Historian Talks Intervention For U.S. Strategy In Syria
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Syria continues to suffer. Russia now mounts military strikes against the Islamic State that also help shore up the regime of Bashar al-Assad, whom they support and whom the U.S. says must leave. President Obama says there's no meeting of the minds. Niall Ferguson, the historian, has been critical of what he considers the president's lack of policy. Professor Ferguson joins us from the studios at Harvard. Thanks so much for being with us.
NIALL FERGUSON: My pleasure.
SIMON: You write the great flaw you see in President Obama's Syria strategy has been, I'll quote, "his insistence that the only alternative to doing next to nothing was all out invasion." What alternatives do you think he's missing?
FERGUSON: Initially, it was a relatively straightforward proposition that the United States should give military assistance to the opposition, to Assad, the free Syrian army. And that was something the president resisted. And the last throw of the president's dice came this year when he was offered by the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, the option to cooperate against Islamic State. And the president essentially said no to that. I think it's fair to say that the president has divert (ph) - I put it this way - that he was playing solitaire while everybody else was playing chess. And unfortunately it's now much, much more difficult to intervene effectively than it was at the outset of the Syrian Civil War.
SIMON: Professor Ferguson, what about those Americans - and I daresay - according to polls, they number into quite a large amount who feel, if I might boil it down this way, the United States doesn't need a strategy because it has no business doing anything? That this is a tragic human situation, but it does not involve the national security interest of the United States.
FERGUSON: The reality is that allowing Islamic State to become an authentic state is very dangerous indeed for the United States because this is an organization more dangerous than al-Qaida and has the potential, unlike al-Qaida, to become a really major political force if we allow Islamic State to become more state-like. I think ultimately the United States will regret bitterly not having acted sooner to stop it.
SIMON: Does Vladimir Putin, whatever else might be said of him, have a sharper strategic vision than President Obama?
FERGUSON: Putin is essentially aiming, I think, to present the United States with a stark choice - ISIS or Assad. That's why I think Putin is directing his fire now at the non-ISIS opponents of the Assad regime, the people we at least thought we were going to help. And I think that's clever because we are in the position of wanting neither Assad nor ISIS. I don't think that's in fact an option. I think we are going to have to decide, and I think we have to prioritize the destruction of ISIS.
SIMON: But that sounds like you're winding up ratifying President Obama's strategy because isn't that, in many ways, what U.S. policy seems to be at this point?
FERGUSON: I have no clue what U.S. policy is at the moment other than to hope that things turn out. The U.S. is no longer in a leadership role. That's an amazing thing. And indeed the United States, from the early 1970s right through until this administration, was clearly the dominant powerbroker in the region. And that is gone. We are now in a situation in which President Putin is more credibly a powerbroker than President Obama. And Obama just has to hope that things in Syria turn out for the best. It's very unlikely that they will. At the moment, the situation is of almost mind-blowing complexity. There are at least five groupings fighting in Syria. Who knows how this ends? But one thing's for sure - the potential exists for the violence to escalate further and for other neighboring states to be destabilized. And I think one of the things that we may look back and see, let's say 10 years from now, is what a mistake it was to let this situation slip into not just civil war but regional war. The ultimate costs to the United States could be far higher than anybody currently seems to be aware of.
SIMON: Niall Ferguson, author of "Kissinger: Volume 1: 1923-1968: The Idealist," thanks so much for being with us.
FERGUSON: My pleasure.
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