President Obama has with rare exceptions shunned even modest U.S. intervention abroad, and last week we learned more details of his aversion: His chief military advisers confirmed that last year the President personally killed a plan supported by his main security advisers to arm the Syrian rebels.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey didn’t elaborate on the President’s reasons for killing the proposal. But the two senior officials acknowledged under questioning on Thursday from Senator John McCain that they had supported the Petraeus-Clinton plan.
On Friday White House spokesman Jay Carney was typically dodgy and wouldn’t confirm the news. But he did volunteer a roundabout justification, claiming that “a lack of weapons is not the problem in Syria right now.” He added that “we don’t want any weapons to fall into the wrong hands and potentially further endanger the Syrian people, our ally, Israel, or the United States.”
But if the rebels are flush with weapons, aren’t those weapons already in danger of falling into the wrong hands? One point of U.S. military aid is to have some influence on rebel behavior, while increasing the clout of more moderate factions. By doing nothing, Mr. Obama has guaranteed that the rebels will be supplied by Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and the Saudis who don’t mind arming Sunni Salafists. That’s one of the lessons of “leading from behind” in Libya, but in Syria we aren’t even following from behind.
Syria is Iran’s main regional ally, and the longer the Syrian civil war rages the more disorder spreads in the region. Late last month Israel bombed a convoy carrying heavy weapons into Lebanon to help Israel’s enemy and Iran’s Shiite proxy, Hezbollah. A quicker victory for the rebels backed by the U.S. two years ago might have cut off Syria as a conduit for Iranian arms to Hezbollah and thus reduced the threat to Israel.
The Petraeus-Clinton proposal speaks well of Mr. Obama’s first-term security team but also raises more alarm about his second-term choices. John Kerry, Chuck Hagel and John Brennan all lack the independent standing of Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Panetta and former General Petraeus. They aren’t likely to challenge Mr. Obama with views he doesn’t want to hear.
U.S. military action other than drone warfare isn’t in favor these days, but Syria is showing how doing nothing has costs of its own. In overruling his advisers, Mr. Obama has prolonged Syria’s civil war, increased regional instability, and delivered a strategic gift to Iran, the main enemy of Israel and the U.S.
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