Arming The Rebels Isn’t Realist. It’s Surrealist.

Noah Millman attempts to make sense of Drezner’s view that Obama’s wading into Syria is a realist calculus:

Longstanding conflicts don’t weaken extremist groups, they add to their resources – even as they drain the overall resources of the society. A prolonged civil war will certainly weaken Syria, but I don’t see how it will materially weaken Hezbollah in Lebanon. And I’d be curious to see numbers on just how much of a drain the Syrian conflict is on Iran, even in monetary terms. Most importantly, what about the radicalizing effect of a prolonged civil war on Sunnis in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Egypt, etc? I was under the impression that preventing that radicalization was a really big foreign policy objective. And last, there’s Daniel Larison’s point that if the goal is to prolong the civil war, it’s counter-productive to put American credibility on the line by publicly choosing sides. It would be far more sensible for us to covertly support the rebels while publicly advocating a peaceful resolution of the conflict. Drezner’s argument feels like an attempt to impose coherence on a policy that is driven by other factors.

I cannot see any sane realism here – just improvised weakness. Obama’s foreign policy seems, at this point, to be going in two directions at once. It both seeks to create the change we wanted – away from neo-imperialism and entanglement in places where our core national interests are not at stake – and yet simultaneously clings to Clinton-Bush remnants, i.e. obsessive paranoia about Iran, and impulsive humanitarian interventions like Libya. It feels like a transitional administration rather than one that has the courage of its own post-imperial convictions. Larison contends that the Ben Rhodes’ defense of the move is simply delusional:

According to the extremely broad definition, the U.S. has an interest in inflicting damage on Iran and its allies as part of a competition for influence in the region, and to that end the U.S. is supposed to aid anti-Iranian forces wherever they might be found. It treats Iran as if it were a major threat whose influence has to be rolled back. There is some internal coherence to this view, but its core assumptions are delusional. They are based on an obsession with limiting Iranian influence that doesn’t actually seem to promote U.S. or regional security, and as I believe we’re seeing in Syria this obsession is contributing to making the U.S. and the region less stable and secure. That is what many Syria hawks think the U.S. can and should be doing, and to the extent that the administration agrees with their underlying assumptions that is what explains Obama’s very bad decision.

Fred Kaplan isn’t worried about a slippery slope into war but remains skeptical of any realist interpretation of the move:

There is no notion here of a rebel victory; nor is Obama doing anything to suggest that this is his goal. A successful outcome, Rhodes said, would be a “political settlement”—preferably forged and imposed by the United States and Russia together—that pushes Assad out of power but “preserves some elements of the regime” while also bringing in “the opposition, who we believe speaks for the majority of the country.” This is, to say the least, far-fetched. Russia regards Assad as an ally, his regime as a bulwark of Russian geostrategic interests, and any opening to the opposition as a source of dangerous instability. In fact, regardless of one’s viewpoint or nationality, it is hard to imagine a “political settlement” that shares power between Assad’s henchmen and the various rebel factions as anything but a formula for continued murder and mayhem.

More Dish on intervention in Syria here, here, and here.