By David Faris | (Informed Comment) | – –
No, Obama couldn’t have settled the Syrian civil war and prevented Iranian breakout
Was the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), better known as the Iran Deal, a mistake? That’s the question being asked in the Beltway after a pair of provocative articles called into question its wisdom and efficacy. Of course, much of official D.C. – including many of its Thinklandia experts, the entire Republican Party foreign policy apparatus and a not insubstantial number of Democrats –were implacably opposed from the get-go to any nuclear diplomacy with Tehran that didn’t result in total Iranian capitulation.
The D.C. foreign policy community remains reflexively, almost comically, pro Saudi, even though the kinds of problems caused by Tehran and Riyadh in the region are strikingly similar. If you’ve ever taken a gander at who funds the various Beltway foreign policy shops, you’ve probably noticed that the Potomac is basically a river of Gulf Arab cash that thirsty think tanks and lobbying shops dip into liberally for sustenance. Because Tehran is locked out of this sordid lobbying game, it leads to a systematic distortion of foreign policy thinking about the Persian Gulf in favor of the Saudis and Emiratis and at the expense of Iran.
But a new critique of the deal has emerged, in some cases, leveled by analysts who had originally been friendly to the deal. Rather than take aim at the structure or functioning of the agreement itself, it makes what is essentially an opportunity cost argument vis-à-vis the horrific civil war in Syria. In order to get the deal done, according to this argument, the Obama Administration was forced to accommodate the Iranian position in Syria. By choosing nuclear diplomacy with Iran over more vigorously interfering with the Syria crisis, the United States allowed Russian and Iranian influence in Syria to grow, inadvertently stood aside as the threat of ISIS bloomed and then spread, and ultimately watched helplessly as hundreds of thousands of civilians were slaughtered during Syria’s descent into madness. They insist on something that you might call the Miracle on the Hudson Institute – that the U.S. could have ended the violence in Syria, prevented the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria and managed the Iran nuclear crisis to a successful resolution.
Instead, they argue, we face a worst case scenario – unending bloodletting in Syria, the consolidation of Iranian and Syrian power in Damascus, and an Iran that is empowered by the nuclear deal to engage in aggressive machinations across the region, including in Yemen. This narrative was buttressed when Obama advisor Ben Rhodes admitted, in the recently-released documentary The Final Year, that blundering into Syria, where Iran has invested massively in the genocidal regime of Bashar al-Assad, might have jeopardized the JCPOA. “If we would have gone full-bore into Syria, we wouldn’t be sitting here with a climate agreement, we’d have no Iran agreement, we wouldn’t have had the time to do Cuba,” Rhodes says in the film.
In a remarkably testy op-ed for Tablet, Lee Smith claims that only “echo-chamber hacks” now refuse to admit that the Iran Deal was a mistake. He bases this obviously spurious claim on the recent cover story by Slate foreign policy writer Joshua Keating, which asks whether prioritizing the Iran Deal over Syria was worthwhile. Keating had been a supporter, and now he’s not. You see? Only echo chamber hacks! A discussion of the tradeoffs inherent in pursuing the Iran Deal is well worth having. But in the end, the choice facing the United States was this: do what the Obama Administration ultimately chose to do (negotiate with Iran while mostly staying out of Syria), fight three wars at the same time in Syria, Iraq and Iran, intervene in Syria while letting Iran go nuclear and hoping for the best, or do nothing about either problem. Any realistic appraisal of the Obama Administration’s decision-making must not only acknowledge that these were the options, but also make the case that one or the other was preferable and would have had a happier ending.
First, it is worth recalling that movement towards the Iran Deal only got serious in 2013, when the reformist candidate Hassan Rouhani was elected president in Iran. Up until that point, Obama’s diplomacy with Iran had gotten precisely nowhere, as detailed in Trita Parsi’s A Single Roll of the Dice. Iran was certainly not the reason Obama was initially reluctant to plunge into Syria. While conservatives would like you to believe, now, that the nuclear negotiations were some sort of clever distraction from Syria hatched by naïve Obama administration foreign policy hacks, the nuclear crisis was the dominant issue between Iran and the United States since 2002, beginning with the Bush Administration.
Obama merely picked up the baton that was passed to him. For sure, the Obama Administration had more faith in the ability of diplomacy and engagement to reach a settlement than even the more pragmatic policymakers in the latter half of the Bush years. But neither Bush nor Obama had much hope that America’s myriad other issues with Iran were amenable to quick diplomatic resolution, and both regarded a nuclear-armed Iran as an unacceptable threat to U.S. national security above and beyond Iran’s regional meddling – indeed, they believed that an Iran with atomic bombs would be able to use coercion to have its way with its helpless neighbors.
The United States had three options vis-à-vis the Iranian nuclear program circa 2013. First, there was the possibility of a pre-emptive military strike against known and suspected Iranian nuclear sites, a course of action that has consistently been advocated by conservative commentators for well over a decade and yet has not been chosen by any actual policymakers in either the United States or Israel, more than likely because it is an insane idea that would not even succeed in narrow military terms, and promises to send the Middle East careening further into disorder, dysfunction and violence.
Second, there was the path of diplomacy, which may indeed have necessitated some unspoken issue linkage with Syria. As Keating noted about resolving the Syria and Iran crises, “it is probably true that Obama and his team couldn’t have done both.” And finally, there was the option of simply doing nothing, as the Bush Administration did while post-Axis of Evil North Korea lurched from withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003 to full nuclear breakout in 2006. The bitter recriminations of America’s failed North Korea policy are still with us, and the threat of a nuclear and aggressive North Korea is perhaps the chief foreign policy threat being managed by the Breitbart bloggers and former Trump organization apparatchiks currently staffing what is left of the American foreign policy apparatus.
To believe that Obama could have, at the same time, forcibly changed the trajectory of the Syrian civil war and avoided an Iranian nuclear breakout, requires you to recognize one simple reality: that the United States would have needed to start two new wars in the Middle East at the exact nadir of public support for adventurism in the region.
First, putting a stop to the violence in Syria circa 2013 would have required picking a side in the civil war and pouring substantial resources, including at least 25,000 American troops, into a multifaceted conflict with bad actors on multiple sides. By 2013, Iran had already funded and equipped the Syrian-staffed National Defense Forces, as well as multiple militias that were filled out largely by foreign Shia Muslims from places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Thousands of hardened Hezbollah cadres were present too. The organization that would become ISIS was already active in Syria, along with dozens of hard line Salafi groups, and the combined strength of both the regime forces as well as the Salafi rebels far outstripped whatever moderate, U.S.-backed rebels existed in Syria at the time. Anyone who thinks sorting through such a mess during active hostilities would have been easy is delusional.
But crucially, Obama would have had to sell this intervention to the public before the grotesque antics of ISIS led to some public demands for limited action. And while the Russians had yet to commit significant military resources to Syria, you also have to believe that an aggressive escalation of American involvement in Syria, designed to depose or contain Assad and simultaneously beat back the jihadi groups, would have met with no response at all from Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Some of the new revisionists also argue that the Obama Administration’s decision-making in Syria enabled or caused the Russia invasion of Ukraine in 2014. But the idea that Obama’s decision to back down from his infamous chemical weapons red line emboldened Putin to annex Crimea from Ukraine simply does not stand up to scrutiny. The 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia was launched during a period of particularly acrimonious relations between Washington and Moscow. Like Carly Simon’s lover, we always think that every foreign policy decision is about us, when Russian meddling in its periphery has its own causes and strategic logic.
A 2013 or 2014 Syria intervention would have closed off any possibility of further negotiations after the election of Rouhani in June 2013. Absent negotiations, the options for the Iranian nuclear program would have been a) war or b) quietly hoping sanctions would bring the regime to its knees while functionally acquiescing to an Iranian nuclear weapon. Remember that in the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (the one that said Iran no longer had an active weapons program), analysts concluded that Iran would need less than two years to complete work on a nuclear weapon.
Later Obama Administration assessments of the Iranian nuclear program stated that Iran could have a weapon within a year of making the decision to break out. Let’s assume that these estimates were off by a factor of three, and that three or four years was the real time horizon – even then, had negotiations been permanently scuttled in 2013, Iran would likely have a nuclear weapon today. To believe that a nuclear-armed Iran would have less freedom of action in Syria than it does right now is giving far too much credit to the relative peanuts in cash that have been released to Tehran since the deal.
Choosing to abandon nuclear diplomacy with Iran, then, rather than allowing for a quick resolution of the Syria crisis, would have resulted in a much worse worst case scenario than the one we have. The United States has demonstrated precisely zero capacity to intervene competently in the affairs of states in the Middle East. The idea that we could have done so in 2013, bringing the civil war to a swift and satisfactory resolution, eliminating the threat of what was then an ISIS in its infancy, and somehow locking both Iran and Syria out of the power structure, requires a willful ignorance of the past 40 years of American foreign policy history and an almost religious faith in the power of American military might to achieve stable political outcomes in other countries. As I argued here several years ago, enthusiasts of war in Syria have never been able to spell out in any kind of convincing fashion how the U.S. would navigate a multi-sided civil war, put new and durable institutions into place, pay for the forces necessary to do so, or ensure that Syria would not fall into the hands of radicalized, hardline forces aligned with Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Think about this fictional scenario instead: in 2013, rather than agreeing with Russia to exfiltrate Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile, Obama chooses to proceed with airstrikes over the objections of Congress (that the Republican Congress refused to grant Obama this authority is a footnote that seems lost to history, and let’s further stipulate that Mitch McConnell and his minions of hypocrisy would have fought any escalation in Syria to the death) and to establish no-fly zones over parts of Syria. Those forces engage with Syrian regime assets as well as with Iranian and Iran-backed irregulars, precipitating a total break in nuclear diplomacy with Iran.
The newly elected Rouhani, instead of reopening diplomatic channels with the U.S., orders his scientists to redouble their efforts to acquire nuclear weapons as soon as possible. Even tens of thousands of American military personnel on the ground in Syria and Iraq are unable to prevent the rise of ISIS, because rather than broker the 2014 deal to get rid of Iraq’s toxic Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Iran backs an increase in anti-Sunni sectarian warfare in Western and Central Iraq, further radicalizing Iraq’s Sunnis and spreading the ISIS insurgency to Jordan and Saudi Arabia. And ISIS presents an irresistible excuse to send American ground forces blundering into Syria to restore order.
Obama, under unrelenting pressure from the Republican Congress to face down the Iranian threat, also orders limited military strikes on Iranian nuclear sites, which fail to achieve their objectives and also obliterate any cooperation between Iranian, Iraqi and American forces trying to mop up ISIS in Iraq. Iran escalates by closing the Straits of Hormuz, spiking global oil prices, unleashing their Lebanese proxies on the Israelis as the Maliki government in Baghdad collapses into violent disorder, and testing a nuclear weapon in late 2016.
The United States is then faced with the task of restoring the sovereignty of Iraq, mopping up ISIS, dealing with the fallout of Iranian retaliation for the nuclear strikes, reinforcing the Jordanian and Saudi governments against ISIS, and trying to figure out how to broker a deal between the Assad regime and its adversaries while fighting both at the same time. The Iranians make a thinly-veiled nuclear threat demanding an immediate American withdrawal from Syria and Iraq. And this all is premised on the fantasy that the initial U.S. foray into Syria successfully boxed out the Russians, which assumes that Putin could not or would not have been able to successfully reinforce Assad’s position with Russian military assets before the U.S. could rush additional forces to the region.
This nightmare scenario is not really even the worst one you can imagine – it is just the one that seems about as likely as the Miracle on the Hudson Institute to have happened.
Look, there’s a case to be made that the singular focus on the Iranian nuclear program was, from the get-go, a terrible miscalculation that failed to address the roots of today’s regional crisis, exaggerating a real but hardly apocalyptic threat that could have been capably managed by clever policymakers. But these Mar-a-Lago Morning Quarterbacks who think that there was some silver bullet available to the Obama Administration that would have fixed Syria and prevented a nuclear Iran without unimaginable bloodshed really aren’t thinking through the counterfactuals in any kind of systematic way.
Ask yourself what Lee Smith would be saying today if Obama had plunged the U.S. into a Syria disaster and been responsible for overseeing Iran’s ascendance into the nuclear club. That Smith’s half-baked revisionism, unmoored from any realistic appraisal of America’s actual options in 2013, is gaining traction in D.C. proves that the country’s foreign policy elite hasn’t learned a single discernible thing from the past 40 years of blithely setting the Middle East on fire in the name of “stability,” and more evidence, as if we needed any, that keeping a power-drunk United States from accidentally stumbling into another decades-long quagmire in the region, and keeping the Lee Smiths of the world as far from power as possible, will be one of the most important challenges facing the country for many more years to come.
David Faris is chair of the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at Roosevelt University in downtown Chicago. His books Dissent and Revolution in a Digital Age: Social Media, Blogging and Activism in Egypt (2013) (Here) and Social Media in Iran: Politics and Society After 2009 (Here) (with Babak Rahimi) focus on the use of digital media by social movements.