Why Obama will keep ignoring Syria in his second term

Many second-term presidents turn to foreign policy if they're viewed as lame ducks domestically. But don't expect Obama to go off starting wars

Daniel Larison

Now that President Obama has been re-elected, there will be considerably greater pressure on the administration to do more in response to the ongoing civil war in Syria. There will likely be increased domestic and international demands to put either Iran or Syria at the top of the administration's agenda at the beginning of the second term. But contrary to the hopes of interventionists and the fears of many Obama supporters, the president seems likely to resist this pressure and keep his attention focused primarily on domestic and fiscal concerns.

During the last year, there has been a widespread assumption that Obama's reluctance to involve the U.S. more deeply in Syria was simply a function of electoral politics, and that the U.S. position would change once the election was over. But that assumption seems to be wrong for a few important reasons. Chief among them is the U.S. military's reluctance to be called upon to wage yet another war of choice. There is also virtually no public support for greater U.S. involvement. Another reason to doubt U.S.-led intervention: The near-complete absence of international support for such action. Except for the Gulf monarchies, there is no real appetite among U.S. allies for intervention in Syria, and there is likewise little or no support in the region as a whole. The Gulf states that are most interested in more U.S. action are the same ones most insulated from the consequences of an internationalized Syrian conflict. By contrast, the states that have the most to lose from an escalated and internationalized war are U.S. allies and clients on Syria's borders.

The president seems likely to resist this pressure and keep his attention focused primarily on domestic and fiscal concerns.

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Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan has tried to deflect attention from the failings of his own policy toward the U.S., but that masks the political reality that most Turks don't support military intervention. Indeed, the Turkish public is strongly against a war in Syria even with NATO involvement, and the Turkish government's policy of aiding and sheltering the Syrian opposition has already gone beyond what many Turks support. For their part, NATO's European members have neither the means nor the desire to wage a war that will be even more demanding than the one waged in Libya in 2011, and so any Syrian war waged under NATO auspices would rely even more heavily on U.S. forces than was the case in Libya. Considering the regional effects of the Libyan war and the politicized debate surrounding the attack in Benghazi two months ago, it is doubtful that Obama would want to expend any political capital on mobilizing support for a more activist Syria policy.

Complicating all of this is the administration's efforts in pursuing the P5+1 talks with Iran on the nuclear issue. While these talks may lead nowhere, the administration won't want to jeopardize them by pursuing a more active regime-change policy in Syria. Doing so would only increase tensions with Iran and other members of the P5+1 (especially Russia) and make a negotiated settlement that much more unlikely.

Presidential second terms tend to be more preoccupied with foreign policy once the president is considered a "lame duck," but this is often because the president is no longer able to pursue a domestic agenda with much hope of success. If that happens, as it usually does, that probably won't occur until after the next midterm elections. That will allow Obama to focus most of his attention on domestic matters along with the gradual withdrawal from the war in Afghanistan, and he isn't likely to want to be diverted from these priorities by paying more attention to Syria's conflict.

Second-term presidents are also focused on securing their legacy to define how they will be remembered after they leave office. There appears to be a desire in the administration to make the conclusion of prolonged foreign wars part of that legacy, which suggests that Obama will continue to be reluctant to take the U.S. into a new major conflict. It is not impossible that Obama would increase U.S. involvement in Syria or launch a U.S.-led war in Syria in his second term, but at this point it appears to be very unlikely.

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