Foreign policy realists in the White House decry 'weakness and indecision'
Somebody needs to throw a bucket of cold water on President Obama and his "lead from behind" cohort of foreign policy advisors. The few White House national security staffers who see what's happening to American power and prestige in the Middle East have finally gone public with their alarm at the direction of our foreign policy.
Vladimir Putin’s intervention in Syria is creating new rifts inside an exhausted and in some cases demoralized Obama national security team, where officials pushing for bolder action see the president as stubbornly unwilling to assume new risk as he nears his final year in office.
Current and former Obama officials say the president’s reluctance to respond more assertively against Putin is signaling U.S. weakness and indecision. “We’re just so reactive,” said one senior administration official. “There’s just this tendency to wait” and see what steps other actors take.
Putin’s direct military intervention — following years of indirect support for Syrian ruler Bashar Assad — has broken any momentum Obama had after sealing his nuclear deal with Iran. Secretary of State John Kerry had hoped to follow through on the agreement by working with Iran and Russia to win a political settlement in Syria, a goal that now seems fanciful. Adding to the frustration is the high-profile failure of the Pentagon plan to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels, which is being downsized.
“They’re on their back feet right now,” said a former senior Obama foreign policy hand.
Obama has recently approved the supply of ammunition to Kurdish and Arab fighters in northern Syria, and the Pentagon training program is being repurposed to arm trusted rebel commanders in the field. Midlevel officials throughout the administration have also been asked to “dust off old plans,” as one put it, and brainstorm new potential approaches to Syria and Russia.
But expectations are low that those efforts will lead anywhere. Sources familiar with administration deliberations said that Obama’s West Wing inner circle serves as a brick wall against dissenting views. The president’s most senior advisers — including National Security Adviser Susan Rice and White House chief of staff Denis McDonough — reflect the president’s wariness of escalated U.S. action related to Syria or Russia and, officials fear, fail to push Obama to question his own deeply rooted assumptions. “Susan and Denis channel him,” says a former administration official who has witnessed the dynamic.
That dynamic is not new. But Putin’s escalation has combined two of Obama’s biggest foreign policy headaches — a newly aggressive Russia and Syria’s civil war — into one throbbing migraine.
This sort of leak was unheard of for most of the Obama presidency. But with the president still insisting that Putin is showing "weakness" by intervening in Syria and that our assistance to the rebels can ever be anything more than inadequate, the alarm being raised is that the president is out of touch with reality and being shielded from the truth by radical ideologues.
Obama as president has never allowed much dissent to creep into his discussions with aides about anything. This has led to failures all over the board in domestic and foreign policy and the appearance of the U.S. sleepwalking our way to disaster. It's not going to get any better. As long as the president closes himself off to people offering uncomfortable views at odds with his own, Putin will continue to outmaneuver us in Syria and elsewhere.