My column this week looks at the debate over the revelations that last summer the White House blocked a proposal by the Pentagon, Hillary Clinton and David Petraeus to arm Syria’s rebels. I argue that this proposal was very much an "Option C", a way to appear to be doing something but not something which anybody really believed would work. That the idea was floated should shock nobody, but it’s a pleasant surprise that the administration managed to push it back. The proposal emerged at exactly the time when it should have: after the failure of Kofi Annan’s peace initiative, when new ideas were needed. And it was rejected just as it should have been when closer analysis suggested strongly that it wouldn’t work. This isn’t a story of a dysfunctional process, it suggests that something worked.
This is only a placeholder post for blog readers that the column’s been published; discussion and commentary will follow later. I’ll only note here that this is obviously part of a long, ongoing debate. I first made many of these observations about arming the Free Syrian Army almost exactly one year ago, and the debate has obviously continued more or less continuously. My column a few weeks ago focused on how the changing situation inside of Syria should affect these policy debates, and a robust debate followed.
My argument then, and now, was that the arguments against arming the Syrian rebels were now weaker simply because most of the negative effects of militarization had already manifested: the political horizon shut down, power devolved to the men with guns, proxy warlordism, massive humanitarian suffering. This is much of what opponents of arming the FSA had hoped to avoid. Now that the Syrian conflict is fully militarized, the arguments for managing that process correspondingly strengthened: better a coordinated than an uncoordinated flow of weapons, better an arms flow attached to a coherent political strategy and legitimate emergent institutions than the alternative.
But at the same time, we shouldn’t exaggerate what providing arms would actually achieve: an American flow of arms would not likely buy enduring influence with proxies, end the war quickly, crowd out competitors, or drive away the Islamist trend among the opposition. Even if the negatives of arming the rebels can no longer be avoided, the positives aren’t nearly as great as promised.
Anyway, go read my column over at the FP main page. As I have been doing for the last few weeks, I will link to or publish the best of the responses and reactions I receive to the column — so send me your thoughts over the next few days if you’d like to participate in the debate!