that was the case. In fact, he assumed the opposite was true, and, even after he canceled his own decision to act, and was rebuffed by the political class and an apathetic and fearful citizenry, he was still saying that we should act or have acted. So, in his own telling, he was right, but too feeble, and we were wrong, and won.

For those who need it spelled out, the alternative was to strike a hard blow against Assad’s regime, and to be prepared to help pick up the pieces. Yes, it would have meant entanglement in the Syrian Civil War. No one knows what else would have necessarily followed. Getting positively involved, identifying the stakes and committing to a goal, is hazardous and unpredictable. The President perhaps rightly determined that we didn’t have the stomach for it. We’ll never know.

That’s the problem with his presidency in a nutshell, in my view. I don’t blame him for it personally. He may have done as well with the situation as anyone could have. It’s not easy to be “caught in the changes.” The result still reminds me of an old description of Nazi politics, to the effect that the fanfare announces Wagnerian opera, and then the curtain parts, revealing a Punch & Judy show. For the people on the ground, it’s not theater of any type, of course.

It’s likewise almost funny, but not really, to observe the constant re-pivoting to Asia by a President who, by his own testimony, is congenitally ill-suited to understand the Middle East on its own terms, and is therefore continually dragged back into it against his will. The condition is quite common among the other members of the virtual neo-isolationist coalition.

…and none of that means that the US can’t still do some things quite well, or that it’s all the Left’s fault, or that Ronald Reagan was perfect, or whatever other straw man someone’s in a mood to snipe at.


The best answer to what we should have done was “strike hard” and then see what happened.

Sorry, but the world, particularly a fight, isn’t completely predictable. I didn’t say “and then see what happened.” I said “be prepared to pick up the pieces.” That involves some “seeing what happened.” Doing nothing also involves “seeing what happened.” We did nothing, and now we can see what happened: 100s of thousands of additional casualties, active Russian intervention, stabilization of the criminal regime, apparent normalization of the use of chemical weapons.

If you determine that something is truly intolerable – mass annihilation of civilian populations, for example – then that means you have signed up for uncertainty, for doing things and then “seeing what happens,” and then doing more things if necessary, without guarantees, of course. If you are unwilling to sign up for that degree of uncertainty, then your saying that something is intolerable is an empty statement. It turns out that “it” is perfectly tolerable for you after all. And now we can see what happens.


I’m not going to attempt a comment-thread comparative analysis of Syrian intervention plans, whose shape would have changed at every major point in the developing war since 2011. (We possess the material power to turn Syria into the 51st state if that’s what we wanted to do. We consider it too costly.) There are plenty of people with expert knowledge of Syria who have, at every point over the last 5 years, recommended alternatives, and some urgently warned at every stage (some from within the Obama Administration, or after having resigned in disgust) what the the results would be if the US turned “no good options” into policy.

Also, I don’t know that Syria’s being better or worse off is or can be the main question. That’s not to say that it wouldn’t be a leading consideration even for a policy that put US self-interest first, but no US policy is likely sustainable on the basis of whether someone else is better or worse off. If you believe the US and the world are better off with US in its post-WW2 security role, leading an international community defined by support for the international legal regime including the Genocide Convention, then that may be the primary consideration, and one happy effect of re-affirming or strengthening that role might have been some far better fate for the Syrians. (The idea of Responsibility to Protect was to repair the flaws in the regime that made “problems from Hell” impossible to prevent or stop, but let’s not get started on Samantha Power…)



I appreciate your appreciation of the complexity of the various questions, but your parenthetical statement at the end contradicts it. You refer to a supposed “continued absence of a viable, articulated, way forward that doesn’t lead to worse outcomes,” but to what “absence” are you referring? To an absence on this thread, in some notional public policy discussion space, in the whole wide world? Do you mean a “way forward” from today, or are you referring to alternative ways forward at or from prior decision points? Do you mean a worse outcome for the Syrians from a short-term humanitarian perspective, or a worse outcome for the region from a humanitarian perspective, or a worse outcome for the US politically or morally or strategically or what?

And how do we judge those way forwards in such a way as to conclude, with you, that what we did (or didn’t do) was better? Those, for instance, who backed support for the Syrian popular opposition at an early point thought it would be the best and only way to prevent its capture by Islamists. They predicted that rebels whose first priority was the overthrow of Assad – or effective defense against Assad forces – would gravitate toward the best-equipped and best-organized groups. When the US and the West failed to move in – or to follow up on diplomatic groundwork and public pronouncements – a range of other actors, including the Gulf Arabs especially, filled the gap. I won’t try to review all of the other questions and shifting decision frameworks: The point is that people who know much more about the region than you or I believed that concentrated and predictable commitment and effort by the US and allies would have produced a better “outcome” both for the Syrians and for us.

The ideas were very “articulated.” They were “present” for anyone who cared to look. Most of them are quite obsolete by now, so I’m not sure what purpose would be served by examining them in detail here. (I’ll also admit that in the relevant period, 2011-3 especially, I spent at least as much time arguing against them, or trying to explain to proponents why they wouldn’t be accepted, as trying to persuade skeptics to look at them. I did so because I was wondering if proponents could do a more effective job of proving that the Syrians’ fight was “our” fight, too – something that wouldn’t have been as difficult in earlier years, or perhaps even a few months earlier…)

Possible ways forward for the U.S., or ways for the U.S. to have a positive influence, are much different now. Way up there, when I suggested that alternatives deserve to be compared, I was responding to Francis’ compact summary of foreign policy failures: Libya, Syria, Iraq, Ukraine. First, do we agree that those all haven’t gone very well for the people directly involved? Do we further agree that they don’t represent triumphs for US policy? Do we agree that we would prefer different outcomes? At what point do we begin to re-write history “as if” – either with the benefit of hindsight or under the assumption that the US under Obama might have been more willing to take on additional risk or invest resources or lead from somewhere other than behind?


Look, Bush and the neocons (and Hillary!) opened a pandora’s box of nastiness when [they chose to invade (?)] Iraq, reducing subsequent decision-making in large parts of the region to no-win scenarios.

The above represents a rendering not just of conventional wisdom, but something like the combined lodestar, zero stone, and magnetic north of the Obama Doctrine, especially those elements of it that appeal to many who do not consider themselves supporters of Obama, or who may even believe he betrayed the possibilities of his moment. The notion also happens to have guided the political ascent of Barack Obama, especially since his timely opposition to the war was so crucial in elevating him above Clinton in the Democratic primaries of 2008 – on the question of “JUDGMENT TO LEAD,” as the signs on his lecterns used to remind us during the later phases of that campaign.

That conventional wisdom rests on presumptions and connected fallacies that also turn up in your prior paragraph:

The issue is articulating an option that leads to better outcomes for the US, Syria, and the other stakeholders involved which is better than doing nothing given the myriad factors in play. One that doesn’t entail obvious and predictable downside cost that isn’t worth the price.

The main fallacy here is, I think, the assumption of managerial competence, especially as applied to politico-military conflict: I mean, for instance, confidence in the ability to predict a “downside cost” and a future “price.” The fallacy underlies the conventional wisdom on Iraq especially where it relies on an implicit presumption of adequate knowledge, or “pricing,” of alternatives or scenarios that obviously never were and that could not ever have been. We do not and cannot know that the “outcomes” would have been any better for Iraq, the region, the U.S., or the world. Same goes for Syria, the anti-Iraq as far as U.S. policy goes.

That’s not how war works, though it’s how policy-rationalists wish it worked. We don’t know that any articulated option will lead or not to “obvious and predictable” costs. We cannot know now what the “price” will or would be. War is dynamic and unpredictable. Its price also won’t be the same price for everyone. Some will “pay the ultimate price.” Others will enjoy the TV show, then switch channels when they get too bored or nauseated. It’s not even clear that such presumptions work very well, or as predictably as those acting on them or soliciting action advertise, in other realms of life – from social policy to next quarter’s sales projections.

We may earnestly wish that we could possess such knowledge. Pretending that we do, or could, serves too many seemingly useful purposes for us to let go of the wish, but it can’t be the basis for a non-prejudicial or truly objective or actually rational inquiry – assuming such is even possible for us. More specifically, no attempt to understand and assess a supposed Obama Doctrine – a set of precepts meant to explain and govern the relationship of the U.S. with the rest of the world – is going to make sense if we arbitrarily assign a start date to world history on or around 2003, or start by putting an artificial border around the question of Syria or any other question without taking account of having done so.

There’s nearly a straight line from the managerial hubris of a McNamara to “articulating an option that leads to better outcomes for the US, Syria, and the other stakeholders involved which is better than doing nothing given the myriad factors in play.” The fallacy would apply equally when when we evade decision as when we embrace some particular policy – or equally when choose to sit tight rather than to stand up. Dis-involvement cannot provide an escape from unintended consequences. Pursued perfectly, it would produce a world in which all consequences are unintended – a world without feedback or means of orientation, a chaotic, unintelligible, and meaningless world, just the world we see opening up now before us, a prospect already leading some substantial number of us to prefer the worst direction over no direction at all.

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