Aaron David Miller makes a questionable assertion:
But one thing seems stunningly clear: history will deal harshly with the Obama administration’s policy toward Syria.
We can’t know for certain how later generations will view Obama’s Syria policy or any of his other policies, but a lot will depend on who is writing the history of U.S. foreign policy in half a century or more. Later historians will presumably have access to the reams of commentary written by hawks who kept trying to cajole Obama into getting even more deeply involved than he did, but will they find those shoddy arguments to be persuasive? I doubt it. People will have the benefit of hindsight decades from now and will have a clearer view of the consequences of the war in Syria, but they will have greater distance and perspective. They will also know how Obama’s successor responded to the war and will have another policy as a point of comparison.
Many people in the future may look back at the Washington obsession with getting the U.S. bogged down in another foreign war with more than a little puzzlement. Future historians may be challenged to explain to their contemporaries why so many people were fixated on getting the U.S. mired in a foreign civil war when it posed no obvious threat to American interests. They may have trouble explaining why the U.S. went along with its reckless regional clients in trying to destabilize yet another country. There will probably be some very different interpretations of U.S. policy in the years and decades to come, and those will be shaped by the scholars’ assumptions about what the U.S. role in the world should be, and it will also be shaped by where they come from. If I had to guess, American historians are likelier to judge a less activist policy in Syria to be a reasonable or even laudable response, while historians from some other countries may take a dimmer view.
The interpretation of U.S. policy will probably also vary over time depending on what is happening in their world when these histories are written. If the U.S. is suffering from one of its periodic bouts of ideological crusading, Obama’s Syria policy may be viewed very negatively indeed. If the U.S. gets bogged down in some multi-sided civil war at some point in the future, Obama may get some credit for not getting the U.S. more deeply ensnared in Syria while being criticized for contributing to the mayhem by arming the opposition. If the U.S. no longer interferes in the internal affairs of other states (as improbable as that seems), Obama’s Syria policy may be judged harshly because it was too meddlesome and destructive. The idea that Obama’s Syria policy didn’t go far enough may not survive over the long term, if for no other reason than there will be very few people that will want to keep clinging to it decades from now. Right now, it is a fashionable position that hawks in both parties can take to distinguish themselves from the current president, but it will probably be cast aside during the next debate over intervention somewhere else in five or ten years. If the U.S. has a much less interventionist foreign policy fifty years from now, there probably won’t be many people lamenting Obama’s “failure” to send a lot of Americans to die in Syria.
The odd thing about Miller’s assertion is that he doesn’t think Obama’s Syria policy should be judged as harshly as he assumes it will be:
Obama will be judged harshly for failing to accept the costs of not acting more boldly in Syria. But given the bad options he faced, the context and complexities of the Syrian civil war and the risk-aversions of his predecessors in the face of other humanitarian catastrophes, it’s far from certain that another president confronting similar circumstances would have acted much differently.
If future historians take “the context and complexities” into account (as we hope they would), it seems more likely that they will come down with a more balanced assessment of the policy and could end up judging it much less harshly than Miller supposes.