Susan Rice: I hope everyone realizes it's going to take "many months" to train these Syrian rebels

When the Obama White House wants to reassure jittery Americans about an apparent foreign policy clusterfark, there’s only one person to call. Today’s goalpost-shifting communique: Don’t expect results on the ground inside Syria anytime soon.

And “anytime soon,” I’m guessing, means “before the 2016 election.”

President Obama’s national security adviser said Friday it will take “many months” before the U.S. can arm and train Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State terrorist group.

“This is not going to happen overnight,” Susan E. Rice told reporters at the White House. “We will move as fast as we reasonably can.”…

Ms. Rice said the U.S. is “prepared to go ahead” with airstrikes in Syria but would not reveal a timetable.

“When and how we choose to do that will be an operational decision,” she said.

How much time does the White House have, realistically, to “degrade” ISIS before voters start getting fidgety? They have as much time as they need to push them out of Iraq, I think, provided of course that there are no U.S. casualties. Americans feel an obligation to Iraq and don’t want the military’s sacrifices there to lead to a “caliphate.” O has a wide berth to wage that war. Once that mission is accomplished, though, and the fighting moves across the border, how long does the Free Syrian Army have to start conquering territory held by ISIS before Americans give up on them? For instance, let’s say it’s November 2015 and after three months of fighting inside Syria, the balance of power between Assad, ISIS, and the newly trained FSA hasn’t changed much. What does Hillary’s policy on Syria look like at that point? (She’s already on record as criticizing O for not arming the rebels sooner, remember.) How about Rubio’s and Rand Paul’s policies?

My guess is that, because of what Rice says about how long it’ll take, the 2016 candidates will be largely frozen even if things start go south. It probably do more damage to someone like Hillary or Rubio, who are positioning themselves as resolute hawks, to shift opportunistically at the eleventh hour towards a more dovish position than to just stick with their hawkish message and blame O for not doing more to hurt ISIS on the ground. The only candidate who might have some wiggle room is Paul, just because he’s been so slippery lately on how hawkish he is. If the war’s going broadly well, great: Rand can say, correctly, that he supported attacking ISIS. If the war’s going badly because the FSA is a bust, great: Rand can say, correctly, that he opposed arming them as interventionist folly. If the FSA is flailing but the USAF is laying waste to ISIS inside Syria from the air, Rand could argue both positions at the same time. That helps explain his stemwinder on the Senate floor yesterday. Even though war fever against the jihadis is high right now, odds are good that some component of this strategy is going to go sideways. (It’s a war in the Middle East, after all.) Once it does, Rand will be there to say “I tried to warn you.” All of which is to say, a key foreign policy question in election 2016 could be “Do we surge with a small number of ground troops in Syria to help these hopeless rebels or do we pull the plug?” Depending upon whom the GOP nominates, it could be the Democrat next time who’s yelling “surge!” while the Republican yells “get out now.”

Via the Corner, here’s Rep. Jackie Speier — a Democrat — calling Obama’s plan to send 5,000 hastily trained rebels into battle against 30,000 jihadis “lame.”

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