Stephen Walt thinks that he has finally understood Obama’s approach to foreign policy. He thinks that Obama is a “buck-passer”, a technical word in realism that refers to great powers that pass the buck to other powers instead of a balancing a rising power. Walt notes with approval, Obama’s recognition of the fact that – as an immediate consequence of unipolarity – the US faces no significant threats at all. Obama has thus calculated that the United States has no real interests in Syria: what happens there is mostly irrelevant as far as the US is concerned.
This is not exactly buck-passing. A buck-passer faces a real threat, but due to the Prisoners’ Dilemma of collective action, leaves it to other powers to check it. The canonical example being the appeasement of Hitler. Every European power was under a direct threat of being conquered by the German war machine. The alarming rapidity of the German military buildup in 1933-39, prompted all the great powers to remilitarize and avoid confronting Hitler. The Soviet Union and the Western powers passed the buck to each other until finally Great Britain took a stand in 1939.
The United States faces no such threat in Syria. It does, however, have a national security interest in containing the rise of Islamist militants. Obama forbid Turkey from providing heavy weapons to moderate rebels, and outsourced the supply of weapons to the oil monarchies. I mean this in a very precise sense: the CIA is still managing the upstream – the supply – end of the operation, it is the downstream – the distribution – that has been handled by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Flush with arms, the Islamist rebel groups like al-Nusra have become the strongest fighting force in the rebellion. This is a direct outcome of Obama’s policy. This is not exactly a major debacle, nothing that cannot be handled by the White House’s drone program. The White House opposed the State Department, the Pentagon, and the CIA, in ruling out a no-fly zone and supplying heavy weapons to prudently chosen rebel groups. This is squarely on Obama’s shoulders.
Supplying the rebels with heavy weapons and imposing a no-fly zone would’ve cost the US nothing in blood and less in treasure than the hundreds of millions of dollars it has already promised in humanitarian aid. Had this policy been implemented when I recommended, Assad would be ancient history by now and the US would have people it could work with in Syria. Moreover, the Islamists would’ve been much weaker, as would Hezbollah and Iran. Perhaps fifty thousand lives would’ve been saved but that is irrelevant to a realist. Why the White House opposed it is still unclear to me.
In Bahrain, the Fifth Fleet could’ve simply informed the Saudis that it will not permit Saudi troops to cross the King Fahd causeway into Bahrain through waters under its protection. Instead of twisting the monarch’s arms to accommodate the protestors, the United States was busy apologizing to Saudi Arabia, which was mad about Secretary of State Clinton’s vocal support for protestors at Pearl Square. In this case, the dilemma was that while a move towards a Shi’ite democracy on Iran’s doorstep could undermine the Islamic regime, it would at the same time threaten Saudi Arabia: the eastern province opposite Bahrain contains both the majority of Saudi Arabia’s oil and Shi’ite. Obama’s policy was in this sense over determined by the consensus in the business sector.