Shadow Government

The tide of war is rising. What is Obama going to say?

Nick Kristof has an interesting column outlining his takeaways from the recent Aspen Strategy Group summer workshop. I was at the same workshop, and it seems he and I had a similar reaction: It was striking how many different experts believed that the United States was going to have to pursue a more interventionist American posture in Syria than the one the Obama administration currently is following.

The view was not unanimous, of course, and most supporters of American intervention seemed to arrive at the position reluctantly, without any illusions about how easy or cheap this would be. Moreover, most recommendations included explicit or implicit restrictions and caveats, such as "no U.S. ground troops" or "must get Arab League endorsement" -- some even would wait for explicit authorization in a new U.N. Security Council Resolution. Yet few thought the Obama administration's current strategy was working, and most did not think that the administration had yet articulated a coherent and plausible way forward.

The discussion on Iran was also lively, with a wide range of views, some quite hawkish and others quite dovish. Yet here again I was struck by how many strategists believed that the window for a diplomatic resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue was closing. And a sizable number of them believed that when the window closed, if push came to shove, the U.S. president, whoever he might be, would have to decide for war.

In short, I came away from the workshop thinking that the tide of war is rising, not receding. Whether the tide will reach all the way to a full American intervention involving substantial ground troops, I do not know. But I do know that the Obama administration has not prepared the ground politically, rhetorically, fiscally, or any other way for a new American military confrontation.

The timing is exceedingly awkward. Neither presidential campaign seems eager for an extensive public discussion on possible future military interventions (the Obama campaign seems happy to have extensive discussions about past interventions, especially the Bin Laden raid). President Obama, who rarely talked about Afghanistan despite authorizing a major escalation in the war there, seems more comfortable talking about ending interventions than launching them.

But events may force the conversation, and a growing number of people sympathetic to the president seem to be coming to that very conclusion.

When Nick Kristof starts accusing the president of being AWOL, the tide is turning. What will President Obama say in response?

Kris Connor/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Mistaking symptoms for causes

Obama administration counterterrorism official John Brennan was out on the hustings yesterday trying to once again get the administration credit for what they're not doing. In this case, it was to foster the illusion that the administration is actively exploring options for intervening in Syria's civil war. "Various options that are being talked about ... are things that the United States government has been looking at very carefully, trying to understand the implications, trying to understand the advantages and disadvantages of this." This is little enough seventeen months into a popular uprising against one of the world's worst governments. Italians gave us the concept of festina lente, to hurry up slowly; the Obama administration wants to laurel itself for boldly acting cautiously.

But Brennan's comments are also illustrative for how they characterize the problem in Syria. While at pains to pretend the Obama administration is considering no-fly zones to prevent the Syrian military from killing civilians in refugee camps -- although the administration seems comfortable enough with the Syrian military killing civilians in their homes -- Brennan attested that the administration is "quite busy making sure that we're able to do everything possible that's going to advance the interests of peace in Syria and not, again, do anything that's going to contribute to more violence." That's incredibly revealing: the administration believes that violence is the problem, not the injustice and repression the regime of Bashir al-Assad is imposing on its long-suffering population.

The Obama administration seems not to understand that violence has political causes, and that "preventing violence" only reinforces the grip of those in power. They are diagnosing symptoms, not diseases. As no less a source than Elie Wiesel said, "we must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented." The Obama administration applauds itself for "new pragmatism." That should be called what it is: a studied neutrality to the claims of a people against their government, an even-handedness between repressors and repressed.