Ted Rall: Obama, Syria and the Arms Decision

Written by Ted Rall

What is presidents always chose to avoid plans that have failed in the past? We’re seeing an example now, says Ted Rall, regarding arms shipments to Syria.

aNewDomain commentary — Our senior commentator and Pulitzer Prize finalist Ted Rall imagines a president who would always choose not to go with plans known to fail. 

Although it’s anathema to us opinion columnists, it is important to give credit when it is due. This is not one of those cases — not entirely.

It is, however, a rare example of how a president, albeit for a very short time, learned a lesson from history – before ultimately yielding to the usual pressures of the military-industrial complex.

After the 2011 uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, top officials of the Obama administration gathered to consider whether or not to supply weapons to Syrian opposition rebels, many of whom were radical Islamists, some of whom ultimately formed the extremist group ISIS, now infamous for beheading American reporters.

Considering the knee-jerk, bipartisan impulse of every administration in memory to sign off on such weapons transfers in the past, Obama’s decision to hold off marked an unusual departure. It didn’t last. Less than one year later, the CIA was coordinating transfers of funds, arms and training to Syrian opposition forces via its client states in the Persian Gulf. The Pentagon and its contractors won — as usual.

But not right away.

What happened in those meetings in 2012? Now we know the answer: Obama had just read a still-classified CIA historical study of weapons transfer schemes dating back to the founding of the agency at the beginning of the Cold War. The report’s conclusion: weapons-based interventions in favor of one side in a civil conflict almost never led to the party supported by the U.S. coming to power. If the U.S.-backed side won, it would have won anyway; otherwise, it lost. And the U.S. earned an unsavory reputation for propping up all sorts of nasty dictators. Despite the expenditure (the Syrian operation wound up costing $500 million to $1 billion a month) and the risk to America’s tattered reputation around the world, these internal affairs ultimately resolve themselves in accordance with indigenous politics.

From The New York Times: “The still-classified review, one of several C.I.A. studies commissioned in 2012 and 2013 in the midst of the Obama administration’s protracted debate about whether to wade into the Syrian civil war, concluded that many past attempts by the agency to arm foreign forces covertly had a minimal impact on the long-term outcome of a conflict. They were even less effective, the report found, when the militias fought without any direct American support on the ground.”

“One of the things that Obama wanted to know was: Did this ever work?” a former Obama official who participated in the discussion told the paper.

The report’s answer was unequivocal. No.

One notable exception was American backing of the anti-Soviet mujahedin in Afghanistan during the 1980s, which weakened the USSR to the point that many analysts believe it was a factor in the dissolution of the country in 1991. But the report also noted the obvious blowback: that fight brought together the fundamentalist Muslims who plotted the 9/11 terrorist attacks. (In that sense, the Obama administration’s decision to arm Syria’s rebels – which helped create ISIS – was analogous to the Reagan administration’s experience in Afghanistan.)

Though short-lived, Obama’s refusal to send American weapons to Syria stands as an example of praiseworthy restraint in an otherwise relentless history of unabashed warmongering.

Imagine world peace? That I cannot do, not as a citizen of a country behind three-quarters of the global arms trade. But I can certainly fantasize about a nation whose president decides not to proceed with a policy decision that has never worked in the past, even from the standpoint of the CIA.

ted-rall-syria-armsFor aNewDomain, I’m Ted Rall.

Based in New York City, Ted Rall is a columnist, reporter, political cartoonist, war correspondent and a Pulitzer Prize finalist. He’s also senior commentator here at aNewDomain. Follow him @TedRall or on Google+ at his +Ted Rall page.