Dan Drezner makes a point about President Obama's Syria policy that related to an idea I've had about similarities between that situation and past U.S. policy toward Latin America.
The trouble with Obama's liberal desire to enforce the chemical weapons taboo is running up against his realist desire to make sure that Al Qaeda doesn't have a friendly regime running Syria.
To be more specific, Obama doesn't want either the government or the rebels to win. Instead, he wants some seemingly moderate Syrian group to split the difference (I heard John McCain make almost precisely that point on NPR this morning). The comparison with Latin America is not perfect, but this should sound familiar to those familiar with U.S.-Latin American relations. Now, for the moment official U.S. policy is not regime change, but it doesn't take a genius to realize this is a goal anyway.
In the year or so immediately prior to both the Cuban (1959) and Nicaraguan (1979) revolutions, U.S. policy makers had finally decided that the dictators had to go. However, they did not trust the Marxist rebels who were on the verge of victory. So the U.S. tried to split the difference, seeking out moderates who were friendly toward the United States. Such groups did exist, but the driving forces of the overthrows were Fidel Castro in one case and the Sandinistas in the other.
In the Cuban case, the Eisenhower administration sent someone to talk to Batista:
The United States, Pawley later recalled, urged Batista "to capitulate to a caretaker government unfriendly to him, but satisfactory to us, whom we could immediately recognize and give military assistance to in order that Fidel Castro not come to power." Quoted in Louis A. Pérez, Jr. Cuba: Between Reform and Revolution, p. 311.
In the Nicaraguan case, a mediation team met with Somoza:
They noted the widespread sentiment in Nicaragua that peace would not be possible while he remained in power, and they asked whether he would resign to facilitate an arrangement between the Liberal Party and the FAO [Broad Opposation Front, the moderate opposition]. From Robert Pastor, Condemned to Repetition: The United States and Nicaragua, p. 105.
Unlike Assad, Batista and Somoza had enjoyed a cozy relationship with the United States for a long time, and only toward the end were viewed negatively. However, there is a similar dynamic because the dictators were viewed as distasteful while the rebels were deemed as potentially worse. Weakening the dictator opened the door for the rebels, who eventually--and not surprisingly--enacted policies the U.S. could not accept and thereby became "problems." The moderate opposition was drowned out and failed to gain political traction in the new revolutionary governments, or was simply forced out.
If the main power of the Syrian rebel groups come from those who are distrustful (or perhaps even antagonistic) toward the United States, then splitting the difference once again has little chance for success.