Obama’s “intellectual” approach and continuing indecision on no-fly zone and arms in Syria

For background, see The Trenchant Observer, “Obama’s “intellectual” decision-making style and the covert supply of arms to the Free Syrian Army,” June 17, 2013.

On June 13, the White House announced, through the person of Deputy National Security Adviser Benjamin J. Rhodes, that the U.S. had decided to send arms to the rebels in Syria. See:

“Text of White House Statement on Chemical Weapons in Syria,” (statement issued by the White House in the name of Benjamin J. Rhodes, deputy national security adviser), New York Times, June 13, 2013.

Peter Baker, “Heavy Pressure Led to Decision by Obama on Syrian Arms,” New York Times, June 14, 2013.

Jennifer Rubin, “Syria: A delinquent commander in chief,” Washington Post, June 16, 2013 (12:50 p.m.).

New evidence of President Obama’s “intellectual” decision-making style is reported by Howard Lafranchi of the Christian Science Monitor, in the following article:

Howard LaFranchi, ‘Friends of Syria’ meeting adds pressure: What is US ready to do? Other countries and the Syrian rebels are awaiting specifics about new US aid, but President Obama is still weighing what steps to take and how far to go, reflecting continuing deep divisions across the administration,” Christian Science Monitor, June 21, 2013.

LaFranchi quotes Obama’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, as saying the previous Sunday on the CBS program “Face the Nation”, “We’ve rushed to war in this region in the past. We’re not going to do it here.” This is a mind-boggling statement, in view of the fact that Obama has been “not rushing to war” in Syria for the last two and a half years.

La Franchi continues,

(P)art of the explanation for the administration’s lack of clarity on what Obama’s decision portends for Syria appears to be the ongoing divisions in the administration over just what the president should decide in terms of lethal assistance.

At a White House meeting last week on US “options” in Syria, the idea of a no-fly zone, along with the air-strikes that would be required to take out at least some of Assad’s air defenses to establish havens, was debated at length, administration officials say, but no decisions were made.

Kerry called for immediate airstrikes, arguing that the US should underscore the president’s veto on the use of chemical weapons by disabling the airfields that the Assad regime apparently used to launch chemical attacks. As a senator, Kerry supported military action against Assad.

But Kerry’s proposal was opposed at the meeting by Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who argued that launching even limited airstrikes would be a complex operation and would probably entail deeper air involvement to disable Assad’s air defenses, administration officials say.

White House reluctance to go even further and establish a no-fly zone was made clear by Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, who said in explaining the president’s decision to arm the rebels: “People need to understand that not only are there huge costs associated with the no-fly zone, not only would it be difficult to implement, but the notion that you can solve the very deeply rooted challenges on the ground in Syria from the air are not immediately apparent” (sic).

What is extraordinary about the above account is that you have the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, (“We can’t do it”) Gen. Martin Dempsey, taking a political position in deference to the commander-in-chief, while Rhodes, a 36 year-old speech writer (and brother of the President of CBS News) who has become a close adviser to Obama on foreign policy, heads the opposition of the “the Obamians” to the course of action energetically supported by the State Department and Secretary of State John Kerry. Moreover, with what we have to assume was Obama’s approval, he says so publicly!

As we have written here. perhaps the most important foreign policy issue Obama faces in his second term is whether he will follow the foreign policy advice of his secretary of state, John Kerry, or that of Ben Rhodes and the other Obamians forming a protective wall around the president.


“John Kerry, Barack Obama, and the future of U.S. foreign policy,” The Trenchant Observer, April 9, 2013; and

“Obama’s Handlers: Ben Rhodes,” The Trenchant Observer, April 5, 2013.

In the latter article, we noted,

With John Kerry, an experienced foreign policy expert, as Secretary of State, one of the questions facing President Obama in his second term is whether he will continue his emphasis on making speeches instead of foreign policy, or rather will revert to the more traditional form of foreign-policy making based on diplomatic reporting from U.S. diplomats around the world on the scene, flowing up through the bureaucracy to the Secretary of State, and from the Secretary of State to the President. To be sure, the bureaucracy must be working well for the latter option to be attractive.

Both of course, always occur. The question is which has priority, and which first shapes the president’s thinking on what is going on in the world and what the realistic options available to the country in formulating foreign policy and making foreign policy decisions actually are. Moreover, good foreign policy tends to be based on the development of good strategy, which is more likely to come from foreign policy experts with field experience under their belts than from speechwriters.

Which come first in the president’s mind, making speeches, or making foreign policy and foreign policy decisions?

What attention does he give to the development and implementation of foreign policy strategy, rather than merely responding to the pressures and circumstances of the moment?

Who is going to lead the foreign policy of the United States, John Kerry or Ben Rhodes? (emphasis added)

The policy incoherence and lack of strong leadership with our allies reflects this underlying struggle between the president’s White House advisers and his secretary of state. McDonough’s statement that the White House is not going to let itself be pressured into “rushing into war” demonstrates how high in the clouds and how removed from realities on the ground Obama and his White House advisers really are.

This is still “the gang who couldn’t shoot straight” in charge at the White House. The fact that the president doesn’t decide an issue like the no-fly zone, but rather signals his inclination to the Secretary of State by having Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communication Ben Rhodes publicly channel his thoughts, is simply appalling–in itself powerful evidence of Obama’s incompetence as a foreign policy leader.

At the “Friends of Syria” meeting held in Qatar, the U.S. and all but two of the 11 members of the group reportedly agreed to provide military support and arms to the Syrian rebels. See

Yara Bayoumy, “Friends of Syria agree to supply urgent rebel aid, The Daily Star (Beirut), June 22, 2013 (updated 8:57 p.m.)

“Qatar: Friends of Syria agree on ‘secret’ measures to arm rebels,” Al-Arabiya (Saudi Arabia), June 22, 2013 (updated KSA 19:48 – GMT 16:48).

However, with Obama unwilling to step forward and publicly lead–apparently believing, as covert commander-in-chief. that if he doesn’t personally say the U.S. is furnishing arms to the rebels, those actions remain invisible to international law–it is hard to see how the supply of arms can be effectively organized or how England and France are going to succeed in getting the European Union to fully support the shipment of arms to Syria.

It is all too intellectual and too sophisticated to work. And so long as Obama maintains the fig leaf that the U.S. supply of arms to Syria is “covert” and therefore the U.S. is not accountable under international law for these unacknowledged actions, it is likely to be as ineffective and disastrous as the last two years of U.S. policy toward Syria.

The president should stop and think, with the assistance of people from outside the White House, whether it really seems credible that the supply of arms to rebels in Syria can remain “secret” with 11 countries in the know, nine of them acting as partners, and Ben Rhodes shouting from the rooftops that the U.S. has decided to supply arms to the insurgents.

This is beyond incredible. It’s pathetic.

What is needed is a clear and public statement by President Obama that the United States and its allies are providing assistance to the insurgents in Syria, and may indeed undertake direct military action if necessary, in order to bring to a halt the continuing commission of crimes against humanity and war crimes by the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad.

That statement should be accompanied by a legal opinion from the Office of the Legal Adviser in the Department of State which explains why, under the extraordinary circumstances in Syria, humanitarian intervention to halt the ongoing commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the Syrian regime is justified under modern international law, as it exists today, in 2013.

In Syria, half measures will not work, and the job cannot be done within an intellectual bubble of purportedly covert activity.

The Trenchant Observer

About the Author

The Observer
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by The Observer, an international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. He is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (IACHR), where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, The Observer has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. The Observer speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, The Observer has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on the best articles that have appeared in the blog.

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