The White House has explained that President Obama nixed Gen. Petraeus’ plan to aid Syrian rebels — which Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta, and Gen. Dempsey all supported — because the CIA concluded that the weaponry Obama was willing to provide wouldn’t “tip the scales” in favor of the Syrian rebels. This is not to say that the CIA thought the plan developed by Petraeus wouldn’t tip the scales. The General would not recommend, much less develop, a plan deemed ineffective by his own agency.
What happened here seems clear. Obama killed the idea of aiding Syrian rebels through a bureaucratic two-step. First, he refused to approve the level of aid his top advisers wanted. Second, he obtained a finding that the lower level of assistance he was willing to provide wouldn’t be sufficient.
This doesn’t mean Obama’s decision was incorrect. Among other drawbacks, supplying Syrian rebels with the kinds of weapons Petraeus asked for is risky because we cannot be confident they won’t fall into the hands of Islamist extremists. I’m not even sure we can be confident that the “moderate” factions to whom we would be supplying the weapons don’t include Islamist extremists.
Obama’s clear mistake, in my view, was his failure to identify reliably non-extremist forces to support early in the rebellion, before the radicals, aided by outside extremists in al Qaeda, became ascendant. These days, I fear, it is too much to ask Obama to “lead from the front” to advance U.S. interests in any theatre of operations.
Our president’s tendency will always be to manipulate the facts in favor of inaction. And when the facts can’t be manipulated, as with Benghazi, he seems prepared simply to absent himself until meaningful action is no longer possible.