Syria is in tatters. A brutal dictator, vicious terrorist groups, and a raging civil war have led to the death of hundreds of thousands and the displacement of millions. Given the ongoing Syrian conflict, President Barack Obama’s rather restrained foreign policy toward the Bashar al-Assad regime has been described as “feckless,” “flawed,” and “clueless.” In August 2012, however, President Obama issued a strong warning when he famously said the “red line” for the United States in terms of stepping up a military offensive would be if “we started seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.”
Beginning in 2013, the Damascus regime did utilize chemical weapons against the Syrian people, perhaps most shockingly in August in the Ghouta suburbs of Damascus. Yet President Obama ultimately held back from intervening militarily, and his decision has since received strong and persistent criticism. After retiring from his post as secretary of defense, Robert Gates judged the president’s decision a “serious mistake.” It allowed the tragedy to continue and American credibility to be hurt. The president himself, however, disagreed. About the decision not to act militarily he said later: “I’m very proud of this moment.” He was convinced that the United States could not successfully affect the situation and that he had kept the country out of another quagmire.
It is indeed the case that good decisions can avoid wars or win them while bad decisions can start wars or lose them, and these consequences are just one reason why the study of foreign policy mistakes is so important. Yet it can, of course, not be the case that an evaluation of foreign policy decisions is rendered to the subjective eyes of the beholder. Instead, what is needed is an objective framework by which to identify and analyze foreign policy mistakes. Foreign policy mistakes are procedural errors concerning the diagnostic or the prescriptive level of the foreign policy decision-making task. They can be mistakes of omission or commission and can occur in regard to a threat or to an opportunity.
Of special importance is the question how foreign policy mistakes can be avoided. This question can be answered through a decision-making framework defined by (a) the level of information a leader can have about a foreign policy challenge and (b) the potential consequences of a decision. Because many, if not most, challenges with respect to questions of international security are “ill-defined,” the myopic strategy of disjointed incrementalism is ideal. It avoids mistakes by making reversible (disjointed) and relatively small (incremental) moves away from the status quo.
In the case of Syria, President Obama followed a strategy of disjointed incrementalism. He could not rely on much certain or reliable information regarding the situation and correctly understood that a military engagement could have potentially very adverse consequences in terms of casualties and a general escalation of the situation. Contrary to often repeated judgments that his decision not to engage militarily was a mistake, it is the case that he indeed avoided a mistake.