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date: 27 May 2017

Foreign Policy Mistakes

Summary and Keywords

Syria is in tatters. A brutal dictator, vicious terrorist groups, and a raging civil war have led to the death of hundreds of thousands and the displacement of millions. Given the ongoing Syrian conflict, President Barack Obama’s rather restrained foreign policy toward the Bashar al-Assad regime has been described as “feckless,” “flawed,” and “clueless.” In August 2012, however, President Obama issued a strong warning when he famously said the “red line” for the United States in terms of stepping up a military offensive would be if “we started seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.”

Beginning in 2013, the Damascus regime did utilize chemical weapons against the Syrian people, perhaps most shockingly in August in the Ghouta suburbs of Damascus. Yet President Obama ultimately held back from intervening militarily, and his decision has since received strong and persistent criticism. After retiring from his post as secretary of defense, Robert Gates judged the president’s decision a “serious mistake.” It allowed the tragedy to continue and American credibility to be hurt. The president himself, however, disagreed. About the decision not to act militarily he said later: “I’m very proud of this moment.” He was convinced that the United States could not successfully affect the situation and that he had kept the country out of another quagmire.

It is indeed the case that good decisions can avoid wars or win them while bad decisions can start wars or lose them, and these consequences are just one reason why the study of foreign policy mistakes is so important. Yet it can, of course, not be the case that an evaluation of foreign policy decisions is rendered to the subjective eyes of the beholder. Instead, what is needed is an objective framework by which to identify and analyze foreign policy mistakes. Foreign policy mistakes are procedural errors concerning the diagnostic or the prescriptive level of the foreign policy decision-making task. They can be mistakes of omission or commission and can occur in regard to a threat or to an opportunity.

Of special importance is the question how foreign policy mistakes can be avoided. This question can be answered through a decision-making framework defined by (a) the level of information a leader can have about a foreign policy challenge and (b) the potential consequences of a decision. Because many, if not most, challenges with respect to questions of international security are “ill-defined,” the myopic strategy of disjointed incrementalism is ideal. It avoids mistakes by making reversible (disjointed) and relatively small (incremental) moves away from the status quo.

In the case of Syria, President Obama followed a strategy of disjointed incrementalism. He could not rely on much certain or reliable information regarding the situation and correctly understood that a military engagement could have potentially very adverse consequences in terms of casualties and a general escalation of the situation. Contrary to often repeated judgments that his decision not to engage militarily was a mistake, it is the case that he indeed avoided a mistake.

Keywords: foreign policy mistakes, decision-making, good decision-making, disjointed incrementalism, rational, Barack Obama, Syria

Drawing a Red Line

The situation in Syria was dire. By August 2012, the internal war had been raging for about a year and a half, and the death toll was approaching 60,000 while the number of refugees was about to pass the 100,000 mark.1 Being wary of chemical attacks that could be carried out by the Syrian regime, on August 20, President Barack Obama gave a clear warning. During a press conference he stated:

We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is [if] we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.2

In the months prior to drawing this red line, President Obama’s rather restrained foreign policy toward the Bashar al-Assad regime had been described as “feckless,” “flawed,” and “clueless” (Karsh, 2016, p. 1; West, 2016, p. 27). Now though, the president seemed determined, and his determination would soon be tested. Beginning in 2013, Assad’s forces reportedly did utilize chemical weapons against the Syrian people. The most shocking attack, however, came in August of that year in the Ghouta suburb of Damascus, yet President Obama ultimately held back from intervening militarily.

The president’s decision has since received strong and persistent criticism. After retiring from his post as secretary of defense, Leon Panetta judged the president’s decision a “mistake” (Shanker & D’Avolio, 2013, p. A12). It hurt U.S. credibility, and, worse, it allowed the Syrian tragedy to continue. The criticism continued through the months and years. A somewhat typical censure of President Obama’s Syria policy is found in an article in Foreign Policy (Lister, 2016). The article is titled “Obama’s Syria strategy is the definition of insanity.” Making his case Lister writes:

U.S. indecision, risk aversion, a total divergence between rhetoric and policy, and a failure to uphold clearly stated “red lines” have all combined into what can be described as a cold-hearted, hypocritical approach. At worst, Washington has indirectly abetted the wholesale destruction of a nation-state, in direct contradiction to its fundamental national security interests and its most tightly held values.

Two months later, in November, The New Yorker described the Syrian conflict as “the most catastrophic war of our young century” (Filkins, 2016). It is not any longer internal conflict, but it has become a regional one with global dimensions. The death toll in late 2016 was well over a quarter million. Out of a total population of 22 million before the war, more than four million Syrians have fled the country, and over six million are internally displaced.3 The Syrian government is dropping barrel bombs on the population, and ISIS occupies large parts of the country (Williams, 2016, p. 99). In fact, Syria is now home to perhaps the greatest concentration of ideological extremists in any single country ever.

Is all this President Obama’s fault? Could he have prevented this tragedy or at least abated it? Should he have shown more resolve to act militarily after he issued the red line warning and after the Assad regime crossed it? The president himself disagrees with the ubiquitous judgment, whether made by (former) government officials or by countless commentators and pundits, that his decision not to act militarily against the Assad regime was a mistake. In a spring 2016 interview with The Atlantic he looked back at his decision and said confidently: “I’m very proud of this moment” (Goldberg, 2016). Also at the time of his decision President Obama was convinced that U.S. military involvement could not successfully affect the situation and that he had kept the country out of another quagmire.

Foreign policy decisions can be very consequential. What is at stake in crisis and conflict situations is their escalation or de-escalation. What is at stake are the lives of innocent civilians and, of course, the lives of many troops and fighters. What is at stake also are potentially huge amounts of treasure that can go to waste. These consequences are among the reasons why the study of foreign policy mistakes and how to avoid them is so important. Of course, it cannot be the case that an evaluation of foreign policy decisions is rendered to the subjective eyes of the beholder. Instead, what is needed are objective frameworks by which to identify and analyze foreign policy mistakes and strategies for avoiding them.

Toward this end, there are four general tasks in terms of this discussion. First, it is necessary to conceptualize what foreign policy mistakes are. Although the empirical focus is on the question of U.S. military intervention in Syria, the conceptual framework is universally applicable to foreign policy mistakes in any issue area. Second, a few paradigmatic reasons why they occur are illustrated. Third, the ways in which foreign policy mistakes can be avoided are discussed, a task that introduces the immediate policy significance of the subject. Fourth, President Obama’s decision-making with respect to the Syria conflict is outlined. Contrary to often-repeated judgments that his decision not to engage the United States militarily in Syria against the Assad regime was a mistake, he indeed avoided a mistake.

Conceptualizing Foreign Policy Mistakes

In conceptualizing foreign policy mistakes, it is important to avoid two common and related fallacies. The first fallacy is to identify a policy as a mistake in hindsight. The 2003 U.S. military intervention in Iraq serves as an example. It is doubtlessly the case that any military or political gains that U.S. forces accomplished initially soon started to be reversed. Contrary to President George W. Bush’s (2003) expectation at the time, Iraq did not become a “dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region.” In fact, the country is now marked by inherent instability, sectarian strife, and ongoing violence. It seems that President Bush’s decision to act militarily against the Saddam Hussein regime was a mistake.

Yet looking back after things started to go wrong is not a legitimate way to identify a mistake. What is needed is not hindsight, but a stable standard of truth or rectitude from which to make analytical judgments about whether or not a decision constitutes a mistake. A first approximation of such a standard is that mistakes manifest themselves as the pursuit of policy contrary to the self-interest of the decision maker or the interests of his constituency (Wriggins, 1969). For such a decision to qualify and be recognized as a mistake, it must meet two criteria. First, the policy undertaken “must have been perceived as counterproductive in its own time, not merely by hindsight.” Second, “a feasible alternative course of action must have been available” (Tuchman, 1984, p. 5). The feasible alternative course of action must be understood as a rational course of action (Bueno de Mesquita & Lalman, 1992; von Neumann & Morgenstern, 1953).

The second fallacy is to confuse foreign policy mistakes with foreign policy failures or outcomes. Here it is important to realize that mistakes are about the decision-making process; that is, they are cognitive or behavioral phenomena. Failures, on the other hand, are about consequences, that is policy outcomes. The analysis of failures is itself a very interesting undertaking, and, arguably, it can be much more contested and multifaceted than the analysis of mistakes. In good part this is because “failure” (and “success”) are not inherent attributes of policy consequences, but rather they are “labels applied by stakeholders and observers.” Failures (and successes) are “declared and argued over.” This process is, of course, not necessarily evidence based, and thus failures and successes are, to some extent, “constructed” (Bovens & t’Hart, 2016, p. 654). It is “ultimately the interpretation of policy outcomes and the meaning imbued to them in political discourse which makes policies be seen as successful or unsuccessful” (Bovens & t’Hart, 1996; Bovens, t’Hart, & Kuipers, 2006; McConnell, 2010; Oppermann & Spencer, 2016, p. 686).4

A mistake in the decision-making process may lead to a substantive failure, but a causal connection is not always present (Walker & Malici, 2011, pp. 7–8). It may, for example, be the case that a policy will not achieve its goals through no fault of the decision maker but because of the efforts of others to obstruct his or her achievement. A policy may conversely achieve its goals because of the mistakes of others, rather than one’s own efforts and skill (Baldwin, 2000). In short, mistakes do not always produce failures, nor are mistakes always equivalent to policy failures. Making this distinction is important for conceptual and analytical purposes.

Having emphasized that the foreign policy decision must rest on a rational decision-making process, it follows that a foreign policy mistake can fall into two domains: (a) intelligence, a cognitive judgment that is blinded by bias, ignorance, or passion, or (b) policy, a prescription for behavior that is costly and results in undesirable and unanticipated effects. Moreover, intelligence and policy errors may be mistakes of omission or commission, that is, each kind of error may be an error in either of two opposite directions. A mistake of omission is a situation in which the decision maker should detect or do something but does not. A mistake of commission is a situation in which the decision maker misperceives or does something but should not. Crossing these possibilities with the categories of diagnosis and prescription creates the general typology of foreign policy mistakes in Figure 1.

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Figure 1. General Typology of Foreign Policy Mistakes.

Source: Adapted from Walker and Malici (2011)

At this stage one more distinction is necessary for this typology of foreign policy mistakes to be complete: decision makers can engage in mistakes of omission or commission in a situation where they face an opportunity or, alternatively, a threat. The former is a cooperative situation in which gains are likely, whereas the latter is a conflictual situation in which losses are likely (Herrmann, 1988; Lebow & Stein, 1987). These different consequences are associated with possibilities for different kinds of substantive failures (outcomes), which can follow from different kinds of procedural failures (mistakes). They are illustrated in Figure 2.5

Foreign Policy MistakesClick to view larger

Figure 2. Types of Situations and Types of Foreign Policy Consequences.

Source: Adapted from Walker and Malici (2011)

As Figure 2 shows, procedural failures may result in four types of substantive failures. For threat situations there are deterrence failures and false alarm failures. A deterrence failure may be the result when a decision maker does not detect an existing threat of losses or else hesitates too long and thereby does not take action sufficient to deter the threat. A false alarm failure may be the result when a decision maker misperceives a threat of losses that does not exist or initiates action that creates a threat. For opportunity situations there are reassurance failures and false hope failures. A reassurance failure may be the result when a decision maker does not detect an existing opportunity for gains or else hesitates too long and thereby misses the opportunity for making gains. A false hope failure may be the result when a decision maker misperceives an opportunity for gains that does not exist or initiates action that does not increase gains (Walker & Malici, 2011, pp. 10–13).

Before concluding this section on the conceptualization of foreign policy mistakes, one cautionary note is in place: While the presented typologies of foreign policy mistakes are conceptually well founded, it is also important to recognize that they are ideal types or heuristics. They are not conclusive, but rather suggestive ways of thinking about mistakes and empirical cases. It is rarely the case that actual cases will neatly fit a particular cell of these typologies. While reality is too complex and defies such rigorous categorization, typologies nevertheless fulfill two important functions. First, they allow a more systematic approach to the identification of foreign policy mistakes. Second, they provide an appropriate vocabulary for the understanding and analysis of foreign policy mistakes. Having elaborated how foreign policy mistakes can be classified, what is standing out now is an explanation for why they occur.

Explaining Foreign Policy Mistakes

The standard of rectitude for avoiding mistakes and conversely for good decision-making is to be engaged in a rational process. The process encompasses several demanding tasks. Among them are a holistic search for information, a comprehensive problem diagnosis, assessment of the consequences of alternatives, cost-benefit computations, and ultimately choice (Simon, 1976; Tetlock, 1998). In general terms, it is when the decision-making process departs from a rational path that the decision maker runs the danger of engaging in a foreign policy mistake. These mistakes can occur on the individual, the group, or the bureaucratic and organizational levels of decision-making. Any student of foreign policy analysis is well familiar with the decades-running literature on fallacies at each level. Thus, instead of reviewing this literature, a few key points are touched on.

At the individual level, avoiding mistakes requires from the decision maker certain qualities and skills or, in the words of philosopher Isaiah Berlin (1996, p. 46), “a capacity for integrating a vast amalgam of constantly changing, multicolored, evanescent, perpetually overlapping data.” Yet decision makers (like everyone else) are “bounded” in their rationality (Simon, 1985). The capacity that Belin is discussing is easily compromised by a host of factors. Among them are personality traits and the needs and motives of the decision maker (Hermann, 2003; Winter, 2003). Among them are also the decision maker’s cognitive map or his belief system (Axelrod, 1976; Walker, Malici, & Schafer, 2011). Belief systems are particularly relevant because they “provide ready answers to fundamental questions about the political world” (Tetlock, 1998, p. 876). Referring to belief systems and many other factors, Morgenthau (1985, pp. 7–8) wrote aptly that these “contingent elements of personality, prejudice, and subjective preference, and all of the weaknesses of intellect and will which flesh is heir to,” are likely “to deflect foreign policies from their rational course” and subsequently result in mistakes.

Advisory groups are thought to help leaders avoid mistakes and enable good decision-making. However, this assumption does not necessarily bear out in reality. As with the individual level, a host of factors can interfere, thereby biasing a decision toward a mistake. “Groupthink” is the most recognized pathology here, and the seminal work of Janis (1972, 1982) stands out. It occurs when the group’s “members’ striving for unanimity override their motivations to realistically appraise alternative courses of action” (Janis, 1982, p. 9). Such concurrence seeking results in a distorted view of reality, excessive and unwarranted optimism, and hasty decisions leading to policy “fiascos.” George (1980) provided further important work about group decision-making, as he distinguished between formal, competitive, and collegial groups, with each of these group structures having advantages and disadvantages. Collegial groups, for example, may prove to be more efficient in reaching decisions. However, this efficiency can come at a price of insufficient attention to alternative courses of action, resulting ultimately in foreign policy mistakes.

At the level of bureaucratic politics, Allison (1971) and Halperin (1974) consider policy decisions as the end result of competing bureaucratic interests and preferences. Bureaucratic organizations are carried by autonomous interests and preferences beyond the common interest that they would serve exclusively in an ideal world. The approach thus emphasizes the politicized nature of bureaucratic life and the impact that bureaucratic parochialism and inter- and intra-agency rivalry and competition can have on processing information, decision-making, and policy outputs (Parker & Stern, 2002, p. 609). The net effect is for politics to be defined as a strategic interaction process rather than a problem-solving process (Lake & Powell, 1999; Sylvan & Voss, 1998).

While the bureaucratic politics approach focuses primarily on the processes among intragovernmental agencies, the emphasis of the organizational behavior approach is on structural features of organizational life (March & Olsen, 1989; Steinbrunner, 1974). Governmental decision-making is considered “organizational output, highly dependent on the structure, goals, preferences, priorities, rules, norms, roles and routines in question.” Moreover, “[e]xperiences from previous problems become embedded in dominant analogies and practices, which in turn color perceptions and suggest solutions to current problems” (Parker & Stern, 2002, p. 609). Similarly to the bureaucratic politics model, these structural factors can hinder the rational course of a decision-making process and bias it toward a mistake.

At each level of analysis, ultimately myriad factors can intervene in the decision-making process. What all factors share in common is a causal role for diagnostic and prescriptive errors, as they compel the decision maker to deviate from the norms of rational choice. Of course, the important question now becomes how to avoid foreign policy mistakes.

Avoiding Foreign Policy Mistakes

Rational and good decision-making can be difficult. Scholars, however, have endeavored to identify various solutions that can help it. Generic design solutions prescribe institutional arrangements that emphasize efficiency in processing information and advice within different historical or organizational contexts. For example, students of the American presidency offer solutions in the form of different presidential advisory systems designed to prevent various organizational pathologies such as the groupthink syndrome or the risky shift syndrome (George, 1972). Actor-specific solutions emphasize the importance of selecting competent and experienced leaders whose expertise raises the likelihood of avoiding mistakes in diagnosis and prescription (Tetlock, 2005). Theoretical solutions are procedural strategies that any decision-making unit can follow to minimize policy mistakes by either avoiding diagnostic and prescriptive errors or mitigating their consequences.

Theoretical solutions are theoretical exactly because they can be generalized to all actors. They are, however, also practical by offering concrete and simple decision-making strategies. Thus, it can be argued that theoretical solutions trump the other solutions. A general decision-making strategy in this category is the strategy of disjointed incrementalism (Braybrooke & Lindblom, 1963). It was introduced to the social sciences in the 1960s, yet in the field of foreign policy analysis it has not received the attention it deserves. It is an ideal foreign policy strategy because at its base is an explicit recognition of the general problem in foreign policy decision-making, namely that problems are ill-structured or ill-defined (Steinbrunner, 1974; Vertzberger, 1990, p. 144). Although the strategy of disjointed incrementalism is rather straightforward, it is best explained through juxtaposition, as done in Figure 3.

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Figure 3. Different Strategies of Decision.

Source: Modified from Braybrooke and Lindblom (1963, p. 78).

The upper-left quadrant in Figure 3 depicts the classical synoptic assumptions of rational choice involving complete and perfect information about the costs and benefits of alternative choices. Situations in which these assumptions would be met are decisions in bureaucratic settings involving clear problem representation and trivial change. One example would be choosing among different brands of office supplies that have clearly marked prices and readily identifiable beneficial features in a steady environment of demand for these products by the decision unit. In politics, however, Braybrooke and Lindblom (1963, pp. 78–79) argue that these assumptions are rarely met. And, of course, the assumptions are even less pertinent to situations of international crisis and conflict.

Moving to the upper-right quadrant, a situation is depicted that would require large-scale change under the condition of high information. Such situations, Braybrooke and Lindblom argue, are illusionary. Political decisions here would “require prodigious feats of synoptic analysis beyond human capacities.” Put differently, “[T]he information and comprehension requirements of synoptic problem-solving simply cannot be met for large-scale . . . change” (Braybrooke & Lindblom, 1963, pp. 66, 70). Decision makers who operate under the assumption of high information, the authors contend, actually substitute ideology for information and employ a utopian strategy in which risks are not estimated accurately and biases run rampant.

Regarding the lower-right quadrant in Figure 3, the possibility is depicted of long-shot decisions involving large-scale change under the condition of low information. Wars, revolutions, and crises fall into this category. Braybrooke and Lindblom (1963, p. 79) do not have a clear strategy for responding to this situation. Gambling by playing the odds or by following one’s gut feeling is a compromised long-shot strategy to cope with this type of situation in the event that a decision cannot be avoided or deferred (Walker & Malici, 2011, pp. 179–180). If, however, the decision can be avoided or deferred, then it should be. This, of course, will depend to a large extent on whether or not one’s own vital interests are at stake.

In the lower-left quadrant the typology represents the situation of political problems under the condition of low information about the consequences and costs of the decision. That is, the situation is ill-defined. Here Braybrooke and Lindblom suggest the strategy of disjointed incrementalism. It is myopic, and it requires making relatively small, reversible moves away from the status quo. This strategy is consistent with a proportional response to a decision by others and permits movement away from undesirable conditions in the present while also allowing for corrections and reversals over time in the face of new information following from the decision.

A strategy of disjointed incrementalism is well suited for avoiding mistakes and engaging in good decision-making. It avoids the mistakes of omission (detection and hesitation) by easily permitting a move away from the status quo. Only a little information can prompt an incremental change either away from a threat or toward an opportunity, depending on the content of the information. It mitigates the mistakes of commission (misperception and preemption) by prescribing a change that is reversible. Disjointed incrementalism is, in short, a rational coping strategy for dealing with complex political problems under conditions of relative uncertainty (low information).

President Obama and the Challenge of Syria

In January 2009 President Obama entered the White House, and with his new administration he was determined to reverse what he considered to be fundamental mistakes of the preceding Bush administration—“[t]rying to clean things up,” as he put it (qtd. in Chollet, 2016a, p. x). American interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq had become quagmires, and, according to the new president, U.S. troops were to leave in due time. President Obama was also determined that the United States not commit to any new military interventions in the Middle East under his watch. “Don’t do stupid stuff” became the guiding principle in his foreign policy toward the Middle East (Goldberg, 2016).

As simple as the phrase sounds—Don’t do stupid stuff—it captures the essence of a disjointed incrementalism strategy. “Don’t do stupid stuff” implies a myopic vision, and it encapsulates the realizations that (a) foreign policy challenges are inherently ill-defined and (b) one should, therefore, engage only in small and reversible actions toward the target. Regarding the Syrian conflict, it is appropriate, because although the situation there is very tragic and troubling, especially in humanitarian respects, it is not affecting crucial U.S. interests, as argued convincingly by the realist deans of the international relations field. John Mearsheimer (2014), for example, has argued that “no vital interests are at stake in . . . Syria.” Similarly, Stephen Walt (2015) has maintained that “U.S. strategic interests in Syria are limited.”

Stating that no vital U.S. interests are at stake in Syria is not equal to being cold or dispassionate about the tragedy there. Neither should the recommendation of disjointed incrementalism toward Syria be read as such. As difficult as it is to imagine, the situation in Syria could be worse. It would become worse if it were to develop toward a more direct confrontation between the United States on one side and Russia and Iran on the other. Increased U.S. military action in Syria at any point in the conflict could very well have led to such a conflagration. It would not have abated the conflict but arguably only worsened it.

What follows is not a conclusive, but rather a suggestive illustration of President Obama’s disjointed incrementalism in the Syrian conflict. Through a narrative, the task is to show that (a) he recognized the situation as ill-defined, (b) he engaged in small and reversible moves only, and (c) he thereby avoided a mistake of commission.

Assad Is Crossing the Red Line, but It’s a Big Mess

The Syrian conflict began in the context of the Arab uprisings in 2011, and it posed a serious challenge to President Obama’s ambition not to do stupid stuff. Early in the year the autocrats Zine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt had fallen. Now, in the first week of March, the situation escalated in Syria. Schoolchildren in the provincial city of Daraa had spray-painted “Down with the regime” on a wall. The regime’s security forces arrested them. After attempting the children’s release for two weeks, their families took to the streets. Government forces fired on and killed several protesters. The next day the funeral procession brought out 20,000 demonstrators, who chanted antigovernment slogans and attacked government buildings. From that point on, all hell broke loose.

The fighting between government forces and the evolving opposition would intensify from month to month while casualty rates mounted tragically. Then, in the early hours of August 21, 2013, a catastrophe occurred. On this morning the Syrian military attacked the rebel-controlled Damascene suburb of Ghouta with missiles containing the chemical agent sarin. The offense killed nearly 1,500 civilians, more than 400 of whom were children. The international community watched with shock and horror. In President Obama’s administration the attack was described as a “moral obscenity” (Sterner, 2014, p. 411). “This brazen assault,” as one of the president’s senior aides wrote, “had clearly crossed the ‘red line’ that President Obama had drawn a year earlier—that if Assad would use chemical weapons, it would warrant U.S .military action” (Chollet, 2016b).

Possible U.S. military actions centered chiefly on two options. One was the arming of Syrian opposition fighters. The other one was direct U.S. engagement through missile strikes against the strategic sites of the Damascus regime or the establishment of no-fly zones. Yet as atrocious as the Ghouta attack was, for the president there were also good reasons to step back and be reluctant to pursue either of the options. Some of the questions on his mind, as he had explained in a January interview with the New Republic, were these: “In a situation like Syria . . . can we make a difference . . .? Would a military intervention have an impact?” (Foer & Hughes, 2013). President Obama was a realist. He understood that the situation was extremely ill-defined and also that it was strategically intractable. A military response held many dangers and posed many risks.

The option of arming opposition fighters was very problematic. As the Syrian government was cracking down on its civilian population, a broad opposition had been forming. At the end of 2013, it was believed that there were about 1,200 armed opposition groups in Syria with well over 100,000 fighters.6 It was a “panoply of forces aligned partly among sectarian lines but with often-competing approaches and interests” (Barnard, 2016; Lund, 2012). It received support from Turkey, from Arab states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and, of course, also from the United States and its Western allies. Together they were all opposing Syrian President Assad, but they frequently backed different factions and thus contributed yet further to the opposition’s lack of unity. In fact, the rebels frequently fought each other (Abboud, 2015, p. 339; Byman, 2015, p. 31). Particularly problematic was also that some of these militias consisted of radicals such as the supporters of the Jahabat al-Nusra Front or the Islamic State (IS).

The president was thus wary about the plans to arm oppositionists. From the beginning he asked the right questions, about the identity of the rebels and whether the good ones could really be distinguished from the bad ones (Kaplan, 2016, p. 51). In a 2015 PBS Frontline production Deputy National Security Advisor and close confidant to the president Ben Rhodes explained further Obama’s hesitations at the time: “He [the president] wanted to make clear that we had to be very deliberate and careful when it comes to something like providing military assistance to an opposition group.”7 Rhodes followed up by reaffirming Obama’s questions: “Do we know that those arms aren’t going to fall into the wrong hands and end up in the custody of al Nusra Front or an ISIL, for instance?” “In a situation as chaotic as Syria’s,” said another official, “you don’t know where the weapons might end up, and what the consequences are if those weapons are used against civilians, against Israel, against American interests” (Landler & Gordon, 2013, p. A10).

The president’s hesitations about the integrity and reliability of the opposition groups were well-founded. Just one concrete case is the group known as the Syrian Revolutionaries Front. Early on in 2013 when it was founded, the group was considered to be more moderate. Later on, however, it dissolved, and many of its fighters defected to extremist brigades associated with Jahabat al-Nusra, the Syrian affiliate of al-Qaeda. “Such fluidity,” as one observer wrote aptly, “characterizes the formation and transformation of networks of violence throughout Syria” (Abboud, 2015, p. 340).

By the fall of 2014 it also became public knowledge that the CIA had conducted a secret study on the prospects of success when arming rebels. One of the things that President Obama wanted to know from the investigators was whether such a move ever worked. A senior administration official acknowledged that the CIA report “was pretty dour in its conclusions” (Mazzetti, 2014, p. A1). Indeed, the Mujahedeen fighters in Afghanistan in the 1980s may well have represented the only successful attempt in arming rebels and achieving intended goals (Myers & Shane, 2012). Already some months earlier, Obama had made a veiled remark about the CIA study to The New Yorker: “Very early in this process,” the president said, “I actually asked the CIA to analyze examples of America financing and supplying arms to an insurgency in a country that actually worked out well.” Yet, the president continued, “they couldn’t come up with much” (Remnick, 2014).

Regarding the option of missile strikes from warships or aerial bombing, the president was also worried. One of his particular concerns was that Assad would place civilians as human shields around the intended targets. He was also very concerned about an underlying flaw in the proposed strikes: They could not be fired at chemical weapons depots, because such attacks could release poisonous plumes into the air, detrimental to the civilian population. Instead, the strikes would target military units that had delivered these weapons. The weapons themselves would remain, and Assad would be able to carry on (Goldberg, 2016). Another problem was that the chemical weapons arsenal was spread out over as many as 45 sites. According to the U.S. military’s Central Command and Joint Staff, it would take up to 75,000 troops to secure these sites (Chollet, 2016a, p. 12; Sanger & Schmitt, 2012).

The conflict theater was problematic in another regard. The war in Libya served as a reference point, and it was clear that the Syrian context was considerably less clear cut than Libya’s. In a National Security Council meeting President Obama spelled out his concern about the differences between the two theaters. On one hand, Libya’s fighting had taken place in an open desert, and this allowed for clear targeting. Syria, on the other hand, was enmeshed in urban warfare with civilians, rebels, and soldiers intermingled (Kaplan, 2016, p. 50). The U.S. campaign in Libya had failed, and the prospects for Syria were much worse. Finally, if airstrikes were to be conducted, they would bear dangers to American pilots, as the Assad regime possessed one of the world’s most sophisticated air defense systems (Chollet, 2016a, p. 2).

Regarding the proposal of no-fly zones, the president considered these to be “half-baked” (Jaffe, 2016). It is indeed the case that their impact is often exaggerated, as evidenced by the U.S.-operated no-fly zones over Iraq throughout the 1990s. Moreover, as Stephen Walt (2014) points out, “[T]he United States has flown thousands of sorties in Iran and Afghanistan over the past decade or so . . . and these efforts didn’t allow Washington to dictate the terms to those on the ground or shape their political futures in any predictable way.” Debilitating the Syrian air force would not have kept the Syrian regime from using other means to a greater extent. Very likely, it would not have unseated Assad quickly either. A no-fly zone, moreover, was the first step onto a slippery slope: “If air power had failed to dislodge Assad,” as critics warned at the time, “demands to do more would surely have increased” (Lynch, 2015, p. 25; Walt, 2014).

Arming the opposition, conducting airstrikes, or creating no-fly zones were not viable options for the president. The situation was simply so messy that none of the proposed tools had good prospects. Even though retired Defense Secretary Panetta criticized President Obama for not acting militarily, while still in office he did acknowledge that “there has been no single unifying military alternative that can be recognized, appointed or contacted” (Panetta, 2012). Similarly, although former Defense Secretary Robert Gates after retirement criticized the president for drawing a red line, he understood the president’s hesitancy. Firing missiles on Syria, Gates said “would be throwing gasoline on a very complex fire in the Middle East.” He went further, saying: “Haven’t Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya taught us something about the unintended consequences of military action once it’s launched?” (Shanker & D’Avolio, 2013, p. A12).

As the conflict was escalating within Syria, it was also expanding toward taking on regional dimensions. Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia were strongly vying against the Syrian regime, but Iran and its ally Hezbollah were supporting it. With this geopolitical widening, the conflict also heightened the sectarian tensions in the region. Then there were, of course, Russian interests. Moscow was granted a naval base in the Syrian coastal city of Tartus in 1971, and this had remained the only strategic Russian asset with direct access to the Mediterranean. A senior administration official who was granted anonymity to discuss some internal White House deliberations described the situation as follows: “You can’t pretend you can go to war against Assad and not go to war against the Russians” (Jaffe, 2016). The same goes for Iran.

In sum, the situation was inherently ill-defined and strategically intractable. Even an approximation of any synoptic rationality in the decision-making process was out of the question. For President Obama to engage militarily may well have constituted a mistake of commission. It would be “daring too much” and it would likely have led to a false alarm failure. To be sure, there was reason for alarm, but had the president taken military action, the threat would likely have been exacerbated rather than abated.

Don’t Do Stupid Stuff; Make Small Steps Only

Despite this ill-defined and strategically intractable challenge in Syria, the pressure on President Obama to engage militarily had been on since the outbreak of the conflict and was ramping up following the Ghouta attack. The danger to do stupid stuff was ever present. The president, however, was very hesitant from the very beginning. In a rather surprising acknowledgment for an American president, he had explained early on in a New Republic interview: “I am more mindful probably than most of not only our incredible strength and capabilities, but also of our limitations” (Foer & Hughes, 2013). Although he would warn the Syrian regime that the use of chemical weapons would change his calculus regarding intervention, it did not. Instead, he relied on a much more fundamental calculus. The New York Times (Myers & Shane, 2012) described this one as follows:

[American military operations] would make the conflict even worse. [It] would risk drawing in Syria’s patrons, principally Iran and Russia, at a much greater level than they already are involved. It would allow Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad, to rally popular sentiment against the West and embolden Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups now fighting the Assad government to turn their attention to what they would see as another American crusade in the Arab world. (A6)

To be sure, the president was not categorically opposed to military action. Early in 2012, he did ask his military and intelligence chiefs to devise plans that would hasten the fall of the Assad regime. In the summer of 2012 then, CIA Director David Petraeus laid out a scheme to arm a group of so-called moderate Syrian rebels. This would put “pressure” on Assad, according to Petraeus. But he also acknowledged that these rebels could not oust the Syrian leader right away. The plan had the backing of notable figures in the administration, including Secretaries Hillary Clinton and Panetta. The plan also had support from Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey and from National Security Council member and later U.S. Representative to the United Nations Samantha Power (Kaplan, 2016, p. 50). President Obama, however, did not like it.

In a 2015 PBS Frontline production, the now-retired David Petraeus acknowledged that the president’s reservations were based on “very legitimate concerns.” Yet he also pressed ahead, arguing that “what one tries to do in a situation like that is . . . gather as much information as possible, but recognize that at the end of the day, there are always going to be risks. There are no guarantees. There are no certainties.” For the president there were too many uncertainties, and his hesitations were well-founded. On December 1, 2012, The New York Times editorialized (Sanger & Schmitt, 2012):

The administration is right to resist arming the rebels. Many have murky aims and some are extremist. Of late, they have received ample basic weapons from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and have also acquired antiaircraft weapons. . . . There is a risk that sending more such weapons into Syria could later end up in the hands of extremists, including in other countries. (A4)

However, as the conflict progressed; as the pressure on President Obama grew, he did feel compelled to provide some support to the opposition fighters. Yet in accordance with a disjointed incrementalism strategy, the support was rather measured. The U.S. actions toward Syria retrieved from the archives of The New York Times are listed in the event chronology found in Table 1.8 The period considered commences with President Obama’s “red line” warning and ends with the Ghouta attacks, almost exactly one year later.

Table 1. Event Chronology: US Actions toward Syria from August 21, 2012, to August 21, 2013.

Foreign Policy Mistakes

Instead of abating the conflict in any way, however, the president’s disjointed incrementalism seemed to allow the situation to worsen. On August 21, 2013, came the horrific chemical attack in Ghouta. In the days following the attack, the strong sentiment inside the White House Situation Room was that Assad must be punished. The Pentagon was staffed around the clock, and on January 27 Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel explained to the BBC: “We have moved assets in place to be able to fulfill and comply with whatever options the president wishes to take.” “We are ready to go,” he added.9 Indeed, on August 27, the United States deployed four destroyers near the Syrian coast equipped with Tomahawk cruise missiles.

As the situation was building and as White House deliberations continued, it was the White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough who came to play an important role. He cautioned explicitly about the perils of intervention, and, with that, he fed into Obama’s existing hesitation. Thus, alongside the signs of military preparedness, there were then also immediate signs that nothing big would be forthcoming, that “any strikes [the Obama administration] executed would be small and generally inadequate to change the battlefield equation” (Sterner, 2014, p. 412). Already one day prior to Hagel’s pronouncement, The Washington Post reported: “President Obama is weighing a military strike against Syria that would be of limited scope and duration.” It was to be “a deterrent, while keeping the United States out of deeper involvement” in Syria’s civil war . . . The timing of such an attack would probably last no more than two days” (DeYoung & Gearan, 2013).

It was indeed the case that President Obama was focusing on small strikes. In a PBS Newshour interview on August 28, 2013, he told co-anchor Gwen Ifill that the U.S “can take limited, tailored approaches,” so the president would not get the United States “drawn into a long conflict.” Ever wary of U.S. failures in the Middle East, the president emphasized that it would not be “a repetition of . . . Iraq.” Instead, it would be “saying in a clear and decisive . . . way” to Bashar al-Assad, “stop doing this.” This limited approach, the president further explained, “can have a positive impact on our national security over the long term,” and it “may have a positive impact in the sense that chemical weapons are not used again on innocent civilians” (Lehrer, 2013).

On the morning of August 31, however, it became clear that it would not come to any U.S. strikes against the Assad regime. Some hours earlier the president had already “stunned” his staff that he “wanted to explore another option,” and now he ventured to the Rose Garden to explain to the American people that he had made the decisions to seek explicit authorization from Congress for strikes against Syria (Chollet, 2016b; Landler, 2014, p. A7). In his weekly address, on September 7, the president reiterated that what he had in mind was “not an open-ended intervention,” but instead “limited” military action “both in time and scope—designed to deter the Syrian government from gassing its own people again and degrade its ability to do so.”10

It was then happenstance diplomacy that led to a moment of success. On September 9, Secretary of State John Kerry was in London for discussions with his British counterpart, William Hague. During the news conference the secretary was asked whether there was anything Assad could do to avoid an attack. Kerry’s response was: “Sure, he could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week—turn it over, all of it without delay and allow the full and total accounting [of it], but he isn't about to do it.”11 For the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, this was an opportunity. Russia could assert its interests diplomatically and, at the same time, demonstrate its relevance in matters of international security. Moscow thus moved to pressure Assad, and by September 14 the United States had announced a “deal” that was endorsed by the UN Security Council. International inspectors would be able to enter and destroy the Syrian chemical arsenal (Gearan & Wilson, 2013).

Yet after brief relief from this success of coercive diplomacy, the violence escalated anew. In the United States, politicians on both sides of the isle again advocated for more aggressive military intervention. Most prominently, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Senator John McCain called for creating a no-fly zone (Erlich, 2014, p. 222). For the president such measures carried too many risks, and it was dubious whether they could achieve anything. The president also rejected the continuing calls for arming more opposition fighters. That had “always been a fantasy,” he said, elaborating that “there’s not as much capacity as you would hope.”12 Speaking at a later occasion to reporters at the White House (qtd. in Baker, 2015), the president explained further his reservations about military means:

When I hear people offering up half-baked ideas as if they are solutions or trying to downplay the challenges involved in this situation, what I’d like to see people ask is specifically, precisely, what exactly would you do and how would you fund it and how would you sustain it? Typically what you get is a bunch of mumbo-jumbo.

Thus, the United States would continue with a disjointed incrementalism strategy of small and reversible steps. In the event chronology in Table 2 are listed U.S. actions towards the Syrian regime. The time frame under consideration begins immediately after the Ghouta chemical attacks, when the pressure on President Obama to act militarily increased significantly. It concludes at the end of September 2015, when Russia started launching airstrikes on behalf of the Syrian regime.

Table 2. Event Chronology: US Actions toward Syria from August 22, 2013, to September 30, 2015.

Foreign Policy Mistakes

The situation was worsening, In February 2014, U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford retired from his post in protest. He was disappointed by the administration’s restraint in Syria. Talking freely and publically, he explained in a CNN interview: “There really is nothing we can point to that’s been very successful in our policy.” He continued: “It is not a conflict that we should ignore, either on moral or on national security grounds.”13 Writing just a few days later in the op-ed pages of The New York Times, he argued: “The Free Syrian Army must have more military hardware, including mortars and rockets to pound airfields to impede regime air supply operations and . . . surface-to-air missiles.” The ambassador acknowledged, “[W]e don’t have good choices on Syria anymore,” but he went on to say that “some are clearly worse than others.” In the mind of the ambassador, “more hesitation and unwillingness to commit to enabling the moderate opposition fighters to fight more effectively both the jihadists and the regime simply hasten the day when American forces will have to intervene against Al Qaeda in Syria” (Ford, 2014).

This type of criticism toward President Obama continued over the months. One example is the “dissent channel cable,” which was broken by The Wall Street Journal in mid-June 2016 (Abi-Habib, 2016). In this internal document more than 50 diplomats were calling for military strikes against the Syrian regime. Taking these and previous critics together, the critics argue that President Obama failed to show resolve and that he thereby committed a mistake of omission. For the sake of abating the conflict and maintaining U.S. credibility, the president should have used force after Assad had crossed the red line in August 2013. There is a near-unanimous verdict among observers that this episode was a failure. Even President Obama’s supporters, so Chollet (2016b), a senior aide to the president says, refer to his handling of the Syrian challenge as a “debacle,” an “amateurish improvisation,” or the administration’s “worst blunder.” In this sense, according to Chollet, a mythology has evolved; that is, if only the United States had used force, it could have moved the conflict toward a resolution early on.

It’s Bad, but There Were No Better Alternatives

The Syrian war is a tremendous catastrophe. The radicalization and bloodshed in the country and the regional destabilization it brought will haunt the Middle East for decades to come. During President Obama’s tenure few of his policies have been criticized more widely than his refusal to become involved militarily against the Assad regime (Lynch, 2015, p. 24). One of the most notable criticisms came from Hillary Clinton. In 2014, after she left office, she told The Atlantic: “Great nations need organizing principles and ‘don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle” (Goldberg, 2014). It can be argued, as here, that “don’t do stupid stuff” actually is an organizing principle, or more precisely it is a prudent strategy for the United States in Syria.

The strategy of disjointed incrementalism is often at odds with prevailing inclinations, especially in the face of a tragedy like that in Syria. This point is well illustrated by another criticism from Robert Ford when he stated that “there’s never been a great sense of urgency in the administration about doing something big” (McManus, 2015). This is indeed correct. President Obama permitted only small moves. He has been steadfast in his assertions that the United States can, in fact, do little militarily to influence the situation and that the United States will not use military force (Williams, 2016, p. 94). Of course, one cannot rule out the possibility that a “prompt, forceful and committed” response by the president would have led to a better situation in Syria than the one the world is witnessing now (Walt, 2015), but it is very doubtful.

Proponents of military action were calling for the arming of opposition fighters, for airstrikes, and for the establishment of no-fly zones in Syria. Regarding the plan of arming opposition fighters, initially President Obama rejected the plan devised by David Petraeus, but some months later he approved a similar one. What happened then was anticipated by the president. Tehran leaders increased their support for the Assad regime, and they also sent Quds forces (Kaplan, 2016, pp. 51–52). Missile strikes or aerial bombing were also not viable options. The chemical weapons storage facilities could not be hit directly, and they were also dispersed throughout the country. Securing them would have required tens of thousands of troops, as estimated by U.S. military planners (Chollet, 2016a, p. 12). Such a move was not only unthinkable on the U.S. side, but it would have triggered a much more direct confrontation with Russia and Iran. Regarding no-fly zones, Iraq serves as one example of their ineffectiveness. Moreover, they would likely become a slippery slope in a conflict in which the United States had no vital interests.

All of these plans—no matter how well intentioned—were, in the end, ill-founded and escalatory, and they would likely result in a deeper conflagration and a wider conflict. During a visit to Riyadh in the spring of 2016, the president was asked about military options in Syria. He responded: “None of the options are good” (Al Jazeera, 2016). This is an answer the American foreign policy establishment is neither accustomed to nor sympathetic toward. Yet it is just a fact, and, accordingly, prominent scholars have argued that there is “no viable military strategy for ending the conflict” in Syria (Bacevich, 2016; Mearsheimer, 2014, p. 21; Walt, 2015). The caution that President Obama has displayed throughout the conflict was warranted, and the policy of not getting involved in Syria has been correct (Byman, 2015, p. 30; Gupta, 2016, p. 34).

Although President Obama avoided making larger mistakes in regard to the Assad regime, one error that he did make, arguably, was to underestimate ISIS, and this challenge introduces a complication that is not often acknowledged in discussions about the Syrian conflict. When it comes to ISIS, the articulated goal was to downgrade and ultimately defeat it. Toward this goal, however, as Syria expert Joshua Landis explains, “Washington needs Assad.” He explains further: “We don’t want to ally with Assad, but . . . strategically, we’re allied with Assad.” The reason for this, Landis explains, is that Assad “is a bulwark against the spread of ISIS today.” America is “trying to destroy ISIS. But if America destroyed Assad and helped that agenda to come forward, who’s going to take Damascus? It’s going to be ISIS and Nusra” (Smith, 2015).

This is the lesson of Iraq and Libya: U.S. intervention could have created a vacuum, illustrating once again “that the only thing worse than a truly awful government is no government at all” (Walt, 2015). It often seems that the critics of Obama’s approach to Syria do not give consideration to this strategic conundrum. The actors involved in Syria are plentiful. The Assad regime is backed by Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia. The oppositionists are backed by Turkey and various Arab and Western states. Many of the regional actors, including Russia, have much more significant interests in Syria than does the United States. Getting involved, in the words of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, “would be throwing gasoline on a very complex fire in the Middle East.” Worse, the United States would actually become part of the fire.

There Is No Military Solution; It Is Diplomatic

“Every time the U.S. touches the Middle East, it makes things worse,” international relations scholar Walt (2014) wrote. Nevertheless, in the Washington security policy establishment it is a long-standing belief that America has the capacity to fix the problems that plague the region. This belief persists despite the dismal record of U.S. interventions in the Middle East, and in 2011 it has asserted itself in Libya. What followed there after the military campaign is well known. In short, it was the empowerment of extremists and an ongoing and devastating civil war. And despite the U.S. failure in Libya, plentiful calls for more military involvement in Syria continued.

In the spring of 2015, President Obama invited various columnists to the White House for a roundtable discussion. Asked to reflect upon his foreign policy, the president responded: “In terms of decisions I make, I do think I have a better sense of how military action can result in unintended consequences” (Kaplan, 2016, p. 63). Of course, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya validate the concern for unintended consequences. It is for this reason that officials close to the president have often repeated, “[T]here is no military solution” in Syria (Humud, Blanchard, & Niktin, 2015). Exemplary is Ben Rhodes’s interview with The New York Times Magazine in the spring of 2016: He acknowledged that “[t]here’s a numbing element to Syria.” “But I will tell you this,” he continued, “I profoundly do not believe that the United States could make things better in Syria by being there. And we have an evidentiary record of what happens when we’re there—nearly a decade in Iraq” (Samuels, 2016).

More likely than not, and very unfortunately, the conflict in Syria will continue for the foreseeable future. Militarily, there has been and continues to be no path for the United States. With the direct entry of Russia into the conflict in September 2015, there is also no military path for the oppositionists. The odds are in favor of the Syrian regime. In order to gradually slow and eventually halt the mounting casualty rates, it is incumbent upon the United States and its Western allies to curtail their support for opposition fighters. Only when this starts to happen transparently could Moscow and Tehran be persuaded to stop supplying arms to the Assad regime and pressure it toward political solutions (Gupta, 2016, p. 38).

A next step would be to test Russian President Vladimir Putin on his pledges for collaboration. The condition he asks be met is one that should serve the interests of all the protagonists. To this effect, Putin said in October 2015: “Syria can become a model for partnership in the name of common interests, resolving problems that affect everyone.”14 Especially in the West, there is, of course, a lot of cynicism about Putin, but the fact is that diplomacy can be successful. One example is the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons in the fall of 2013. But Russia and the United States have also been able to cooperate on security issues in the past, for example, in the initial U.S. war in Afghanistan in the fall after 9/11.

It is also the case that in the long run neither Russia nor Iran is wedded to Bashar al-Assad as the Syrian president. Nonetheless, both Moscow and Tehran will want to have a decisive say in who rules the country so as to ensure their interests are safeguarded (Slim, 2016; Stent, 2016). The option of engaging with Russia and Iran and also with Turkey and Saudi Arabia remains open exactly because Obama didn’t do stupid stuff—he avoided a mistake of commission that very much bore the danger of a confrontation much beyond the tragedy we already see.


When it comes to foreign policy challenges, there are traditionally two fundamental questions that decision makers pose: “What is the problem?” and “What do we do?” (Neustadt & May, 1986, p. 38). Both questions are important, but there is a well-observed bias toward the latter one. Moreover, too often the question seems to have a predetermined answer—resort to military force. This was also the case regarding the Syrian war. President Obama describes this bias (qtd. in Goldberg, 2016) as follows:

There’s a playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow. It’s a playbook that comes out of the foreign policy establishment. And the playbook prescribes responses to different events, and these responses tend to be militarized responses. When America is directly threatened, the playbook works. But the playbook can also be a trap that can lead to bad decisions. In the midst of an international challenge like Syria, you get judged harshly if you don’t follow the playbook, even if there are good reasons why it does not apply.

In Syria the playbook did not apply, and President Obama was indeed judged harshly for not following it. Just like anyone else, the president was also focusing on the question “What do we do?” But he could not derive a concrete answer to it. He could not because the first question, “What is the problem?” carried the answer that the challenge was inherently ill-defined and strategically intractable. Coupled with the fact that vital U.S. interests were not at stake in Syria, the rational strategy for avoiding mistakes was one of disjointed incrementalism. President Obama’s decision to keep the United States out of Syria’s quagmire was correct.

In 2015, The New York Times, speaking about President Obama’s foreign policy generally, described it as a “Doctrine of Restraint” (Cohen, 2015, p. A25). This is another way of saying that his foreign policy strategy is consistent with disjointed incrementalism. Whether it is generally true that Obama’s foreign policy is one of restraint is debatable, but with respect to Syria it has been true. Future U.S. policymakers should work to make this axiom true more often. The Washington playbook should be jettisoned more often.

Compelled in part by an interventionist foreign policy establishment, U.S. foreign policy has too often relied too much on military power. Yet this exercise of power has its limits, and experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq are a striking testimony to this. Even a preponderance of military power does not easily translate into victory or into intended outcomes. Instead, it tends to bring forth major trouble. A doctrine of restraint, bringing foreign policy in line with actual national interests as opposed to proclaimed ones, and employing a strategy of disjointed incrementalism whenever vital interests are not at stake, would generally be good for avoiding mistakes and for engaging in good decision-making.


I want to thank Stephen Walker for reading the manuscript and for his helpful feedback and Johnna Malici for her help with editing the manuscript.


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(2.) The text of the entire press conference is available online at

(4.) For further discussion on policy failures and successes, see the contributions to Journal of European Public Policy, 23(5) (2016).

(5.) For empirical examples in each category and their analysis see Walker and Malici (2011).

(6.) The figures are based on a 2014 NATO report, which is available at

(7.) The transcript of the production is available online at

(8.) For this and the following event timeline Lexis Nexis was used to systematically search The New York Times. The terms for the search in the deadline and the body of the articles were “U.S.,” “Obama,” “Assad,” “Syria,” or “Damascus.”

(9.) The news report is available at

(12.) Interview with Thomas Friedman for The New York Times, available at

(13.) The transcript of the interview is available at

(14.) The transcript of Putin’s speech is available at