Ignore what the White House is 'considering' in Syria

FP alum Josh Rogin, now plying his trade over at the Daily Beast, had a scoop yesterday: The White House has requested that the Pentagon draw up plans for implementing a no-fly zone in Syria. While President Barack Obama hasn't made any decisions yet, an administration official affirmed, "the planning is moving forward and it's more advanced than it's ever been."

Rogin knows his stuff, and I have no reason to doubt the story is true. But this leak, suggesting America's policy on Syria is poised to change radically, sounds eerily familiar. Here is a trip down memory lane:

May 3, 2013: "U.S. Considering Arming Syria Rebels." -Radio Free Europe

April 5, 2013: "The White House ... is reviewing a new set of potential military options for assisting rebels in Syria." -Wall Street Journal

March 15, 2013: "CIA begins sizing up Islamic extremists in Syria for drone strikes" -Los Angeles Times

Feb. 26, 2013: "U.S. moves toward providing direct aid to Syrian rebels" -Washington Post

Feb. 7, 2013: "Pentagon leaders favored arming Syrian rebels" -Washington Post

Dec. 3, 2012: "The White House has been loath to make a direct intervention in Syria but clearly indicated Monday that the use of chemical weapons could change the equation."-AFP

Nov. 28, 2012: "The Obama administration, hoping that the conflict in Syria has reached a turning point, is considering deeper intervention to help push President Bashar al-Assad from power." -New York Times

Feb. 22, 2012: "Shelling of Homs resumes as U.S. signals possibility of arming Syrian opposition" -Al-Arabiya

Feb. 8, 2012: "International 'militarisation' in Syria growing closer, warns US official" -Telegraph

To be clear, none of these stories is inaccurate. They all quote Obama administration officials' remarks about the options currently on the table to respond to the Syrian crisis. They always note that the White House is considering its options -- not that the president has made a decision yet.

But just because these articles aren't wrong doesn't mean they shed much light on what the Obama administration is thinking on Syria. It's the job of large swathes of the U.S. defense establishment to prepare options in the event that Obama decides to intervene more aggressively. Roughly 24,000 people work in the Pentagon alone -- if one team in the building is mulling efforts to arm the rebels or implement a no-fly zone, it's fair game for a newspaper to write that the Defense Department is in the planning stages on those options. But that doesn't mean the possibility will ever become a reality.

Collectively, all these articles suggest that U.S. policy toward Syria is in a state of flux -- any moment now, the blaring headlines suggest, Washington could jump headfirst into this conflict. In reality, U.S. policy has been fairly constant: The Obama administration provides humanitarian and non-lethal aid to the opposition, but largely is opposed to entangling the American military in the conflict. Like anything else, that could change. But more than two years into this war, the picture should be pretty clear. 



A brief history of congressional freelancing on foreign policy

After clandestinely slipping into Syria on Monday for a series of meetings over fresh juice and cherries with rebel commanders, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) became the highest-ranking U.S. official -- besides the U.S. ambassador to Syria -- to enter the country since the start of its civil war.

According to the trip's organizers, McCain's visit was approved by Secretary of State John Kerry, but his decision to meet with rebel commander Salim Idris and engage in some foreign-policy freelancing probably won't be drawing praise from the White House anytime soon. Accused of standing by and tacitly watching Syria burn, the Obama administration is currently engaged in a diplomatic offensive to bring the conflict to a negotiated end -- a campaign that is complicated by senior American politicians traveling to Syria to gather information on the weapons systems rebels believe they need to turn the military balance in their favor.

Then again, freelancing by members of Congress is far from a new phenomenon -- especially by legislators unhappy with the sitting president's foreign policy.

Rep. Charlie Wilson, the man almost singlehandedly responsible for arming the Afghan mujahideen during their fight against the Soviet army, is something of the godfather of foreign-policy freelancing by members of Congress. During the 1980s, Wilson, a playboy Democrat from Texas and staunch anti-communist, worked hand in glove with the CIA to funnel weapons to Afghan insurgents, including the anti-aircraft missiles that proved decisive in countering Soviet air superiority.

Though McCain's embrace of the Syrian rebels carries overtones of Wilson's support of the Afghan rebels, the Texas Democrat went to absurd lengths to secure arms for the mujahideen. In 1984, for instance, Wilson traveled with CIA agents to Egypt to inspect weapons for possible purchase and transfer to Afghanistan. At a test firing on an Egyptian range, the missile doubled back on the congressman, who had to throw himself to the ground to avoid being struck. "We decided not to buy any of those," he gamely recalled. (Some of the individuals Wilson armed would later orchestrate the 9/11 attacks.)

In recent years, similar diplomatic initiatives have been less spectacular -- if no less controversial. In 2007, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi traveled to Syria for a meeting with President Bashar al-Assad in an effort to re-engage the country after relations soured in 2003. That meeting produced little progress, and the image of Pelosi seated next to Assad is probably one she wishes she could erase.

McCain is himself no stranger to the dramatic overseas tour -- even if the move hasn't always turned out as he hoped. During the 2008 presidential campaign, he embarked on a trip to Iraq to burnish his foreign-policy credentials and paint the Democrats as intent on cutting and running from the war. But that effort backfired when the senator mixed up which extremist group Iran was supporting inside Iraq (no, not al Qaeda).

Then there's Curt Weldon, a former Republican representative from Pennsylvania. In 2004, Weldon led a congressional delegation to Libya in support of Muammar al-Qaddafi's decision to abandon his nuclear program. Weldon left Congress after his defeat in the 2006 midterm election. But when the uprising in Libya broke out in 2011, Weldon promoted himself as a potential broker in the conflict and traveled to Libya with the intention of convincing Qaddafi to step down. The effort failed.

Weldon could have suffered a worse fate. In 2012, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher was denied entry into Afghanistan as a result of a long-standing feud with President Hamid Karzai. Surprisingly well-acquainted with Afghanistan, Rohrabacher first traveled to the country while working in the Reagan White House during the 1980s -- and in 1988 he even fought alongside the mujahideen in Jalalabad. But after launching an investigation into the Karzai family's personal wealth as a member of Congress -- one in a string of aggressive actions against Karzai and his political clique -- Rohrabacher found himself less than welcome in Kabul.

By that standard, McCain's visit this week appears to have gone pretty well.