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Obama opposed arming the Syrian rebels

February 8, 2013, at 1:26 PM

Here's a bit of news I found fascinating: Even though Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, CIA Director David Petraeus and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta all backed the idea of arming rebels in Syria, President Obama decided against this course of action.

I had assumed that the U.S. was covertly arming the rebels, either directly or through another country. (The president could issue a "Finding" allowing the CIA to do this, or instruct the Pentagon to supply the rebels using a Presidential Decision Directive.) I had assumed that President Obama had authorized such a program because that's what the U.S. has done historically even when it says it is staying out of conflicts.

Covertly arming rebels is a way for presidents to feel like they are doing something to bring a humanitarian crisis to an end without risking American lives. (In Libya, the CIA, operating under the authority of a covert action finding, sent in several dozen intelligence officers to gather intelligence, provide weapons and try to keep tabs on extant Libyan banned weapon stores.)

I'm not privy to the internal thinking behind the decision not to do this, but I think it has something to do with Obama's overall foreign policy project. By resisting any military action whatsoever, Obama is sending a message that American leadership does not mean that America will rush headlong into every conflict, and, indeed, that it will choose its own adventures which means that other countries must step up to the plate.

It is not the type of leadership that we're accustomed to. John McCain, for one, thinks it's absurd. But it's interesting to see it play out in real world terms.

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