Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Doing Nothing Is a Choice, Too

Obama's decision to do nothing in Syria had consequences. Democrats should tell us what they've learned from them.
September 12, 2019
Doing Nothing Is a Choice, Too
US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley holds photos of victims as she speaks as the UN Security Council meets in an emergency session at the UN on April 5, 2017, about the suspected deadly chemical attack that killed civilians, including children, in Syria. / AFP PHOTO / TIMOTHY A. CLARY (Photo credit should read TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)

During the 2008, 2012, and 2016 Republican primaries, the Iraq war was litigated and re-litigated (and then argued over some more). Rightfully so: The Iraq War was primarily sponsored by a Republican president and was the most impactful foreign policy decision since the Vietnam War. Republicans needed to search their souls and see if they still regarded the judgment to go to war as prudent.

It is time for the Democratic candidates to do the same soul-searching about Barack Obama’s decision not to act in the ongoing catastrophe in Syria.

Since 2011, Syria has been engaged in a civil war that has created chaos not just in the region, but in the wider world. Half a million Syrians have been killed, and millions have been displaced. Many of these displaced refugees have migrated to Europe, where they have created both logistical and cultural crises. It is not a stretch to say that the Syrian civil war has been a significant factor in the rise of populism in Europe.

It is also not a stretch to say that Syrian civil war has strained America’s existing alliances. President Obama drew a red line against the use of chemical weapons. Bashar al-Assad then used chemical weapons. And Obama, subsequently, failed to enforce his own red line. This failure worried many of our allies. James Mattis recently mentioned that he received a phone call from a friend inside an allied Asian country the day after the announcement that the United States would not enforce its red line. The friend said, “I guess we are on our own now.” The failure to enforce the red line meant that allies from Japan to Europe all began to question America’s credibility and reliability.

Allowing the use of chemical weapons without retaliation was also a clear undermining of international norms. Assad was only the second leader to use weapons of mass destruction since the end of World War II, and the first one to escape punishment. It will be difficult to put the toothpaste back in the tube. In the future, why would any rogue regime allow itself to be bound by warnings not to use chemical weapons? Precedent has been set.

There’s more. Syria’s civil war also brought Iran and Russia into the mix. In the case of Iran, its interventionism in Israel’s neighborhood has incited Israel’s response and has brought the two countries into a warm conflict that is now spilling into Iraq. If that warm conflict turns into a hot war, it will affect American life and almost certainly pull the United States into a role of some level of intervention.

And, of course, the chaos in Syria led to the rise of the Islamic State.

Republicans are engaged in an ongoing debate about the wisdom of the Iraq war because intervening in Iraq was a choice and created a host of downstream consequences.

But not intervening in Syria was also a choice. And this choice, too, has created a great many downstream effects.

What happened in Syria didn’t stay in Syria. To one extent or another, all around the world countries have been affected by the civil war. Including the United States.

Democratic candidates should tell voters what lessons they’ve learned from Obama’s handling of Syria. Because inaction is a choice which carries consequences every bit as much as actions do.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.