Why Obama Didn’t Announce the Syria Deployment Himself

AP

It isn't surprising that, under pressure from the Pentagon, the president has agreed to escalate the U.S. role against the Islamic State by deploying "fewer than 50" special operators to northern Syria to train Kurds and Arab rebels there. It also isn't surprising that, pushed to take action, the White House has approved  little more than a token: an incremental, heavily restricted action that has little chance of seizing the initiative and generating momentum against the Islamic State. These sorts of indecisive compromises are what we have come to expect from this administration.

But as cynical as most of us have become about the national security policy of this White House, it did nevertheless seem jarring that rather than announce the deployment himself, the president left the task to the Pentagon and to the ironically named Josh Earnest. The White House spokesman certainly earned his paycheck on Friday, explaining to a skeptical press corps how Barack Obama sending American troops to Syria (!) was no big deal, and achieving Thomistic levels of nuance in his insistence that "combat" is completely different from a "combat mission."

Why didn't the president announce the deployment himself? There are a few possible explanations, none of which ought to reassure us.

The first is that Obama genuinely believes that this isn't a big deal, or at least wants to project that it isn't a big deal, and that it is an action entirely consistent with his past statements—including his assertion in 2013 that "I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria"—which we must now consider to be abrogated, or just give up on the English language entirely.

The second possibility, not necessarily mutually exclusive with the first, is that the president is signaling through his silence that he doesn't wholeheartedly support this deployment. As shocking as this accusation might seem—that a commander-in-chief would approve a military action that he doesn't believe in—remember that the president nonchalantly admitted to Steve Kroft only a few weeks ago that he had been "skeptical from the get go" about the now-failed effort to train a Syrian rebel force. Since what would have seemed like a shocking betrayal by a leader of his troops only a few years ago can now be casually admitted in passing on 60 Minutes, I don't think we should rule presidential half-heartedness out.

The third possibility is that the president and his advisers have concluded that there is little to be gained from publicly addressing the issue. Any talk of the war in Iraq and Syria distracts from the president's domestic agenda—today, prison reform is on the docket—and forces the president into a position where he has to explain to the American people why they are still not winning a war against a (relatively) small terrorist army that is no match for the U.S. military. But actually explaining why this is so, and why the White House isn't going to do much about it, would require emphasizing aspects of this administration's policy that would likely be deeply unpopular with voters.

For one, the president cares less about defeating the Islamic State than he does about changing the nature of the U.S. role in the Middle East. We are not to be the dominant power there, but one nation among many partners, working toward mutually agreed upon ends when we can, and staying out of each other's business when we must. These partners will include a rehabilitated Iran and, apparently at their insistence, Russia.

This new vision of a diminished American role in the region is the priority. Defeating the Caliphate takes second place. Indeed, seen from this perspective, decisions that might otherwise seem like pure incompetence start to reveal a certain self-consistent logic. But such prioritization is a tough sell to the American people, which is why the president and his advisers talk around it, euphemize, and generally avoid the topic.

A great irony is that the left spent the George W. Bush era, from 9/11 on, claiming that that administration's justifications for its policies—weapons of mass destruction, the Freedom Agenda, and so forth—were little more than lies meant to cover up war profiteering and designs on Iraq's natural resources. But, whatever the shortcomings in practice, policymakers at the time actually believed that Iraq had WMDs, and that Afghanistan (among other places) would be better off as a democracy. Now the liberals are in charge, and it turns out that they are the ones who can't tell the truth about what drives their decisions.