We are to arm the rebels in Syria. So sayeth the deputy national security advisor for strategic communications yesterday. The Obama administration has satisfied itself the intelligence is reliable that the Assad government did in several instances use chemical weapons against its own population. President Obama set a red line, Bashar al-Assad crossed it, and now American credibility is at stake, so the administration must finally do something.
It's bad policy to go to war to preserve American credibility -- much less any particular president's credibility. As a general rule, if you have to fight a duel to defend a lady's honor, she's probably already compromised it. And -- much as we bridle to hear it -- in the eyes of much of the world, American credibility is always in doubt. Even in the canonical cases, it looks much different to others: Europeans recall how much of World War II we sat out, as well as our eventual joining. We are an unpredictable ally, even an unreliable one to many of our partners.
Moreover, the argument has something of a domino theory feel to it: We must defend American credibility here, otherwise we won't have it over there. It brings to mind the scene in the anti-war movie Gallipoli in which two young soldiers are explaining World War I to a hobo in the Australian outback. "If we don't stop the Kaiser in Europe, he could get all this," the soldier explains as the camera pans around hundreds of unpopulated miles in every direction.
America should go to war only when the war itself merits it. If we need credibility for managing the Iranian nuclear program, we're going to have to earn it on the basis of countering the Iranian nuclear program. If the atrocities of the Syrian government against its own people, the provocations for a wider regional war, deepening sectarian divide across the Middle East, and tottering of American allies under the weight of refugees demands credible policies, we are not going to bluff our way to changing the Assad government's behavior because we've done what we said we would do elsewhere.
Syria does merit going to war. Bashar al-Assad is a butcher, a major supporter of terrorism, a threat to our allies and our interests in the Middle East. That Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia are keeping him in power argues for, not against, U.S. intervention. The Syrian opposition is fractious and increasingly beholden to jihadists; the longer this conflict drags on, the more fractious rebels will become and the most beholden they will be to the forces that are assisting their fight.
The White House may resent being pulled into the conflict, but that is a problem of the president's own making. He declared that Assad must go. He set the red line on chemical weapons use. As with so much else in Obama administration foreign policy, they are tripped up on the conflict between their lofty statements of intent and their unwillingness to act.
In announcing the new policy, the deputy national security advisor said that in light of Assad's forces having crossed President Obama's "red line" against using chemical weapons, we would commence providing military assistance to the Syrian rebels. "Suffice it to say this is going to be different in both scope and scale," Rhodes said of the new assistance. But he did not say what that new scope and scale of assistance would entail. He did say what it would not entail: enactment of a no-fly zone or involvement of U.S. troops. Others in the administration tell journalists the lethal assistance will consist of small arms and ammunition.
Before Hezbollah fighters joined in on the regime side, most analysts considered the major regime advantage to be airborne firepower. The regime has heavy weapons and the rebels do not; it has been sufficient to create a stalemate. As the war dragged on, jihadists flowed into rebel ranks, improving their fighting power, and arms flowed into regime stockpiles, improving their firepower. As the fall of Qusayr shows, the regime is gaining ground.
Rhodes said our arms shipments would be "responsive to the needs" expressed by the rebel command. General Idriss, in charge of the rebel forces, has openly and repeatedly requested anti-tank missiles and shoulder-fired rockets to shoot down the aircraft that the Assad regime is using against civilians. The rebels have also requested a no-fly zone to level the fighting field. The Obama administration will be responsive to their needs by providing small arms and ammunition. So, in fact, the rebels' needs have very little to do with the assistance the Obama administration has decided to provide.
The Obama administration continues to labor under the illusion that bold statements are an adequate deterrent. They have -- again -- made a hortatory commitment and will allow time to lag before determining whether to proceed with doing anything. They have -- again -- made the choice to do just enough to keep the rebels fighting, but not enough to help them win. Suffice it to say, this policy will once again be too little too late. And the American credibility it is designed to bolster will be further degraded.
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Barack Obama's administration is taking a lot of heat for newfangled intelligence activities, but it is old-fashioned intelligence problems that bedevil the administration in Syria. As a recent Wall Street Journal article (available here, but behind a subscription wall) explains, the intelligence community is divided on a basic question that figures heavily in the policy debate over what to do: Is Syrian President Bashar al-Assad doomed, despite recent battlefield successes, or has he sufficiently changed his political fortunes so that he may "win" his battle with the rebels?
The reported division among intelligence analysts provides a good teaching moment to explain the limits of intelligence, insofar as it informs policy. At most, intelligence can inform policy. It rarely if ever is dispositive in the sense of making absolutely clear that one policy alternative is "right" and the others are "wrong." And all too often, the intelligence is sufficiently ambiguous that reasonable people can disagree as to the policy implications. In those cases -- the majority of the cases, in my experience -- the final policy decision rightly hinges on judgments and bets that only the policymaker can make.
Consider how this plays out in the Syria case. The Obama administration is making a bet about the future, a bet that hinges on multiple predictions about what will and won't happen. One big prediction is whether Assad will fall without substantially more robust U.S. assistance to the rebels. This is not the only prediction related to Assad that matters. Other subsidiary ones, like whether there is an available alternative regime -- another strongman or some sort of power-sharing agreement -- that would better suit U.S. interests, also matter.
But Assad's fate is a biggie, and knowing the answer to that question would go some distance to determining the costs and benefits of Obama's current hands-off policy. The Obama administration so far has been betting that Assad will fall without ramped-up U.S. prodding. This is what the administration devoutly wishes will happen, because it would neatly and cheaply resolve the contradiction between the central pillar of the Obama doctrine of "no more U.S. ground interventions in the Middle East" and the obvious U.S. national interest in seeing Iran's strategic ambitions in the region thwarted. The problem is that no one -- not Obama, not the intelligence community (IC), not Assad himself -- knows the answer. In fact, in the current instance, the IC (and probably the Obama policymaking community itself) is divided on the question.
There is no alternative, therefore, but to make a bet. And while the IC is betting in its estimates, only policymakers have the assignment -- what I would call the political competence -- to make the bet fully, implementing it into a policy decision one way or the other.
The Obama administration might have greater confidence in its bet if the IC were united in its own estimate (though the administration might also come to doubt such a consensus on a thorny prediction like this, suspecting groupthink at work). But even then the administration would not, or should not, have total confidence that the IC estimate was correct. And in the present situation, with some analysts betting one way and others betting the other way, the only thing that Obama can be sure of is that, if his bet comes a cropper, someone in the IC could say "I told you so."
Some of the administration's intel problems in Syria are of its own making, or at least exacerbated by choices the administration made. A more activist policy earlier would have likely improved information gathering inside Syria -- a safe-haven zone, for instance, would have been an intelligence bonanza. Most of the problem, however, is inherent in the business and should not be blamed on the administration.
Bottom line: Yes, we should work to improve the quality of intelligence collection and analysis, but the buck will never stop until it lands in the Oval Office.
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American officials like to say that Iran's defiance of international demands that it limit its nuclear activities, its support for terrorism, and the like have led to Tehran's growing isolation. Iranian regime officials see things differently. The Iranian regime has a strategy in the Middle East and believes it is succeeding.
Nowhere in the Middle East is Iran's strategy clearer at the moment than in Syria. Recently, Maj. Gen. Yahya Rahim Safavi, the military advisor to Iran's supreme leader, asserted that Syria is a "confrontation between the strategic policies of the world's great powers and regional powers," with Iran and its foreign allies on one side, and the United States and its regional allies on the other, per a translation by the American Enterprise Institute.
In explaining why Iran is engaged in this confrontation, Safavi noted that "Iran has pursued power and influence out to the Mediterranean three times." Two of these instances, in Safavi's recounting, occurred during the reigns of ancient Iranian kings. The third, however, was the present. He explained that Iran currently uses Hezbollah as "the long arm of Iranian defensive power … to confront a possible Zionist attack against Iran's nuclear energy facilities."
Safavi also explained how successful Iranian approaches to Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as to Syria, have made Iran a "regional power" in defiance of Western efforts to thwart its ambitions.
It would be easy to dismiss Safavi's claims as bluster. They are certainly selective: Ordinary Iranians are unlikely to find much comfort in his claimed foreign-policy successes while they struggle with rising inflation and unemployment at home. As hyperbolic as his claims may be, however, they are echoed by other Iranian officials and provide a useful guide to understanding Iranian actions and formulating an approach to the region.
Western officials and analysts have a tendency to artificially isolate one problem in the Middle East from another, treating Iran's nuclear program and the Syrian crisis, for example, as distinct problems to be dealt with independently.
This can lead to clouded analysis and false policy choices. For example, some argue that the United States should avoid involvement in Syria to ensure that resources are available to deal with Iran. In reality, both Iran's activities in Syria and its nuclear ambitions are part of a broader Iranian strategy to project power, enhance its regional influence, and constrain the United States and its regional allies.
Likewise, many analysts were surprised by Hezbollah's open admission of its deep involvement in Syria, because they viewed the group as primarily a Lebanese political party or as engaged in fighting Israel. While both of these are true, they neglect that Hezbollah is more fundamentally a group created to project Iranian power into the Levant, a mission with which its Syrian venture -- as well as its activities in Iraq during the last decade -- is perfectly compatible.
Western officials' inattention to this broader picture has real strategic consequences for U.S. interests. No matter how much American policymakers stress that the "military option" is on the table with respect to Iran's nuclear program, Washington's failure to push back on Iranian aggression in Syria, and the European Union's reluctance to penalize Hezbollah for its actions, undercut the credibility of Western warnings. Whatever the view of the West, for Tehran these issues, as well as the West's responses to them, are inextricably connected.
And not just for Tehran -- America's allies in the region also see U.S. actions in different theaters as linked, and they view with alarm Washington's passivity in the region. Consequently, American influence is everywhere diminished as friends and foes alike increasingly factor Washington out of policy decisions, and the force of America's allies collectively is reduced as each pursues policies independently not just of the United States but, to a great extent, of one another.
Once lost, influence is costly to regain, which gives rise to a vicious cycle. Re-establishing U.S. influence and credibility requires actions that, as crises deepen and multiply, become costlier as time passes, which reinforces the argument against taking them. Nowhere is this more evident than in Syria.
Costly interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have soured U.S. officials on further entanglement in the Middle East. But disengaging from the region will only add to the costs of those wars, not compensate for them.
One lesson we must learn from those conflicts, however, is to have clear objectives and to pursue them economically. When it comes to Iran, the objective has never been and should not become merely limiting Iranian nuclear activities, but disrupting the strategy of which both the nuclear program and Syria, as well as Iran's asymmetric actions, are parts. A non-nuclear Iran emboldened by victory in Syria remains dangerous.
The economical way to begin countering Iran's strategy is not to wait for a last-resort strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, or worse yet to continue offering Iran nuclear concessions in hopes it will bite; rather, it is to press Iran in a place like Syria, where it is far from home and perhaps overextended.
Defeating Iranian designs in Syria will not halt Tehran's nuclear ambitions, but it may restore in the eyes of Iranian and allied officials alike the credibility of American power, and force Tehran to reconsider the costs of its strategy. For Iran, Major General Safavi reminds us, has a strategy in the Middle East; the United States must as well.
The situation in Syria is looking grim, and prospects are fading fast for the so-called Geneva II conference. Given recent adverse developments -- the loss of Qusair and the surge of Iranian, Russian, and Hezbollah support for Bashar al-Assad's regime -- it is not surprising that some should call upon U.S. President Barack Obama to abandon not just his plans for the conference, but his Syria diplomacy altogether.
That advice is misguided. The question is not whether the United States should use diplomacy to resolve the Syrian crisis. It is how to make diplomacy succeed.
The popular notion that diplomacy and war are antithetical is deeply mistaken. Both diplomacy and military might are tools that states and, increasingly, nonstate actors use to achieve their objectives, and they are often wielded together. Just as diplomacy is an indispensable tool to avert, win, and end wars, so too is military might a vital tool in diplomacy.
It should come as no surprise, therefore, to see a flurry of military activity follow the announcement of a new round of talks. As outrageous as Russian and Iranian support for a regime brutalizing civilians is, their actions follow a certain ruthless logic. Each side in a conflict will seek to enter negotiations having placed itself in the most favorable position possible and having put the other parties at the greatest possible disadvantage, with an eye toward securing the best possible settlement.
This is precisely what we are seeing in Syria today. The Syrian regime's allies have surged military support to Assad's forces to help them enter the talks with momentum and to ensure that the opposition enters talks dispirited and disorganized. At the same time, Moscow in particular has sought to limit U.S. options in advance of the talks -- first by using its Security Council seat to block any U.N. action, and second by discouraging a U.S. or NATO air intervention by bolstering Syrian air defenses.
What is surprising, on the other hand, is how passive the United States and its allies have been by comparison.
Negotiations are not, contrary to their popular portrayal, about convincing the other parties, through charisma or fine prose, of the superiority of one's position. Negotiations succeed only when all the quarreling parties -- those doing the fighting and those supporting them -- identify a diplomatic resolution that better serves their interests than the best alternative available to each. Successful diplomacy depends on these two things, therefore: the deal on offer, and how the parties view their alternatives (or, in negotiating parlance, their "best alternative to a negotiated agreement," or BATNA).
Judged by these standards, the Assad regime and its supporters appear better positioned at the moment to succeed diplomatically than the United States and the Syrian opposition. With the rebels struggling to succeed militarily and the United States and its allies having all but ruled out various forms of intervention, the regime is unlikely to be in a mood for concessions. The opposition -- most of which would likely prefer military defeat to a deal that allowed Assad to remain in power -- has warned that it may stay away altogether if not provided greater support by the West.
To reverse this dynamic and turn the diplomatic tide in its favor, the Obama administration must do some work away from the table before it starts negotiating at the table. It must start by clearly deciding on its objectives. These should be twofold. On the one hand, the United States seeks to oust Assad and prevent the emergence of another Iranian-allied regime in Damascus. On the other, it seeks to prevent jihadi groups from seizing power in Syria, or even isolated pockets of the country, from which to press their fight against the United States and its allies.
These objectives provide some initial parameters for designing a diplomatic deal: It must specifically achieve Assad's ouster, but also manage to knit together a broad group of Syrians who will resist both Iranian and jihadi influence. Assad will necessarily be excluded from this diplomacy -- he is, after all, fighting to stay in power, not to negotiate himself out of power -- but Washington should nevertheless seek to peel away the support of Syrian constituencies that remain loyal to him. This suggests that the United States will need to offer credible, specific assurances to Syrian minority communities -- the Kurds, Christians, and Alawites in particular -- that they will be included and protected, by international peacekeepers if necessary, in a post-Assad Syria.
A deal of this nature will also appeal to the opposition, which thus far has resisted any notion of a political transition that includes Assad and his inner circle.
Negotiations are not, however, merely about putting an attractive deal on the table. Presented with the deal above, all sides may believe that their best alternatives -- their BATNA -- remains superior to what the United States is offering. To address this problem, the United States must change those alternatives.
To influence the Syrian opposition, the United States must make clear that its assistance is conditional upon engaging productively in diplomacy and entertaining reasonable compromise. Washington will need to send the same message to allies, such as Turkey, Qatar, and other regional actors, that are currently acting independently of Washington and one another. Qatar in particular appears to be supporting opposition elements to which the United States is opposed. But we cannot argue against something with nothing -- a more active and decisive U.S. policy will give these allies something to rally behind, and the United States will need to push them to unify their efforts and diplomatic positions.
As for the Assad regime and its allies, the United States must disabuse them of the notion that the alternative to diplomatic bargaining is military victory. To do so, the United States must credibly put on the table the option of military intervention -- both direct (through airstrikes, for example) and indirect, through arming elements of the Syrian opposition whose interests are aligned with those of the United States. This will send the message to those supporting Assad inside and outside Syria that military defeat is the alternative to a negotiated outcome.
Among Syria's supporters, Iran and Russia present special cases. Iran, which has dispatched forces to Syria, will most likely back down when faced with the prospect of confrontation with the United States. Russia, whose support for Assad is both material and diplomatic, presents a different problem. Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to desire an outcome that he can tout as a success at home, rather than one that comes across as a capitulation to Western demands. Collaborating with Moscow -- as the Obama administration is seeking to do -- on one hand, and linking this issue to U.S.-Russia cooperation in areas more strategically vital to Putin might facilitate a constructive Russian approach.
One frequently hears that steps such as these should be avoided because they will undermine U.S. diplomatic efforts. In fact, the opposite is true: Diplomacy is as much, if not more, about what one does away from the table to develop leverage as it is about talks themselves. If Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry desire a negotiated resolution to the Syrian crisis, they have a lot of work to do before they book their flights to Geneva.
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When U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Moscow recently to discuss the deepening crisis in Syria, he brought with him the hope that the severity of events in the Middle East would finally be sufficient to spur Russia to reconsider its rigid support for Bashar al-Assad's regime, and plans for a new multilateral diplomatic initiative. What he did not carry with him, however, was leverage; without it, Kerry's latest gambit to bring the Syrian conflict to a negotiated conclusion is bound to fail.
It is right, of course, to prefer a diplomatic resolution of the Syrian conflict over a Western military intervention; and it is imperative, from the U.S. point of view, that whatever resolution is reached leave neither jihadists nor Iranian proxies in charge of Syria. However, successfully reaching this sort of resolution diplomatically depends on the parties to the conflict identifying an outcome that all of them prefer to the alternatives.
No such common ground exists at present, which is why diplomacy has been so unsuccessful and the war has ground on relentlessly. Both the Assad regime and the radical elements of the opposition are externally supplied and believe they can win, and thus be positioned to dictate terms in a post-conflict Syria. More secular elements of the Syrian opposition, on the other hand, are resource-poor and riven by internal differences, and they're unable thus far to mount a sufficient challenge either to the regime or to the extremists.
Outside Syria, Russia and Iran are supporting the Syrian regime, but appear primarily interested in frustrating Western aims, particularly in preventing the emergence of any Western-friendly successor to Assad. America's regional allies are alarmed by the violence in Syria, but are wary of the risks of deeper involvement, are split by rivalries among themselves, and lack the capacity to bring the conflict to a conclusion.
Almost entirely absent from this list of key actors is the United States, despite the vital interests the country has at stake in Syria. Washington has limited itself to the provision of humanitarian aid to Syria through various channels, as well as "nonlethal assistance" to the Syrian opposition.
U.S. officials from the president down have all but sworn off any further American involvement in Syria. They have variously stated that securing Syrian chemical weapons would take tens of thousands of U.S. ground troops, that providing arms to the Syrian rebels is too risky, and that Syrian air defenses are too formidable to consider airstrikes or a no-fly zone, which in any event would require international legal sanction. Other Western officials have echoed these sentiments.
Those who oppose intervention in Syria and instead support a negotiated resolution might find comfort in this. This reaction, however, is misguided. The absence of any significant U.S. involvement in Syria -- or even the prospect of it -- means that the United States lacks the leverage necessary to support its diplomatic efforts. It is easy to take American influence for granted, but that influence depends on neither goodwill nor esteem. Rather, it depends crucially on how others perceive America's willingness to exercise its power to advance its objectives. If other parties sense that the United States is unwilling to act -- whether to advance their interests or set them back -- they will discount the country in their calculations.
It should be little surprise, in this context, that Russian officials announced a major arms sale to the Assad regime shortly after pledging support for Kerry's peace conference. The move does little to bolster Assad's effectiveness in the fight against opposition forces; rather, it serves to embarrass the United States and undermine U.S. military options while underscoring Moscow's own commitment to its policy, bolstering Russian leverage in advance of any eventual negotiations.
If Barack Obama's administration is serious about achieving a diplomatic resolution to the Syrian conflict that advances U.S. interests, then it must develop leverage of its own. There are two ways to do this. First, the United States could link Syria to other issues in which Russia and other supporters of the Assad regime have stronger interests; for a host of reasons, this is unlikely.
Second, the United States could boost its involvement in Syria and alter how other parties perceive the prospects of even further U.S. involvement. Doing this would require two major changes in policy.
First, the United States must get serious about supporting the Syrian opposition, politically, financially, and militarily. Washington can strengthen the position of secular opposition leaders by channeling assistance through them. This assistance should include funding to allow the opposition to begin governing areas it holds inside Syria, as well as arms to tip the military balance against both the regime and extremists. In addition, Washington should be more hands-on in helping the opposition to overcome its internal rivalries.
This assistance should come, explicitly, at a price. The opposition should offer assurances to the minority groups that fear for their future after Assad's fall, and it should engage meaningfully in a diplomatic process aimed at ending the conflict.
Second, the Obama administration should stop swearing off military involvement in Syria and instead leave the possibility of intervention open. This could decisively change the calculus of the elites surrounding Assad as well as that of Russia and Iran, which may prefer a diplomatic resolution to Western intervention.
These steps would also finally provide U.S. allies in the region a strategy to rally around and a chance to spread the risk of increased involvement in Syria, perhaps finally bringing the policies of countries such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey into greater alignment with one another.
Increased support for the Syrian opposition and credible threats of military force are not steps that should be taken lightly. It would be a mistake, however, to see such steps -- or even more serious actions -- as alternatives to a diplomatic solution to the Syrian conflict. Instead, they should be viewed as vital to diplomacy's success, insofar as they alter the calculations of the parties to the conflict. Diplomacy and coercion are not mutually exclusive, but mutually reinforcing; there will be little hope of a diplomatic breakthrough on Syria until U.S. actions measure up to U.S. pronouncements.
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Something quite extraordinary -- perhaps even historic -- is afoot in Turkey. The country's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is engaged in a colossal roll of the political dice, an act of statesmanship, ambition, and hubris largely without parallel on the current world stage. At one and the same time, Erdogan appears set on a course that could result not only in redefining the very nature of the modern Turkish nation-state, but in a radical revision of the Turkish Republic's core national security tenets as well. How the gambit plays out could have momentous implications for the future of Turkey, for sure, but also for the broader Middle East region and even the United States.
At the center of Erdogan's play is an effort to resolve Turkey's "Kurdish problem" -- the chronic, often bloody conflict that has torn at the fabric of the Turkish state since its founding 90 years ago. On one side: the highly exclusive Kemalist conception of Turkish citizenship that all but denied the existence of Kurdish ethnicity (no Kurds here, only "mountain Turks") and effectively banned Kurdish language, history, and culture from the nation's public life. On the other: a fiercely proud and distinct people, the Kurds, whose decades-long struggle for recognition and self-determination has -- not surprisingly -- regularly found expression in demands for independent nationhood, an ever-present separatist dagger pointed at the heart of Turkey's territorial integrity and unity. Since 1984, this clash of competing nationalisms has manifested itself most virulently in the brutal war waged against the Turkish state by the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a Leninist organization that both the United States and the European Union have officially designated as a terrorist group.
Now, in a bold and risky effort to cut through this Gordian knot, Erdogan has launched a new peace process in which his main partner is none other than Abdullah Ocalan, the infamous PKK leader who has been imprisoned on the Turkish island of Imrali since 1999. Revered by many (though by no means all) Kurds, Ocalan is reviled by the majority of ethnic Turks, condemned as a murderous enemy of the republic, a master terrorist whose hands are covered in the blood of innocents.
After months of secret negotiations with Erdogan's intelligence chief, Ocalan issued a dramatic cease-fire declaration from his jail cell on March 21, the Kurdish new year. The statement was presented publicly in Diyarbakir, a Kurdish-majority city in southeastern Turkey, where it was read out by Kurdish parliamentarians to a massive crowd waving Kurdish flags and portraits of the PKK leader. According to Ocalan, "A new era is beginning; arms are silencing; politics are gaining momentum. It is time for our [PKK] armed entities to withdraw [from Turkey]." Ocalan condemned as "an inhuman invention" past efforts to form states "on a single ethnicity and nation." Today, he stated, "everybody is responsible for the creation of a free, democratic, and egalitarian country that suits well with the history of Kurdistan and Anatolia."
Will and Peter have raised important points about the Obama administration's policy failings with regard to Syria. The President's approach combines the worst of moral negligence ("If he drops sarin on his own people, what's that got to do with us?") with casually adopted "red lines" whose terms and intelligence they litigate when the bluffs are called. All this while Hezbollah is openly participating, Assad's forces begin to regain ground, Turkey and Israel are being drawn in to the fight, and countries in the region plead for American leadership.
Peter may be right that the President is committed to stay out of the fight -- that Rwanda is the right historical parallel. It's entirely likely they will subject any and every possible policy to evidentiary standards intelligence work in the real world cannot attain or delays that string along journalists with the “Administration considering...” storyline. But those of us who believe for reasons of both interests and values the United States should have a much more active involvement in preventing the Assad government from remaining in power ought to be turning policy keys in the administration's locks to see if we can devise interventions consistent with the commander in chief's limitations and incentivized by engaging their ideological proclivities.
An intervention focusing on the plight of refugees might provide that key, allowing a humanitarian motivation, supported by the United Nations and the Arab League, with narrow involvement by U.S. military forces operating as one small part of a broad coalition, and heavy emphasis on "smart power" diplomacy to bring Russia into participation and growing governance capacity among the Syrian opposition.
Syria's civil war has displaced 4,250,000 Syrians from their homes to other parts of the country, and another 1,400,000 have fled outside the country to reside in neighboring states. Jordan alone is giving shelter to 524,000. One of the refugee camps constitutes Jordan's fifth largest city; this in a country without the largesse to provide much assistance and whose political structure has never come to terms with the long-term residence of Palestinians who left Israel in 1948. Jordan is tottering under the weight of providing for refugees and fear they may become permanent. President Obama acknowledged the burden on Jordan during his recent visit, pledging additional U.S. aid.
Turkey is in an even more parlous situation, with refugees fanning tensions between Turkish Sunni and Kurds and threatening to derail the Erdogan government's important progress in reconciliation on the Kurdish issue. The Erdogan government has so far held sectarian unity, but just barely, and violence is escalating. Turkey's turn from "zero problems with neighbors" to a foreign policy much more closely aligned with ours has been a real boon to the Obama administration. Moreover, constraining Turkey from shaming NATO into a much more activist military role -- invoking the mutual defense clause of the NATO treaty, for example -- is a significant component of the Obama administration being able to limit U.S. involvement.
An intervention that seeks to create refugee camps within Syrian territory would take the pressure off neighboring countries. The United Nations estimates that six million Syrians are in need of urgent assistance, a full third of the population. Establishing camps in Syria at which civilians can safely receive that assistance would be the objective of the intervention.
Focusing on refugees would be the path of least international resistance, something important to this administration, and could even conceivably produce an international "legal" basis. Whether the UN will actually support invoking the Responsibility to Protect is worth testing, but it needn't be the only means by which the UN could be brought in. The Obama administration could lead from behind by orchestrating an appeal to the Security Council led by Turkey, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia -- perhaps even Israel could be included to show the breadth of regional support, and Iraq lured by Sunni emboldenment and the status of inclusion to abandon Iranian objectives. The Arab League would need to be jostled into unity, given its division over "awakening," but that's an ideal role for John Kerry's State Department. Isolating Iran and exposing its involvement in Syria would provide a unifying element. The Gulf countries could be prompted to advise China of its long-term oil needs, as produced some effect in Iran negotiations.
Secretary Kerry could be tasked with bringing Russia into the fold. The Russians have a genuine fear of stoking Islamist violence in the Caucasus; Kerry should persuade them their current policy in Syria will foster precisely what they're seeking to avoid and encourage their participation in the UN mission as a way of resetting how they are perceived by protecting Muslims in Syria. Giving Russia responsibility for refugee assistance in the area of their Tartus base would perhaps tempt them to support a UN role.
The "realist" pretensions of the Obama administration could be engaged in crafting an exit strategy for Assad -- promising he will not be remanded to the International Criminal Court if he chooses a coddled retirement in the UAE or London.
A UN mission could provide aid directly in the camps, rather than through the government, as it is now doing, taking that lever from Assad -- or perhaps leaving it with Assad to incentivize his agreement to establish the camps -- but giving NGOs latitude to work directly in the camps in addition to UN efforts.
The primary responsibility for protecting refugee camps inside Syria would in theory rest with the Assad government and in practice migrate to the rebels. A UN mission would hold the Syrian government responsible for any government attacks because it is the sovereign. The rebels have demonstrated the ability to take and hold territory from the government, even with the government's military advantages. If refugee camps were set up in the border areas north and east of the country, where the refugees currently are, they would be in rebel-controlled areas. Facilitating refugee return and providing governance in the camps would provide a governance training ground for Syrian opposition leaders. Working with them will increase our understanding and help us help the opposition gain control over militia that will eventually need to be demobilized.
Whatever one thinks of the efficacy of our intelligence work in Syria -- Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey testified that we know less now than we did a year ago about Syrian rebels -- that our intelligence and military communities are so concerned about the prospect of providing them the kinds of weapons that would neutralize Assad's advantages ought to give us pause. General Salim Idris, our preferred leader of the opposition, has acknowledged he has little influence over what the rebels do and no direct authority over the largest factions. So caution is in order where arming the rebels is concerned.
It is still the case that the Assad government's advantage in the fight is air superiority and heavy weaponry. That is changing as Hezbollah and Iran both train and participate with the Assad forces, but preventing the Assad government from using airpower, artillery and missiles would shift the balance significantly in favor of the rebels. If we will not entrust rebels with the weapons to undertake that work, it falls to us. This need not entail a Northern Watch-style no fly zone, or even a preemptive destruction of Syrian air forces: coalition military operations could be restricted to preventing the use of aircraft, and retaliating against the use of artillery or missiles by the government. For all the talk of Syrian air defenses being five times as good as Libya's, the Israeli air force seems to slice through them pretty easily. Missiles fired from outside Syrian airspace, either from seaborne platforms or NATO batteries already based in Turkey could take much of the responsibility. Countering Syrian missiles may be too demanding in real time, but retaliating against units that fire them would diminish the government's advantage with time.
Such an approach would not prevent all Syrian attacks. But it would protect more Syrians and it would diminish the Assad government's military advantage over time. And it just might be limited enough, and contain enough elements of the kind of policies the Obama administration favors, for the commander in chief to consider it.
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These have been tough weeks for the Obama administration on foreign policy. On so many issues of consequence, the trajectories of real-world events have been running decidedly against the Obama policy line. If you had to pick a major foreign-policy issue where the United States is in better shape today than it was six months ago, which one would you pick? I am hard-pressed to think of one. When the brightest foreign-policy story is a trip to Latin America, you know the White House is struggling.
Some of my Shadow Government colleagues have responded to the spiraling chaos by urging President Barack Obama to face facts and change his policies, particularly with respect to Syria.
The same news headlines have elicited a different reaction from me, however. I am not entirely comfortable with my reaction, so I post it here in the hopes that someone will persuade me that I am wrong.
When I read stories like this one, which outlines how careless the president was in setting up the Syrian "red line" on chemical weapons use, or this one, which raises serious questions about whether the administration's handling of Benghazi amounted to a politicized coverup, or this one, which details the extent to which partisan political considerations have shaped national security decision-making in the White House, it undermines my confidence that this administration could intervene effectively in Syria.
In other words, recent events and revelations have made me less inclined to support a robust intervention in Syria, not more inclined. I have reached this tentative conclusion not because the hawks are wrong and the doves are right about the stakes. My colleagues who are pushing for a military intervention are probably right about the negative consequences that are heading our way because of Obama's Syria policy (see Inboden's version here, and Zakheim's version here).
And those who downplay the costs of nonintervention must rely on cherry-picked analogies and dubious wishful thinking to bolster their conclusions (see Fareed Zakaria's version here, which ignores how regional adversaries interpreted the U.S. withdrawal from Lebanon, or Stephen Walt's version here, which ignores the extent to which U.S. interests are affected by adverse global developments).
Rather, I am sliding toward nonintervention because, as I argued before, any U.S. military intervention will be led by the commander in chief we have, not the commander in chief we might wish we had. Obama has many strengths, but among them is not martial resolve in the face of wartime adversity.
Yes, he authorized a military surge in Afghanistan, but he did not back it up with a civilian/diplomatic surge -- instead, he undercut it with the strategic blunder of the arbitrary withdrawal timeline dictated by the domestic political calendar. And as doubts about Afghanistan mount, he has done almost nothing to mobilize public support for his own surge. Yes, he reluctantly went along with the British-French initiative to intervene in Libya, but he has subsequently tried to wash America's hands of responsibility for the aftermath. And, so far as I can see, he has not done much to back up his boast that the terrorists who attacked the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi would be held accountable.
In other words, Obama is a buck-passer, as Walt has pointed out with approval. You may or may not want a buck-passer conducting your foreign policy -- it matters greatly whether you have significant interests at stake (Walt explicitly claims America does not) and whether someone else is there to receive the buck (Walt is silent on this question, but if he pursued it he might realize that a sustained strategy of buck-passing creates the conditions for the emergence of a hostile peer rival, which even Walt acknowledges would be an adverse development).
But you surely do not want to go to war with a buck-passer. Not as your ally, which helps explain why Obama's declared policy of building an international coalition on Syria has failed. And not as your commander -- recognition that Obama's heart is not in the wars he already is leading reinforces the military's natural reluctance to intervene in any new conflict.
There were more promising options that may have been less demanding of presidential resolve earlier in the crisis. A more forward-leaning intelligence and rebel-support operation earlier on might have produced better rebel groups to support now. Perhaps it is fair of the hawks to criticize the president for missed earlier opportunities.
But because he missed those opportunities, we are where we are, and from here the options look exceptionally bleak. A robust policy today would certainly require a leader as committed to winning wars as he is to ending them.
So I would like those who are recommending that the United States take a more robust interventionist stance on Syria to tell me how they think Obama would lead such an intervention when, as seems likely, it will demand more political-military resolve than a drone strike. Without a more satisfying answer to that question, I am left with the unfortunate conclusion that the only thing worse than the current policy of halfhearted nonintervention could be a policy of halfhearted intervention. Perhaps Obama's preferred policy of not intervening decisively is the least worst of a very bad menu of choices.
And we at Shadow Government should acknowledge the theoretical possibility that Obama has been right all along on Syria and the rest of us have been wrong. In this hypothetical universe, Obama would appear almost a profile in presidential resolve, albeit resolve to do nothing as opposed to doing something. In the face of mounting evidence that his Syria policy might not be working, Obama nevertheless doubled and tripled down on the policy. It would be like the resolve that produced the Iraq surge, but in reverse. I do not think this theoretical possibility is likely, but it is imaginable, and those of us critiquing the policy should have the humility to acknowledge it.
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All presidents make serious mistakes. Presidential leadership comes not from avoiding mistakes, but from having the humility, wisdom, and courage to correct those mistakes. There are growing signs that President Obama and his senior team are now realizing that they have seriously mishandled the Arab Awakening, even if they are still unsure what to do now -- and even if their negligence has rendered their choices now much more difficult.
Two and a half years in, Obama still has not developed a coherent strategy for the region. The problems began further back, in 2009, when Obama's dogmatic commitment to outreach to the Iranian regime clouded his ability to see the significant shift taking place among the Iranian people as the Green Movement suddenly emerged. The White House's subsequent passivity towards the Green Movement protests deprived the United States of leverage at the most meaningful moment of Ayatollah Khamenei's political vulnerability in recent years. Obama's Egypt policy has consisted of embracing the Muslim Brotherhood and neglecting non-Islamist Egyptians like liberals and Coptic Christians -- all while President Morsy drives the Egyptian economy over the cliff, though he still finds time to support fatwas against Easter. Obama may have won the war in Libya but is scandalizing the peace, as the Benghazi consulate attack and the chaos in Mali reveal.
Obama's Syria policy has consisted of just wishing it would go away. The humanitarian costs of over 80,000 dead are a grim rebuke to the White House's Atrocities Prevention Board. Instead, Anne Marie Slaughter and Walter Russell Mead have now taken to calling Syria "Obama's Rwanda," as was suggested here a few months ago.
For those not moved by principle to take action on Syria, American interests alone make it compelling. The region is being further destabilized with Iraq and Lebanon facing internal turmoil, and American allies Turkey and Israel feeling increasingly threatened -- the latter so much so that it has undertaken its own bombing campaign in Syria. Iran continues to rely on Syria as one of its main sources of leverage and influence in the region, just as Hezbollah relies on patronage from both Iran and Syria. Potentially worst of all, Syria's chemical weapons stores -- among the world's largest and deadliest -- are in very real danger of falling into the hands of extremist groups. That is what happens when the Assad regime opens its weapons depots and begins mixing and using them, thus dispersing the stocks, loosening command and control, and giving the extremists even more incentive to try to seize them -- and giving potential Syrian military defectors a deadly bargaining chip. Assad seems to be pursuing a salami slicing strategy of gradually employing more and more gruesome tactics. In this way he is perversely acclimating the outside world to his barbarity, while testing American resolve. Yet instead of meaningful action, we get a quote like this from a senior Obama advisor to the New York Times: "If he drops sarin on his own people, what's that got to do with us?"
Yes, he really said that. Aside from the moral callousness of that statement, its myopia is stunning. The possible use of sarin also means that that the stocks have been loosened, dispersed, and much more likely to fall into other hands. One would think that the very real prospect of chemical weapons being acquired by Islamist extremists who hate America would convince those few remaining voices still insisting that the U.S. has no national interests in the Syrian civil war to reconsider their blind faith.
Meanwhile, Obama's hands-off approach for the past two years has deprived the United States of any opportunity to 1) build ties with the opposition and shape its composition, 2) prevent the preponderance of the opposition from getting radicalized, 3) tip the scales of the conflict in the opposition's favor, and 4) shape the post-conflict political order, whatever it might be and whenever it might begin to emerge. Walter Mead sums this up well:
Given those goals, White House Syria policy from the beginning should have been to do everything possible (short of major direct American military involvement) to ensure a quick rebel win. The quicker the win, the less time international jihadis would have had to hijack the Syrian revolution, the less funding would have gone to radical groups, and the better the chances that post-war Syria would have been relatively calm. That's all lost now and we have paid and will pay a high price for the hesitation and dithering since war began.
Meanwhile, the strategic mistakes mount, with the most recent being Obama's rhetorical "red line" on the use of chemical weapons turning out to be only that -- rhetorical. Credibility is one of a president's, and a nation's, most precious assets. The "red line" is only the latest in a series of credibility-squandering utterances, following on Obama's repeated demands that Assad "must go," backed up by nothing policy-wise. The mismatch between Obama's words and actions is creating a credibility gap of Carter-esque proportions. Dictators from Tehran to Pyongyang are taking note.
One of the more memorable moments in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary came when then-Senator Hillary Clinton challenged also then-Senator Barack Obama over his allegedly jejune foreign policy credentials with the "3 a.m. phone call" advertisement about an urgent global crisis. Her question was pointed: Would the callow Obama know how to respond in the crucible?
Looking back over the five years since, I wonder if Clinton was right in her main point, just wrong in her timing. In this case, perhaps the mistake is not that the phone rang just once at 3:00 a.m. and that President Obama botched the call. Is it possible that historians will one day decide that the phone was ringing incessantly for two years, and yet President Obama failed to answer it?
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There are many ways that painful lessons from the Iraq war have been shaping or will come to shape Obama's Syria policy. Here are two I have not seen discussed much yet:
1. The public punishes policy failure even if it supported the policy initially. Bush's Iraq policies were very popular at the outset. Over time, however, the policies looked less and less successful, and by the darkest days of the war, it looked like the American mission might end in a fiasco. The downward policy trajectory contributed directly to a downward trajectory in public opinion. Yes, there were other reasons -- such as the failure to find WMD -- but the negative fortunes of the war were significant. The fact that large majorities of the public approved of the invasion at the outset did not protect the policy when the war turned south.
Obama faces precisely this risk on Syria. His current policy of not intervening decisively is popular enough -- the polls show at best modest support for military intervention if WMD has been used and at worst profound reluctance about shouldering additional burdens in the region. Obama, in his ambivalence, has the comfort of being aligned with the public today. But this is a cold comfort, since his policy is failing, every bit and perhaps more so than Bush's Iraq policy during the war's darkest days. Once the public concludes that Obama has failed in Syria, it will not matter much that they initially supported the policies that yielded this failure.
2. Doing the right thing belatedly can rescue the policy without restoring public support for the policy. President Bush turned around the Iraq War by authorizing the surge in 2007. This came late in the war but not too late to turn Iraq from a trajectory of failure to something much better. The surge not only reversed the situation in Iraq, it also changed the political reality at home. Iraq went from being a seething issue that was dominating the political stage to an issue largely devoid of political sting. By the time President Obama took office, the political pressure had been so drained from the Iraq issue that he had a virtual free hand to conduct Iraq policy as he saw fit, jettisoning campaign promises and rhetoric along the way. However, the surge came too late to change the public's overall estimation of the Iraq war. Today clear majorities deem it a mistake, not worth the cost -- and at best a "stalemate," not a "victory" (albeit it neither a "defeat"). Had the surge and its fruits come earlier in the course of the war when support for the war was higher, perhaps the surge would have been able to do more than simply take the political sting out of the war -- it might even have convinced more of the public to stick with their initial support.
Obama seems to be inching toward intervening more aggressively in Syria. At this point, the prospects for that intervention look bleak. But even if the supporters of this option are right, and it is not too late for American action to decisively shift U.S. Syria policy toward something less than a fiasco, it may be too late for the public to see Syria as a success and to credit President Obama accordingly.
Of course, President Obama, like President Bush before him, should do what is in the best interests of the country regardless of the impact on public opinion. But political White Houses do care about political consequences, and in that regard the lessons from Iraq are bleak.
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As Syria descends further into the maw of a sectarian civil war fueled by militant islamism -- and Iraq teeters on the brink of it -- the options for American foreign policy look increasingly grim. The core pillars of Obama's regional strategy have crumbled. The tides of war are not receding, and rather than ending wars "responsibly" so as to "pivot" to Asia, it looks increasingly clear our national interests in the region are in serious jeopardy.
Along the way, events in the Middle East have put in jeopardy one additional thing, one cherished by a certain class of foreign policy pundits: the appeal of "offshore balancing." Offshore balancing is the favored approach of academic realist theory and theorists who believe the United States has too often intervened militarily over the years.
Offshore balancing purports to offer a middle ground between pure isolationism, which pretends that the United States has no interests worth defending abroad, and the interventionism that has led the United States into costly military conflicts abroad. Offshore balancing involves defending U.S. interests through indirect means, such as providing arms to certain local partners who, it is hoped, will protect U.S. interests on our behalf, and by using other tools of influence to shape local behaviors.
As a general rule, American foreign policy practitioners have found offshore balancing an unreliable pillar around which to build a global strategy, but it is popular among academics like Christopher Layne, John Mearsheimer, and Stephen Walt.
In fact, it was reading some of Walt's posts separately critiquing efforts to buy influence in Afghanistan and proposals to arm the Syria rebels so as to avoid direct military intervention by the U.S. military that got me thinking again about the wide gulf between the appeal of offshore balancing among some academic theorists and its spotty record in real-world policy.
Perhaps unwittingly, Walt makes a strong case for why offshore balancing is unlikely to work well in protecting U.S. interests in these areas. Walt is unsparing in his critique of the alleged covert program to buy influence in Afghanistan, which he derides as "sleaze" and as a likely culprit in what he predicts will be failure in Afghanistan. Likewise, he argues that providing arms to Syrian rebels will not provide much influence over them, and so the United States should not go down that path. What Walt fails to do is reflect on how his critique of these policies leads logically to a deeper critique of offshore balancing -- for the very steps he is deriding as leading to failure are the core elements of any long-term offshore balancing approach to these challenges.
Maybe it is a bit unfair to treat Afghanistan as a case of offshore balancing. After all we have been "onshore" in force for over a decade now. However, even offshore balancers recognize the need for episodic military involvement, which is what distinguishes them from pure isolationists. An offshore balancing approach to Afghanistan would have been an extreme version of the light-footprint posture favored by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld: massive punitive action followed by extensive efforts at buying influence among local warlords. This is precisely what John Mearsheimer at the time endorsed as a policy of "open wallets." Offshore balancers reject the costly heavy footprint approach of counterinsurgency because they believe the United States can more effectively achieve its objectives through a light footprint. Going forward, what else could the offshore balancing prescription for Afghanistan offer if not a reliance on bribery and diplomacy?
It is absolutely fair to label Obama's current Syria policy as an attempt at offshore balancing. The administration has been resolute in avoiding an on-shore commitment in Syria, even to the extent of revising its own red-lines regarding Syrian WMD, and President Obama doubled down on this in his press conference Tuesday. But how can the United States shape the local balance of power without intervening directly and without arming favored rebel factions? Apparently, according to Walt, it cannot, which means that offshore balancing is doing no better at advancing U.S. interests than on-shore involvement.
The failure of offshore balancing does not prove the wisdom of military intervention. Perhaps Syria and Afghanistan are hopeless cases and, if so, there is an argument for not squandering American resources in futile efforts.
But Walt's implicit critique of offshore balancing points the way to a fuller exploration of the strategy, one that would go well beyond this blogpost. If even academic proponents of offshore balancing mock its core components, is it any wonder that policymakers with real responsibility for results will be reluctant to rely on it alone?
Offshore balancing is no panacea, just as military intervention is no panacea. Yet when even proponents of offshore balancing denigrate the tools that the strategy requires, it may be time to rethink its basic premises.
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For months, the Obama administration has been avoiding the conclusion that the Assad government used chemical weapons in its armed struggle to suppress its citizens. As recently as yesterday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel rebuffed the notion, saying "suspicions are one thing; evidence is another."
Today the White House finally conceded the point. "Our intelligence community does assess with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent Sarin," the administration wrote in a letter to Congress.
But even now, the White House is insisting it needs to gather the facts and called for a U.N. investigation, a convenient method of continuing to stall on Syria.
The letter goes on to say that "given the stakes involved, and what we have learned from our own recent experience, intelligence assessments alone are not sufficient -- only credible and corroborated facts that provide us with some degree of certainty will guide our decision-making and strengthen our leadership of the international community." It endorses a "comprehensive United Nations investigation that can credibly evaluate the evidence and establish what took place." (The U.N. has already deployed a team to Cyprus to investigate allegations of chemical weapons use in Syria, but so far they have been denied entry into the country, and a full-throated investigation remains unlikely.)
The world's best intelligence services are generally acknowledged to include those of Israel, Britain, France, and the United States, yet for months we alone are unable to establish whether chemical weapons have been used in Syria. As technical assessments have traditionally been the strong suit of American intelligence, it is curious that we alone among the major intelligence assessors were unable to determine whether chemical weapons had been employed.
The governments of Britain and France informed the United Nations they have credible evidence that Syria has more than once used chemical weapons. They took soil samples from the suspect sites and subjected them to rigorous testing, interviewed witnesses of the attacks in Homs, Aleppo and Damascus, and became convinced nerve agents were used by the government of Syria.
"To the best of our professional understanding, the [Syrian] regime used lethal chemical weapons against gunmen in a series of incidents in recent months," General Itai Brun, chief of the research division of Israel's army intelligence branch, said Tuesday.
Even the government of Syria acknowledged that chemical weapons were used, though they unconvincingly claimed the chemical weapons were used by the rebels and refused entry to U.N. investigators.
Our European allies have said they believe the Syrian government "was testing the response of the United States." Until today, the response of the United States has been to avoid coming to a conclusion.
General Brun made that public statement while Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was in Israel. Hagel's reaction? He claimed the Israeli government didn't share that information with him. But the Obama administration's secretary of defense didn't double back to get the information. He didn't strengthen deterrence by reiterating the president's "red line" that any chemical weapons use by the Assad government would bring U.S. retaliation. He expressed a complete lack of curiosity on the subject, saying "suspicions are one thing; evidence is another."
Hagel has now been forced to backtrack. "As I have said, the intelligence community has been assessing information for some time on this issue, and the decision to reach this conclusion was made in the past 24 hours," Hagel said, "and I have been in contact with senior officials in Washington today and most recently the last couple of hours on this issue." Hagel added that "we cannot confirm the origin of these weapons, but we do believe that any use of chemical weapons in Syria would very likely have originated with the Assad regime." Hagel's statement taken together with the "varying levels of confidence" modifier included in the White House's letter to Congress means that the Administration is still avoiding a conclusion; they will surely want an intelligence community consensus with a very high level of confidence (something rarely achieved).
Because if it should be "proven" that the Assad government has used chemical weapons, it will either force the president's hand to intervene in Syria, or the president will be revealed to have made threats he declines to back up. Instead, the administration has chosen to conclude that the intelligence is inconclusive.
It would be deeply inconvenient for the president of the United States to have to go to war in Syria when he placidly assures the American public that the tide of war is receding. U.S. intervention grows even more inconvenient since our unwillingness to help the rebels has led them to take help from quarters we disapprove of -- are we to fight alongside the al Nusra front, which we (rightly) characterize as a terrorist organization with al Qaeda links?
It is a problem of the president's own making, of course: He took a strident stand that any chemical weapons use would be a "game changer" precipitating American military involvement. This president likes to look tough on the international scene -- even when he's leading from behind he's taking all the credit. So we have policies designed to showcase Obama as a commanding commander in chief. In order to keep him from having to make good on his threats, the administration has taken to relying on intelligence assessments as his opt-out.
The Syria evasion is of a piece with Obama administration deflections of other intelligence conclusions that would force a change to their policies: Iran and North Korea.
With regard to the Iranian nuclear program, President Obama gave a speech (at AIPAC, no less) insisting that he would not settle for containment of a nuclear-armed Iran; he would prevent it. Since then, the secretary of defense and the director for national intelligence have both testified to Congress their strong belief that Iran "has not decided to make a nuclear weapon." In so carefully parsing their language, they are attempting to remove from consideration the evidence of Iran's capability to build a nuclear weapon in order to assert as more important Iran's intent.
What neither the secdef (then Leon Panetta) nor the DNI acknowledged is that assessing intentions is the most difficult part of intelligence work and requires a supple and deep understanding of the politics of other governments -- something we are unlikely to have about a country with complex political dynamics unhindered by institutional constraints and in which we have not had a diplomatic or economic presence for 34 years.
The Obama administration is unconcerned that other countries who have at least as good an intelligence operation directed at Iran as we do don't share our confidence that Iran hasn't made the decision to proceed. When challenged on the divergent assessments, now Secretary of Defense Hagel explained there might be "minor" differences between the U.S. and Israel on the timeline for Iran developing nuclear capacity. The Obama administration's generous timeline is a function of them "knowing" that Iran hasn't decided to proceed.
With regard to the North Korean nuclear test and military provocations, President Obama insisted he would not reward bad behavior (even as Secretary Kerry visiting Seoul offered negotiations). Lieutenant General Flynn, director of the defense intelligence agency, which is the arm of U.S. intelligence most focused on assessing military capabilities, testified before Congress that in DIA's judgment, North Korea already has the ability to mate nuclear warheads to long-range missiles. The administration's response? The President denied the conclusion in a nationally-televised interview. The director of national intelligence, Jim Clapper, also gave interviews explaining that DIA's conclusions are "not the consensus view of the intelligence community."
This is what the politicization of intelligence looks like: politicians turning their eyes away from information that is inconvenient to their agenda. It's always a bad idea.
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Once again, international events are intruding upon the administration's determination to focus on domestic policy. To no one's surprise, except perhaps, that of the White House, Iran once again has signaled that it is not interested in serious negotiations unless all sanctions, presumably to include those imposed for its support of terrorism and violations of basic human rights, are lifted forthwith. In the meantime, North Korea's secular monarch, Kim Jong Un, has sparked a new crisis on the peninsula by ratcheting up his nation's bellicosity to fever pitch. And lastly, the Syrian government appears to have at last resorted to the employment of chemical weapons against the forces of the opposition, thus crossing the "red line" that President Obama drew some time ago.
The administration's response to Iran's predictable behavior has also been predictable: regret and not much more. Its response to North Korea has been more forceful: carrier, missile defense ships and stealth bomber deployments, as well as a boosting of the missile defense budget and joint exercises with the Republic of Korea forces. But it remains unclear, to the American public, the international community, and North Korea itself, how Washington might respond if Pyongyang begins to match its words with deeds.
As for Syria, the Pentagon has deployed about 200 troops from the 1st Armored Division to Jordan, a putative "vanguard" for a larger force that would enter Syria to secure that country's chemical weapons. But if, as Britain and France assert, Bashar al-Assad is already employing these weapons, it is not at all clear how an attempt to "secure" them might actually succeed. Would it be enough to send the 1st Armored Division, with its more than 300 tanks, into Syria? Would they not themselves face the likelihood of a chemical attack by Assad's forces? How would the Syrian population react to the appearance of American tanks inside their borders? Will they be welcomed as "liberators," as they were, all too briefly, in Iraq? And then what?
Moreover, it is highly unlikely that American land forces would enter Syria without the U.S. Navy and/or Air Force launching strikes to destroy Syrian air defenses and ground facilities, and to weaken its land forces. In other words, America would go to war in Syria.
Perhaps Britain and France would join the American operation, though it is unlikely they would lead it as they did in Libya. They simply do not have the resources, and perhaps the willpower to do so. So at the end of the day, the United States would have launched its third major war against a Muslim state since the beginning of the century. And, as with Iraq and Afghanistan, and indeed, the lesser Libya operation, for which Washington provided more support than was originally acknowledged, the consequences of such an attack cannot be foretold, and could well be negative.
In any event, it is not at all clear that Washington will in fact invade Syria. The last thing this administration wants is to invade another Arab state. Moreover, any additional forces deployed to Jordan could well be needed not only to assist with humanitarian activities, but also to ensure the stability of that American ally. About a half million refugees have already poured across the Syrian-Jordanian border, and some, perhaps many, of them could well be affiliated with Islamist extremists who are sworn enemies of the moderate, pro-Western King Abdullah. In the meantime, however, Assad would continue to employ chemical weapons as and when he deems it is useful to do so.
How then should Washington respond to the latest developments in Syria? Some suggest imposing an aerial no-fly zone near the Turkish border, and perhaps another near the Jordanian border. Others suggest a no-fly zone under the umbrella of Turkish-based Patriot missiles (assuming the Turks agree, of course). Yet no-fly zones will have little impact on the struggle that is taking place inside Syria apart from that between the regime and the opposition. In the conflict, between, on the one hand, Islamic extremists supported by the Qataris and to a lesser extent the Saudis, and, on the other, the moderate opposition, it is the extremists that are gaining the upper hand. Should the regime fall, and the extremists come to power, they will pose a new, and more immediate threat to both Israel and Jordan. Indeed, such a regime might well choose to align itself with Iran as well; after all, Hamas has received Iranian support ever since it came to power in Gaza. Washington's first priority, therefore, should be to ensure that the extremists do not control a post-Assad government. To do so, it must arm the moderate opposition. And it must do so now; time is not on the side of the moderates; indeed, as the revolutions and civil wars of the past, from the French to the Russian revolutions have demonstrated over and over again, time is rarely, if ever, on the side of the moderates.
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This Saturday, Iraqis head to the polls to vote for provincial councils -- the country's first elections since U.S. troops withdrew sixteen months ago. The balloting comes at a time of growing peril for Iraq. Violence is escalating, as are tensions pitting the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki against the country's Sunni and Kurdish communities -- all exacerbated by the raging civil war in neighboring Syria. While posing a stern test to the viability of Iraq's democratic system, the elections will also serve as an important indicator of the relative strength of Iraq's competing coalitions -- especially Maliki's -- in advance of national elections scheduled for 2014.
At stake are nearly 450 seats on local governing bodies. More than 8100 candidates from some 265 political entities are competing. The elections cover 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces. The three provinces comprising the Kurdistan Regional Government will vote later this year, while elections in oil-rich and ethnically disputed Kirkuk have (by tacit agreement among the competing communities) not been held since 2005.
But in a highly controversial move, Maliki's cabinet decreed in March that balloting would be delayed by up to six months in Iraq's two most influential Sunni-majority provinces, Anbar and Nineveh -- both of which border Syria and have for months been the locus of large-scale (but mostly peaceful) anti-Maliki protests. Maliki claimed -- not entirely without justification, especially in Anbar -- that he was simply responding to the petition of local leaders worried that voters could not be adequately protected from growing collaboration between al Qaeda affiliates on either sides of the Iraq-Syria border.
His opponents charge that the prime minister's real agenda is avoiding a massive anti-Maliki turnout that would further escalate opposition to his government. They correctly note that previous elections were conducted under far more threatening conditions. Both the U.S. and U.N. urged Maliki to reverse course, worried about the appearance of disenfranchising millions of Sunnis already agitated by claims that Maliki has been systematically moving to marginalize their community in the interests of establishing an Iranian-backed Shiite dictatorship. Maliki turned aside these criticisms, while suggesting the delayed elections might occur as early as May.
The reality is that violence threatens voting throughout Iraq. A series of more than 20 terror attacks on Monday hit targets across the country, including prospective polling places, killing Sunnis and Shiites alike. These were but the latest in a string of al Qaeda-linked assaults that have occurred at increasingly regular intervals. The campaign has also been marred by at least 15 candidate assassinations, all of them Sunnis and many believed to have been killed not by Al Qaeda but by political rivals within their own community.
Whether Iraqi security forces can successfully protect the elections without the support previously provided by tens of thousands of U.S. troops is a major question mark. The fact that close to 700,000 army and police officers went to the polls in early voting last Saturday without incident was encouraging. Also of concern, however, is the possibility that the mere threat of violence could significantly depress turnout, stoking doubts about the legitimacy and future of Iraq's shaky democracy. An especially important indicator could be the participation of Sunnis -- a potential barometer of that disgruntled community's continued commitment to the post-2003 political order or, alternatively, a troubling sign that, perhaps inspired by co-religionists in neighboring Syria, they are looking to more confrontational methods to redress their grievances.
Beyond violence, ensuring the integrity of the electoral process has to be a real worry. There is no doubt that America's heavy involvement during past elections helped deter fraud to a minimum. Absence that involvement, the risk of widespread wrongdoing -- or simply the perception of wrongdoing -- increases dramatically, even with the presence of a few hundred international observers and several thousand domestic monitors. The danger that significant swaths of the public may simply reject the legitimacy of the results cannot be discounted.
Assuming a relatively free and fair vote, the outcome of Saturday's elections is hard to predict. No reliable polling is publicly available. Maliki has confidently claimed that his coalition will win big. In recent weeks, he has shrewdly sought to divide his Sunni opposition (including through a surprising set of proposals to ease de-Baathifcation laws), successfully co-opting stalwart nationalists like Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Mutlaq. The Iraqiya bloc of his main rival, former prime minister Ayad Allawi (a secular Shiite), has splintered, with the current speaker of parliament, Osama Nujaifi, and the former finance minister, Rafi Issawi, forming their own Sunni-based coalition.
Nevertheless, surprises remain possible. In local elections, a voter's familiarity with a hometown candidate can often trump allegiance to a national party. In provincial balloting four years ago, Iraqis voted to punish incumbents -- an inclination that if repeated on Saturday could well work against Maliki and to the benefit of his major Shiite rivals in the Islamic Supreme Council and Sadrist camp -- both of which are fielding their own candidates. For all his troubles, Allawi's bloc is the only one competing in all Iraq's provinces, both Sunni and Shiite, a nationalist vocation that could well accrue to his benefit. And even if Maliki's State of Law emerges as the top vote getter, post-election coalitions among his opponents could emerge that deny him the degree of local domination that he seeks.
Should Maliki nevertheless secure an overwhelming victory, it will likely fuel fears that his most worrisome authoritarian tendencies will be emboldened: more consolidation of control over key state institutions, particularly the means of coercion and the courts; more targeting and exclusion of political opponents; an intensified effort to resolve disputes with Iraq's Kurdish and Sunni minorities through confrontation; and increased dependence on Iran. Maliki's chances of winning next year's national elections, another four years in office, and increasingly unconstrained powers would increase significantly. Should such fears be realized, the results for Iraqi stability and unity could be dire indeed -- especially in a regional context of dramatically heightened sectarian and ethnic tensions, perhaps leading to all-out state collapse in next-door Syria.
From that standpoint, Iraq's future may be best served if Saturday's elections see not only minimal violence, maximum participation, and limited irregularities, but also no clear winners and losers -- a triumph not only of the democratic process, but a therapeutic re-balancing of Iraq's political landscape that reminds all parties of the continued imperative of negotiation, compromise, and political partnership.
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Experts and policymakers watching the situation in Syria are conflicted about what should be done to stop the bloody actions of the Assad government. Those who support a "responsibility to protect" argue that the international community -- including the U.S. -- should be doing more to stop Assad's slaughter of innocents; realists claim that there is not enough at stake for the U.S. to become involved in yet another Middle East conflict; and al Qaida experts are concerned that aid sent to the rebels could end up helping the extremists rather than ordinary Syrians.
If either the U.S. or international community had intervened before the fall of 2012, there would have been fewer disputes about Syria policy. Both al Qaida experts and those who support "responsibility to protect" were generally on the same page: Stopping the brutal actions of the regime and preventing the extremists from gaining a foothold required involvement, and there was a clear non-extremist resistance group to support.
Since then, however, part of the resistance -- embittered by our lack of assistance and desperate to survive -- has been enticed into the embrace of extremists and especially into that of an al Qaida affiliated group called Jabhat al-Nusra. If the international community or the U.S. decides to arm the resistance now, there is a fair chance that the weapons and other support material could fall into the hands of al Qaida and be used against us after the conflict in Syria ends.
While the experts have debated policy, the bloodshed has continued. Assad's decision to once again bomb civilians has, however, returned to the fore another possibility for U.S. policy in Syria: the enforcement of a no-fly zone to prevent Assad from targeting and killing civilians with his air force. This strategy has been proposed by many others over the past two years and was recently raised once more by Carl Levin. I would suggest that now, more than ever, it needs to be seriously considered by both the Obama administration and by realists, since the risks of inaction are now far greater than the risks of action. If the U.S. chooses to continue to do nothing, there are five very bad things that are likely to happen, while if the U.S. chooses to put in place a no-fly zone there is a low probability of bad outcomes and a greater chance for a whole series of good results.
The Risks and Benefits of Inaction
There are only two benefits associated with inaction: We will save a little money and pilots will not be put in jeopardy. The risks of inaction are, in contrast, overwhelming. First, thousands more Syrians will die and Syrians will blame the U.S. and international community for these deaths. After all, the U.S. showed in Libya that it could intervene to overthrow a tyrant whenever it chose, but for reasons that do not make sense to Syrians has determined not to help them. Second, the conflict will continue to spread beyond Syria. Over the past few months, violence has erupted in northern Lebanon, where Jabhat al-Nusra has spread its influence, and the war has spilled across the borders into Iraq and Jordan. Third, at this point, the war in Syria may be radicalizing as many Sunnis throughout the Muslim-majority world as the war in Iraq. Not only that, but this radicalization is being pointed by the extremists at the U.S. and other Western powers. The extremists have been quick to use our non-intervention to argue that the U.S. is allowing the slaughter of Syrians and in fact actually supports Assad's bloody reign. Finally, there is a possibility that the current resistance might overthrow Assad without our help and create a new Syria that is open to domination by the extremists. What chance would the U.S. and the international community have to influence the direction that this new Syria might take if we did not intervene when we could to save lives?
The Risks and Benefits of Action
In direct contrast, the risks of action are minimal: Although highly unlikely, it is possible that Assad might be able to shoot down an American plane. There is also the chance that the U.S. might, however indirectly, empower extremists within the resistance. But the benefits far outweigh these risks. A no-fly zone will save lives, show ordinary Syrians and Muslims around the world that the U.S. and the international community take the bloodshed seriously, help to mitigate the radicalization and influence exerted by the extremists, and grant us some say within any new Syria that is created. But time is running out. The longer the conflict continues without our involvement, the more Syrians and other Muslims will be tempted to listen to the arguments of the extremists about our supposed hatred for Muslims and the more they will be radicalized into action against us and others.
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Yesterday, I testified on Syria at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's Subcommittee on the Near East and South and Central Asia. The topic of the hearing was Syria's humanitarian crisis, but I made the case that we could not successfully address the humanitarian crisis without a successful policy to resolve the conflict which gives rise to it. I proposed a strategy comprising three pillars -- people, funding, and military support -- each of which should have an element focused on the regime and one focused on the opposition. Among other things, I suggested that we channel more support through the opposition, that we provide arms to the opposition, make the case in NATO for strikes on regime military assets.
Since I posted about the myths promulgated by critics of the Iraq war, it is only fair that I follow-up and demonstrate that I do know that (a) war supporters did not have a monopoly on truth either and (b) there are plenty of worthy debates about Iraq that could inform current policy challenges.
My "top five" mistakes that the Bush administration made in the handling of the war (setting aside the obvious ones related to the intelligence failures of overestimating the extent to which Saddam had reconstituted his WMD programs):
1. Prewar: Not having a formal NSC-level meeting where the pros and cons of war were debated before the President after which a clear NSC vote and presidential decision was made. There was, of course, a policy process reviewing options in Iraq and that process identified many problems, some of which were avoided and some of which never arose. Still other problems that did arise were raised as possibilities but not given the attention they deserved. The entire process, however, was kept compartmentalized and somewhat truncated to avoid leaks and thus interfere with the diplomatic track. In retrospect, that was a mistake. I think had there been a more formal process with more extensive consideration of the pros and cons and what-ifs the Bush administration still might have roughly followed the path they took, but I believe some of the later struggles might have been less of a surprise, allowing the administration to adjust more quickly.
2. Prewar: Not thoroughly debating what we would do if the Iraqi state security apparatus collapsed, thus invalidating the war-plan's assumptions that we could count on around 150 thousand Iraqi troops to handle stability operations and that we could just hand over Iraq to a hastily assembled Iraqi governing structure. General Franks' war plan expected many Iraqi forces to surrender en masse as happened in Desert Storm and called for the coalition to use those Iraqi units for basic security and law enforcement in the immediate aftermath of Hussein's toppling. However, rather than maintaining intact, the Iraqi units collapsed, leaving a huge manpower hole for the post-invasion phase of the plan. In other words, the problem with the war plan was not that there were inadequate troops for security and stabilization under Plan A. The problem was that inadequate attention had been given to considering Plan B, should Plan A turn out to be unrealistic, as happened.
3. Post-invasion: Not continuing to pay the Iraqi army even though it dissolved and deciding instead to start totally fresh. That decision was reversed a few weeks later, but by that time the damage was done and the seeds of the insurgency were sown. I think it would have been better to continue to pay the old Iraqi army from the outset while trying to rebuild the army.
4. Post-invasion: Allowing General Franks to walk away and hand over the Iraq mission to General Sanchez. General Franks deserves credit for crafting a remarkably successful invasion plan -- one that defied the critics, many of whom argued that the invasion would be far more difficult and bloody than it was. But he should have been obliged to stay until Iraq was on a more secure trajectory. Transitioning to a new command at such a delicate time would have been difficult even if Franks' successor had been supremely capable. By most accounts, General Sanchez was not capable of handling the mission, and so the transition was doubly disruptive.
And since all of those mistakes took place before I officially joined the Bush Administration NSC in 2005, I should add one that took place on my watch:
5. Post-2005: Failure to engage critics on false claims about the war -- the reluctance to "relitigate the past" -- which allowed the myths to get entrenched. The Bush team acted as if the successful 2004 election settled all historical debates about Iraq and largely ignored the relentless partisan critique that continued without interruption. But the partisan attacks took their toll, and by 2007 or even 2006, President Bush's bully pulpit was all but exhausted.
Of course, I could easily come up with five or ten more errors (just as I could easily come up with five or ten more popular-but-flawed critiques of the Iraq war). And I am not saying that if all of these mistakes had been corrected that the Iraq mission would have gone swimmingly.
I do think, however, that it might have gone better and I am confident that absent those (and other errors) the country would be in a better place to debate the really important issues that remain rather than get stuck on secondary ones.
Which brings me to my second list of five: five debates that still matter. In the vigorous debate over Iraq before the invasion (and another one of the myths is that there was no such public debate), there were many legitimate arguments raised. The arduous course of the war has raised still other valid concerns. Many of these are quite relevant to the new challenges we face. Here are ones I find particularly compelling:
1. How should presidents decide under conditions of intelligence uncertainty? This was the nub of the pre-war policy debate. To my knowledge, there was no major voice in the U.S. policymaking process that correctly guessed the truth about Iraq's WMD program: that Saddam was bluffing that he had kept his WMD stockpile (and may have believed that he was better positioned to restart his programs than he really was because some of his subordinates may have been deceiving him) so as to deter the Iranians. But he was also hoping to persuade enough of the international community that he had fulfilled the UNSC resolution requirements so that the international community would lift the sanctions/inspections, at which point he would quickly reconstitute the forbidden programs. No one posited that as the situation we faced. There were, however, many who argued that we did not know for sure just how extensive Saddam Hussein's WMD programs were and so we should not act until we had greater certainty. The counterargument was that we would never gain such certainty until it was too late. Both sides in that debate had a reasonable case to make and both are directly relevant to the current conundrum with Iran. What should we do about Iran when there are irreducible uncertainties about Iran's progress and intentions toward a nuclear weapon?
2. Could we have lived with an Iraqi WMD capability by simply containing him as we contained the Soviet Union or are currently trying to contain North Korea? Even more war opponents were willing to stipulate that Hussein had a formidable WMD arsenal but argued that this did not require war because we could use classical deterrence and containment tools to manage the threat. The counterarguments were that Hussein was less deterrable than the Soviet Union and that the secondary security concerns raised by a growing Iraqi arsenal would destabilize the region -- and leave us vulnerable to a terrorist WMD threat, which would not be so deterrable. This is precisely the issue in dispute today regarding Iran, with many of the old Iraq critics making the same arguments. Interestingly, President Bush's role in making the case that containment is not an acceptable option is now being fulfilled by President Obama. There is an eerie echo between Obama's Iran rhetoric and Bush's Iraq rhetoric.
3. Is chaos caused by action harder to manage than chaos caused by inaction? One important aspect of the neoconservative argument regarding Iraq was the claim that it would be easier to influence events in Iraq if we took decisive action than if we delayed while threats gathered. It turned out that Iraq was far more difficult to manage than war-supporters believed it would be. However, we now are conducting something of a test-case of the opposite side of the proposition. The Obama Administration has studiously avoided decisive action on Syria and the result is a downward security trajectory in Syria that looks very much like the problems that arose in Iraq. There is a bloody sectarian civil war, radical AQ-sympathizers are growing in power, Iran has increased its influence, the stability of the region is threatened, and the United States has lost much credibility in the eyes of regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, not to mention inspiring resentment among the Syrian people. The United States may not bear as much moral responsibility in Syria since it did not invade and topple Assad, but will it avoid political responsibility for managing the consequences if Syria explodes/implodes, as seems likely? And if we face that worst-case scenario, will the chaos produced by post-collapse Syria be any easier to manage than the chaos produced by post-invasion Iraq?
4. Can we do regime change and walk away? The original Bush administration plan for managing Iraq was to topple Hussein, rapidly create some new governing authority (made up principally of exiles), and then hand over the security apparatus of the Iraqi state to them to let them build the new Iraq. This plan collapsed when the Iraqi security apparatus collapsed. But President Obama has tried something similar with the lead-from-behind approach in Libya. Despite the knock-on effects in Mali and Benghazi, which have taken the bloom off the rose of lead-from-behind, it is probable that the Obama administration still feels like they made the right bet. Would such a plan work in Syria? What about North Korea? Or Iran?
5. Do we encourage the behavior we desire from recalcitrant partners by assuring them of our continued support or by assuring them that we are leaving them? Despite campaigning on a slash-and-burn critique of Bush's Iraq policy, President Obama ended up mostly following the strategy on Iraq that he inherited but for two key differences: (i) the Obama team mishandled negotiations with Prime Minister Maliki over a new Status of Forces Agreement; and (ii) where Bush tried to cajole better behavior by reassuring the Iraqis that they could count on long-term U.S. support, Obama tried to cajole better behavior by threatening Iraqis with U.S. withdrawal/abandonment. Obama's approach in Iraq failed, and as a result today many of the gains of the surge have eroded. It may be too late to win those gains back in Iraq, and, in any case, the focus of the policy debate has shifted to Afghanistan. Here the Obama administration seems on track to following the same script. Will it work better in Afghanistan than it worked in Iraq?
The bottom line of this post is the same as the bottom line of my earlier one: There are reasonable critiques and reasonable debates to have on Iraq and as a country we would be better served to focus on them rather than on the caricatures that dominate the conventional wisdom.
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I have been ruminating on the closing lines in Peter Feaver's post below, suggesting that "Syria may prove to be Obama's Rwanda." I worry that Peter is correct.
The similarities are striking. A president dogmatically focused on his domestic agenda who willfully disregards systemic and appalling bloodshed in a faraway land. A president haunted by the disappointments of recent U.S. interventions (in Clinton's case, Somalia; in Obama's case, Iraq and Afghanistan) who misapplies the "lessons" of this history into paralysis and inaction. A situation where the costs of action initially appear daunting -- until they are weighed against the costs of inaction, which turn out to be even more damaging.
In several ways, however, Obama's passivity on Syria is even worse than Clinton's passivity on Rwanda. First, the Assad regime in Syria also embodies a number of strategic equities that Rwanda did not, including possessing a large stock of chemical weapons, being the main regional ally for Iran, being a state sponsor of terrorism, and now being a breeding ground for jihadists, many of whom harbor hostile intentions toward the United States. Bringing this regime to an end is a fundamental American interest and should be seen as such even by those not moved to moral outrage at the over 70,000 Syrians (and perhaps many more) murdered by their own government. Second, the Rwandan genocide took place over three months -- time enough for the U.S. to have acted, to be sure, but still a relatively narrow window. But the bloodshed in Syria has been occurring for almost two years now. Third, many foreign policy experts in the Democratic party (including many currently serving in the Obama Administration) realize that the president's policy is a failure -- and those not in government are saying so publicly. Or in the case of courageous voices like Anne Marie Slaughter have been saying so for a long time now.
Yet at this point all we get are carefully crafted leaks from the administration on the eve of Secretary of State John Kerry's meeting with skeptical Syrian rebel leaders that consideration is being given to supplying them with "non-lethal" aid, such as body armor. This would have been helpful two years ago when the first peaceful protests began. But it is pathetically insufficient in the face of Assad's Scud missile attacks on civilian populations.
As I and many others have pointed out before, one perverse irony of the Obama administration's neglect of Syria is that now, two years into the war, the costs of action are much higher and the options much fewer. Many of the downside risks that purportedly deterred greater American support for the rebels 18 months ago -- such as sectarian strife, radicalization, regional instability, and resentment towards the United States -- have now come to pass anyway, in part because of American inaction. Yet this does not mean that even at this point nothing can or should be done.
In the crucible of policymaking, officials should ask themselves more often how they will look back on the decisions they made while in power. Former President Bill Clinton has repeatedly said that one of his biggest regrets was not intervening in Rwanda. As Obama and the senior members of his national security team consider the memoirs they will inevitably write and the speeches they will invariably give after leaving office, they might reflect now on what they will later say about their greatest regrets. At or near the top of that list will likely be "Syria." So why not do something about it now, before Syria becomes permanently mentioned in historical ignominy alongside Rwanda?
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Obama supporters are becoming some of the most interesting critics of Obama foreign policy. There has always been a vibrant Republican critique of the President, and for years there has been a far-left fringe-Democrat bill of particulars as well. But in recent months some of the most trenchant of the critiques have come from center-left Democrats, echoing (usually without acknowledging it) the long-standing arguments made by Republicans.
I have noted this phenomenon before, calling attention to the complaints of otherwise ardent Obama supporters: see David Rothkopf, David Ignatius, Rosa Brooks, or Tom Ricks. Since then there have been more: Rachel Kleinfeld's blunt deconstruction of the President's policies on Syria; Bob Woodward's correction of the record on Obama's attempt to disassociate himself from the sequester; and David Brooks' uncharacteristic lament about Obama's irresponsibility alongside his customary critique of Republican irresponsibility.
To be sure, other loyal Obama supporters have pushed back. Ezra Klein tried and so far failed to beat Woodward back on the sequester issue. Klein had more success in getting David Brooks to recant. (The Klein-Brooks exchange is doubly revealing, since Brooks acknowledged up front that his original column was hyperbolic, but neither he nor Klein expressed any interest in exploring the ways the hyperbole distorted the role of Republicans. They only focused on correcting alleged distortions regarding Obama.)
Yet there does seem to be a turning of the tide, a return to something closer to the even-handed and candid assessment of Obama's strengths and weaknesses that has been missing in the mainstream media. The moment is ripe for a Big Think attempt to stitch the critiques together and, if sneak-previews are a reliable indication of what is to come, Vali Nasr's The Dispensable Nation may win the intellectual sweepstakes. Like the other recent critics, Nasr has been a supporter of President Obama -- he held an advisory position at the State Department in the first term, working for the late Richard Holbrooke. According to early reviews by Richard Cohen and by Roger Cohen, much of the book appears to be score-settling, defending Holbrooke's uneven performance as special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan and blaming policy failures on backstabbing by White House officials.
However, Nasr goes beyond that to make an overarching claim that President Obama has subordinated foreign policy and national security to domestic partisan politics. Thus, regardless of the issue -- how to win in Afghanistan, how to stop the Syrian civil war, how to manage the post-Qaddafi mess in Libya -- Nasr claims that Obama interprets the American national interest through the parochial lens of Obama's own partisan political interests. The line between foreign policy and domestic politics has been erased.
This is not a new critique. Republicans have leveled it at Obama before. It was a staple of Democratic criticism of President George W. Bush -- including, ironically, then-State Senator Barack Obama in his famous speech against the Iraq war. And it was a staple of criticism of President Bill Clinton.
Indeed, the reported thesis of Nasr's book prompted me to dig through my archives to find one of the more obscure publications of my professional career: "The Domestication of Foreign Policy," published in the American Foreign Policy Interests back in 1998. In that long-forgotten piece, I took as my point of departure Aaron Wildavsky's "two president's thesis" -- the idea that presidents could conduct foreign policy in a way very different from how they conduct domestic policy because of the greater role of domestic political considerations in the latter area -- and argued that President Clinton had presided over the death of the thesis. All the constraints of domestic politics, and thus all of the domestic political approaches and orientations, applied with equal force under Clinton whether the issue was domestic or foreign policy. What foreign policy pundits considered contradictory in Clinton's foreign policy was merely the side-effect of this domestication process.
I attributed this to deep causes -- the absence of an urgent existential threat and the rise of media and public opinion influences -- and also to proximate causes. The deep causes still apply, but what is striking is how much the proximate causes echo between Clinton's first term and Obama's current situation:
Clinton evolved in the second term, with a more forceful and, in some ways, more successful foreign policy in the second term than he was credited with in the first. But it is the first term mark that provides the apples-to-apples comparison with Obama. All of these apply with equal if not greater force to the Obama Administration. Only on one proximate cause of the domestication of foreign policy does Obama differ markedly from Clinton's first term: Clinton engaged promiscuously (compared with Bush 41's caution) but Obama has been even more cautious about global engagement than Bush 41, far more than Bush 43 or Clinton. This is because Obama learned a lesson that eluded Clinton in his first term: Public opinion frowns on engagements that are well-intentioned but fail.
What remains to be seen is whether the public also frowns on non-engagements that are well-meant but fail. Rwanda was that for Clinton, and it looms much larger today in the reckoning than it did as it was unfolding. Syria may prove to be Obama's Rwanda. The growing voices of once-friendly critics indicate that at least some influential members of his own team think so.
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Watching the nightmare in Syria unfold, you have to ask yourself: Could the Obama administration have made a worse hash out of the situation if it had tried?
Short of an outright Iranian victory that saw the Assad regime's power fully restored, it's hard to imagine a more dire set of circumstances for U.S. interests. The Syrian state is well on its way to imploding. A multiplicity of increasingly well-armed militias are rushing to fill the vacuum. At the forefront of the fight are a growing number of radical Islamist groups, including some affiliated with al Qaeda. The prospect that Assad' s demise will be accompanied by the use (and/or proliferation) of chemical weapons and massive communal bloodletting gets higher by the day. Libya on steroids is what we're looking at, only this time not on the distant periphery of the Middle East but in its heartland, a gaping strategic wound that is likely to threaten the stability and wellbeing of Syria's five neighbors -- critical American partners all -- for years to come.
Does it require saying that it need not have been this way? That with sustained American leadership over the past 21 months the most threatening aspects of this crisis could not only have been seriously mitigated, but U.S. interests significantly advanced?
This isn't simply a case of Monday-morning quarterbacking. The number of articles written since March 2011 urging the administration to action to hasten Assad's end -- short of ground troops, but including a wide menu of coordinated diplomatic, economic, security, and intelligence steps -- would fill volumes. Ditto the number of analysts who repeatedly warned that left to its own internal logic, the Syrian crisis would veer increasingly toward disaster. Abandoned to face Assad's slaughterhouse alone, it was entirely predictable that those masses of average Syrians who week after week, month after month, literally begged for Western intervention to help topple the tyrant and shape a post-Assad future would eventually be eclipsed by jihadism's black flag.
The administration dismissed it all with so much disdain. Reckless. Simplistic. Pouring fuel on the fire, they charged. Down that way, they insisted, was only a parade of horribles: sectarian conflict, civil war, al Qaeda's empowerment, a failed state, loose WMD, and international spillover. Sound familiar? Indeed. Virtually every risk the administration warned might be triggered by U.S. intervention has been made all-too-real in the absence of U.S. intervention.
This was abdication masquerading as serious foreign policy; a flight from leadership gussied up to appear as thoughtful restraint, prudence, realism.
How else to characterize a strategy that repeatedly put its faith in Vladimir Putin of all people -- the arsenal of Syria's dictatorship -- to deliver an acceptable political solution just as Assad's savagery was getting into gear, and after the U.S. had sworn up and down that it had no intention of providing meaningful assistance to the regime's foes? Likewise the subsequent indulgence for months on end of Kofi Annan's well-meaning, but quintessentially toothless diplomacy on behalf of the UN.
Again, there was no shortage of observers at the time highlighting the fact that absent American leadership to help Syria's opposition alter the correlation of forces on the ground, these maneuvers were doomed to fail, and even worse to provide international cover for Assad to massacre thousands more. It would be an insult to their intelligence to say U.S. officials were not cognizant of this reality. This was something more cynical, something more calculated. Not diplomacy as solution, but diplomacy as excuse, a rationale for avoiding the kind of muscular action that the administration was loathe to take -- especially in an election year, especially in a benighted Middle East that in the eyes of most Americans long ago exceeded its allotment of U.S. attention, treasure and sacrifice.
All of which has left us here, confronting an oncoming train wreck of well-armed Islamists, battle-hardened and thirsty for power and revenge on the one hand, and a crumbling, desperate dictatorship on the other, its hands drenched in the blood of its own people and sitting on top of the Middle East's largest arsenal of chemical weapons.
Belatedly, it seems to have dawned on the administration that simply sitting on the sidelines, allowing events to play out while hoping for the best might not accrue to U.S. interests, and could well prove catastrophic. But having waited so long to act, the window of opportunity that was once available for shaping an outcome consistent with U.S. concerns has narrowed considerably, if not closed. A popular movement whose core once clamored for Western leadership and intervention has grown increasingly embittered and resentful at what they perceive to be their near total abandonment by Washington. With more than 40,000 corpses underfoot, frantic 11th-hour moves by the U.S. to mobilize a coherent political opposition, establish influence with armed groups, and marginalize extremist militias like Jabhat al-Nusra that have carried a major brunt of the fighting are widely viewed with a mixture of suspicion and contempt -- not just too little too late, but part of some larger conspiracy to abort the revolution's victory over Assad just as it comes into view.
What to do when no good options remain? If rebel advances have finally convinced the Russians that Assad's days are indeed numbered, a very slim chance may still exist for some form of last-ditch diplomacy that salvages the core structures of a functioning state and averts the black hole of uncontrolled collapse and chaos. The starting point would have to be the rapid exit from power of Assad and his immediate clique, either via voluntary exile abroad or some version of a palace coup. A UN-brokered negotiation on a political transition would then ensue between a remnant of the Alawite regime and the internationally-backed opposition, leading hopefully to a ceasefire, some form of national unity government, and eventually a new constitution with credible guarantees for Syria's minority communities, followed by free and fair elections.
No doubt this is a very tall order. What the Russians could actually deliver with respect to Assad, even if they wanted to, is a major question mark. More importantly, why the armed opposition, especially its most radical elements, would ever agree at this point to stop short of an outright military victory that ended with the storming of Assad's palace is not at all apparent. Convincing them and the Syrian people otherwise would require a unified, full-court diplomatic press by all Syria's major outside stakeholders, equipped with a powerful panoply of both pressures and inducements.
Short of that kind of diplomatic miracle, the outlook is extremely bleak. Battening down the hatches and riding out the storm as Syria fractures may be the best we can do. Working as closely as we can with our key partners in the region and internationally, we should identify those armed groups that are prepared to work with us and have no truck with the most extreme Islamists. Strengthen political and military alliances between them. Provide the humanitarian aid and resources they need to consolidate and expand their popular support, as well as defensive weaponry and training to provide local security and fend off both the jihadists and Iran in the post-Assad era. Critically, we need a viable plan for securing and/or neutralizing Syria's chemical weapons, either in conjunction with these local forces or on our own.
Also vital will be a concerted strategy to buttress our key regional allies and contain the dangerous spillover effects of Syria's implosion. Jordan in particular is under enormous internal strain and requires urgent international support that the U.S. should immediately help mobilize, especially financially from the Persian Gulf states.
It was less than two years ago that the uprising in Syria presented the United States with a historic opportunity to weaken Iran and advance our own regional interests. Today, Syria looms as a potential strategic disaster, where America's options for positively shaping outcomes have all but vanished, and frantic efforts at damage limitation are all that remain. In the arc of that transformation from hope to despair lies the tale of a colossal policy blunder, perhaps the Obama administration's most serious to date, one whose consequences will almost surely haunt us long after the president leaves office.
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If you were Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, how worried would you be about President Obama's threats regarding a U.S. response to any use of Syrian's chemical weapons? A series of recent news pieces (here, here, and here) seem to suggest a depressing answer: not very much.
Ever since the civil war started, the nightmare scenario has been the prospect that the conflict would escalate to a point where Syria's vast chemical arsenal was in play -- either through a deliberate use or through a loss of custody. That nightmare seems ever more plausible as the civil war grinds on, particularly as the tide seems to be favoring the rebels. It is not impossible to imagine a rapid collapse of the Assad regime and, for that very reason, it is not impossible to imagine circumstances under which Assad would be tempted to gamble with a game-changer like chemical weapons.
President Obama has consistently warned that the use of chemical weapons would be a game-changer for American involvement, as well. The Administration has hitherto resisted calls to intervene more directly in the conflict, but it has also indicated that the United States would act militarily if chemical weapons were used.
How might Assad interpret that vague threat?
One can divide up the continuum of military response into five main categories, listed below in order of escalating involvement:
1. Symbolic punitive strike: a military response designed to indicate sharp disapproval, but otherwise not tilting the balance in the civil-war and not securing the WMD.
2. Game-changing military operation that topples Assad regime: some combination of sustained strikes and other action (e.g., no fly zones) that tilts the military balance decisively in the rebels favor, hastening the fall of the Assad regime.
3. Destroying the chemical arsenal: conducting enough airstrikes to render the arsenal unusable by Assad or by terrorists and militia groups.
4. Invading to secure the WMD arsenal: deploying enough ground troops to secure the many chemical depots and to hunt down any weapons that may have slipped away.
5. Invading to guarantee a favorable political transition: deploying enough ground troops to guarantee the toppling of the Assad regime and assure a transition to a new political order more favorable to U.S. interests.
None of these is an attractive option.
Option 1 is trivially easy to do but will not accomplish much beyond its symbolism -- even its symbolic message may be undone, since a response like this signals weakness as loudly as it signals disapproval.
Option 2 is a bit more challenging -- but compared to the other options quite doable. However, it will not address our biggest concern about the chemical weapons. It will implicate the United States in the civil war without giving us much leverage over the political outcome or the disposition of the chemical weapons.
Option 3 may not be doable and would involve tremendous collateral damage. The arsenal is vast, and widely dispersed, and destroying all of it from air would require a very lengthy sustained bombardment. In the process, the air strikes would result in extensive contamination and casualties in communities near the depots. Even then we could not be certain that all of the weapons were destroyed before terrorists got their hands on some.
Option 4 would be a daunting military operation, and depending on the state of Syrian forces could approximate another Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF, the invasion of Iraq in 2003). Once in Syria, the pressure for mission-creep to expand to policing a political resolution to the civil war would be nearly irresistible. Also, this would take a long time to assemble (think how long it took to build up to OIF) and some chemical weapons could go missing in the delay.
Option 5 would be tantamount to another OIF -- all of the downsides of Option 4 plus an indefinite commitment to a hostile occupation.
The Obama Administration has assiduously avoided spelling out with any clarity what the President might be contemplating, but some things are clear. Obama has built his entire regional strategy around the "no more Iraqs" objective. There is a double meaning: "no more Iraq" in the sense of leaving Iraq regardless of consequences and taking a hands-off approach to the unraveling situation there, and "no more Iraqs" in the sense of not making any military commitments that involve substantial U.S. ground troops.
Perhaps the prospect of Syrian chemical weapons landing in the hands of terrorist groups would cause the President to change his regional strategy, but a change of that magnitude would require substantial political preparation of the American public. The uncertain and vague comments so far from the Administration are far from adequate to the task. My inference, and likely the inference of Assad, too, is that Options 4 and 5 are effectively off the table.
I can well imagine that the Administration would be tempted to try Option 3, but it is far from clear that it is militarily feasible. And is there anything in the past four years that would suggest this Administration is willing to risk the substantial collateral damage that would ensue?
Option 2 is more likely and, given the fecklessness that would be signaled in Option 1, might be where the Administration ends up. But the Administration has been very wary about getting on other slippery slopes and, despite its boasts about leading from behind in Libya, the Administration understands that doing "another Libya" is a dangerous business. Indeed, the Administration has resisted pressure to do just that up until now when there was more upside potential and so why would they change their mind now when the upside looks far more bleak. It is not at all clear that the use of chemical weapons on Syrian rebel groups would be enough to change Obama's calculus.
If Assad reasons the same way I have just done, he may conclude that what Obama means by military warnings about chemical red lines is simply Option 1: punitive strikes that don't otherwise change the game. In other words, Assad may conclude that Obama's threats are the least of his worries, given how desperate his situation is.
Ironically, then, if the Obama administration really does want to deter Assad from using chemical weapons, it may have to threaten more credibly than it has so far a level of military intervention the President manifestly wants to avoid.
LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images
France and now Britain have recognized the Syrian opposition and are on the verge of sending "defensive" arms to the newly unified opposition. No doubt these are welcome developments from the perspective of those who wish to see Bashar al-Assad's regime finally get tossed into the dustbin of history. Nevertheless, there is no guarantee that Assad will depart anytime soon, if at all.
Moreover, it is unclear whether the Europeans are prepared even to supply anti-air and other heavier systems to the opposition unless Washington does so as well. As yet, however, there is no indication that the Obama administration is prepared to do so.
The administration's caution is understandable -- up to a point. Syrian air defenses are far more capable and sophisticated than those NATO faced in Libya. The prospect for collateral damage -- that is, civilian casualties -- is greater as well. And the last thing Washington needs is another conflict against a Muslim state. Yet without successful suppression of Syria's air defenses, it will be exceedingly difficult to maintain the no-fly zone that many supporters of the opposition are urgently requesting. A no-fly zone therefore does not seem likely, nor should it be.
On a separate but related track, it is noteworthy that, despite several attacks from across its border with Syria, Turkey has not tried to invoke Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, which would commit member states to seek authority to go to war on behalf of a member under attack. The Turks are not sure what they want; in that regard they are no different from an Obama administration that has studiously avoided making any major commitments to the Syrian opposition.
Given the very active support he is receiving from Iran, the assistance that Hezbollah is providing, the reluctance of the great Western powers to establish a no-fly zone, the distraction that is the latest flare-up between Israel and Hamas, Assad may well outlast his opponents for another year, if not longer. If he is to be forced out sooner, there will have to be a major effort to arm the opposition with offensive weapons, notably anti-air systems. It appears that Britain and France might do so, but they would have to work in tandem with the U.S.
Not surprisingly, the administration worries that the transfer of these systems could result in their ultimately being used against Israel in particular. Yet the flow of these arms could be carefully monitored to prevent a repeat of the history of Stingers that originally were sent to the Afghan mujaheddin but then fell into the hands of terrorists.
The longer the Syrian civil war goes on, the more likely the entire Middle East will plunge into a prolonged period of instability. Now that the presidential contest is over, the administration needs to send arms to the rebels on an accelerated basis. There is simply no excuse for inaction. On the contrary, every effort must be made to get arms onto the hands of the opposition as soon as possible. If Assad survives, the real winner will be Iran, his biggest backer. That is hardly a prospect that the second Obama administration should be willing to contemplate for the near, medium or long term.
Alessio Romenzi/AFP/Getty Images
David Ignatius, who is recently back from Syria, has an interesting column in today's Washington Post.
Ignatius writes that Romney is right: Obama's policy on Syria is failing and that Obama should be doing more of what Romney has urged him to do.
Well, actually, Ignatius does not use precisely those words. Ignatius is a strong supporter of President Obama and would not write something quite so caustic as that. But that is the gist of his argument.
He doesn't say Obama's policy is failing, but he does say that Obama's "sensibly cautious policy toward Syria is unfortunately going to come to an unhappy end."
He doesn't say that the Romney critique is correct, but he does say this:
"To deal with this problem, the United States needs better intelligence on the ground. And that's where the hard calculus of U.S. interests meshes with the quixotic challenge of helping the Syrian rebels. Right now, the United States reportedly has a limited program to supply nonlethal assistance. This program should be tweaked so the rebels get more help building a stronger chain of command."
...and that is exactly what Romney has been saying on the topic for a long time.
And, (perhaps unintentionally) rebutting Obama surrogates who have slammed Romney for criticizing Obama on Syria and then recommending only a slightly different policy in response, Ignatius says "caution doesn't mean inaction, and some modest changes in U.S. policy could make a big difference in outcome."
I do not know whether Ignatius' specific policy proposal -- pooling all lethal and non-lethal aid and giving it in a lump sum to the Free Syrian Commanders -- is the right one. But I do know that his column would fit more easily in Romney's briefing book for the upcoming foreign policy debate than it would in Obama's.
TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/Getty Images
A perpetual concern of policymakers is to learn from the purported "lessons of the past," and in particular to avoid the alleged mistakes of their predecessors. This mentality characterizes almost all presidential administrations that assume power following a presidency by the other party, and was especially explicit in the Obama White House as it took office determined to be the "un-Bush." Exhibit A in this paradigm was the Iraq War, and among the lessons that the Obama team took from Iraq were the profound risks and unintended consequences of American interventions in troubled Middle Eastern countries. These negative outcomes included sectarian strife, the strengthening of extremist elements, regional conflict and instability, massive civilian suffering, and loss of American prestige and influence.
Yet here is the problem. Now that a year and a half has elapsed in the war in Syria, and the Obama administration's non-involvement has resulted in ... sectarian strife, the strengthening of extremist elements, regional conflict and instability, massive civilian suffering, and loss of American prestige and influence.
Consider this grim assessment from today's New York Times article by David Sanger (a reporter generally quite sympathetic to the Obama administration). Reporting on how the arms being supplied to Syrian rebels by Saudi Arabia and Qatar are ending up in the hands of the most virulent Islamic extremists, Sanger observes this "casts into doubt whether the White House's strategy of minimal and indirect intervention in the Syrian conflict is accomplishing its intended purpose of helping a democratic-minded opposition topple an oppressive government, or is instead sowing the seeds of future insurgencies hostile to the United States."
Jackson Diehl renders an even more caustic verdict in today's Washington Post. President Obama's posture on Syria "exemplifies every weakness in his foreign policy -- from his excessive faith in "engaging" troublesome foreign leaders to his insistence on multilateralism as an end in itself to his self-defeating caution in asserting American power. The result is not a painful but isolated setback, but an emerging strategic disaster: a war in the heart of the Middle East that is steadily spilling over to vital U.S. allies, such as Turkey and Jordan, and to volatile neighbors, such as Iraq and Lebanon."
In other words, the Obama administration's hands-off approach has contributed to the very outcomes that the White House presumably wanted to avoid, and thought it could avoid by "learning from Iraq."
This does not mean that a more assertive American role -- whether directly supplying arms to the rebels, or more active covert support, or enforcing a no-fly zone, or even stronger measures -- would have been cost-free or even successful. Policymaking is inherently uncertain, with risks, trade-offs, and potential downsides for just about any action taken or not taken. We can't know for sure that an American intervention of some sort would have produced a substantially better outcome. But we can (and do) know that the Obama administration's approach has been disastrous.
What are some potential implications of all this? First, learning from history does not mean rigidly applying the template of the past to the present -- in other words, don't assume that just because one previous intervention turned out one way, any future intervention is bound to turn out the same way. Dissimilarities matter as much as similarities. Second, consider the past alternatives. When assessing a historical episode, don't just look at how it played out, but consider also how alternative courses of action might have transpired. In the case of learning the lessons of Iraq, this means not only examining the many mistakes made by the Bush administration, but also examining how if at all the past containment and sanctions regime could have been maintained, or what the consequences of a Saddam Hussein still in power might be. Third, when weighing the costs of any particular action, consider the costs of inaction as well. In the case of Syria, those latter costs are becoming sadly and regrettably clear.
MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP/Getty Images
As the Syrian civil war drags on, and Israel moves ever closer to attacking Iran's nuclear sites, the Obama Administration seems fixated on just one objective: delaying anything from happening in the Middle East before Election Day. The White House remains passive as Bashar al-Assad continues to up the military ante against the opposition. And it continues to send high level officials to Jerusalem bringing gifts of more military machinery that, it is hoped, will assuage the Israelis for the next few months.
Despite assistance from Saudi Arabia and Qatar in particular, with some sotto voce help from Turkey as well, after eighteen months the rebels still have been unable to dislodge Assad. Supported by Iranians on the ground, and the Russians and the Chinese in the UN, the Syrian dictator has shown no compunction about killing as many men, women and children as it takes to quell the rebellion. He continues to play the ethnic card as well: his Kurdish PKK allies have stepped up their terrorist attacks in southeastern Turkey, while Syria's Christian communities, long protected by Assad and his father, remain nervously neutral.
At the same time, Assad's Alawi supporters are hedging their bets. They have begun a process of ethnically cleansing those enclaves where they are in the majority. It is presumed that if all else fails for the Alawis, they will withdraw to their mountain fastnesses, and take Syria's arsenal of chemical weapons with them, so as to deter any attacks from the majority Sunnis that will have come to power. Indeed, the increasingly ethnic nature of the Syrian conflict has already spilled over into both Lebanon and Iraq, promising a major regional convulsion that would likely drag in Iran, Turkey, the Gulf States and perhaps Israel as well.
Israel, in the meantime, continues to express its frustration with the lack of progress in the diplomatic talks with Iran, even as Tehran continues to upgrade its centrifuges, build more of them, and increase the number of cascades to enrich its uranium; fortify its facilities, especially at its underground Fordo site; and play cat-and-mouse with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) whose reports increasingly are confirming Israel's worst fears. As if that were not enough, Iran's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have stepped up their exterminationist rhetoric, calling for the removal of the cancer that is Israel.
Washington's passivity has only aggravated both situations. The Syrian civil war calls for more drastic American action. After all, when rioters initially threw stones at Assad's men, his forces responded by using light weapons against the demonstrators. When the rebels obtained light weapons, Assad's military resorted to heavy weapons. As the rebels began to use mortars, the Syrian Army attacked with tanks. And so it has gone until now, when Assad has called in his air forces to bomb the opposition into oblivion. While there is no immediate need for American military intervention, the United States could certainly do more to strengthen the hand of the rebels. Washington could ship more, and more sophisticated, arms to the rebels via their allies, who certainly can afford to pay for American equipment. And the United States could also provide more intelligence support, if not directly to the rebels, then indirectly through Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar. By failing to step up its support of the rebels, the Administration undermines its credibility, both with the rebels whom it professes to support, and with Assad, whose departure it so vocally seeks.
As for the impasse with Iran, here too, the key to achieving American objectives is the credibility of American pronouncements. There is more than Washington can do as it attempts win the trust of Israel's key decision makers on any Israeli attack-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Supplying missile defense systems is simply not enough for a nation that cannot tolerate even the most minimal probability that a nuclear weapon could penetrate those defenses.
To begin with, the Administration should not backslide on the question of Iran's ability to enrich uranium. The original US position was that enrichment should terminate; any indication of a more pliable position simply reinforces the view in both Tehran and Jerusalem that Washington is not serious about stopping the Iranian program. In addition, the Obama Administration should close the massive loopholes that it has created in the sanctions program: there is no reason why exceptions should be made for China or any of the other seventeen countries that continue to buy Iranian oil without penalty. Washington's willingness to look the other way further intensifies Israeli fears that, at the end of the day, Iran will develop a nuclear capability while America and the West wring their hands.
An Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities is likely to prove counterproductive. Even an American attack may not shut down the Iranian program. As with Syria, so with Iran and Israel: the only way to achieve American objectives is to restore American credibility in the region. It does not help at all that the Administration not only continues to talk of a "pivot" to Asia, but is prepared to tolerate a massive reduction in American defense capability, which will surely signal an abrupt end to American presence in the region. Unless and until the Administration recognizes that it is futile, and dangerous, both to tread water until November, and treat the U.S. defense program as a hostage to tax increases, the situation in the Middle East will continue to deteriorate, to the point where, possibly as soon as October, it may well spin out of anyone's control.
Nick Kristof has an interesting column outlining his takeaways from the recent Aspen Strategy Group summer workshop. I was at the same workshop, and it seems he and I had a similar reaction: It was striking how many different experts believed that the United States was going to have to pursue a more interventionist American posture in Syria than the one the Obama administration currently is following.
The view was not unanimous, of course, and most supporters of American intervention seemed to arrive at the position reluctantly, without any illusions about how easy or cheap this would be. Moreover, most recommendations included explicit or implicit restrictions and caveats, such as "no U.S. ground troops" or "must get Arab League endorsement" -- some even would wait for explicit authorization in a new U.N. Security Council Resolution. Yet few thought the Obama administration's current strategy was working, and most did not think that the administration had yet articulated a coherent and plausible way forward.
The discussion on Iran was also lively, with a wide range of views, some quite hawkish and others quite dovish. Yet here again I was struck by how many strategists believed that the window for a diplomatic resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue was closing. And a sizable number of them believed that when the window closed, if push came to shove, the U.S. president, whoever he might be, would have to decide for war.
In short, I came away from the workshop thinking that the tide of war is rising, not receding. Whether the tide will reach all the way to a full American intervention involving substantial ground troops, I do not know. But I do know that the Obama administration has not prepared the ground politically, rhetorically, fiscally, or any other way for a new American military confrontation.
The timing is exceedingly awkward. Neither presidential campaign seems eager for an extensive public discussion on possible future military interventions (the Obama campaign seems happy to have extensive discussions about past interventions, especially the Bin Laden raid). President Obama, who rarely talked about Afghanistan despite authorizing a major escalation in the war there, seems more comfortable talking about ending interventions than launching them.
But events may force the conversation, and a growing number of people sympathetic to the president seem to be coming to that very conclusion.
When Nick Kristof starts accusing the president of being AWOL, the tide is turning. What will President Obama say in response?
Kris Connor/Getty Images
Obama administration counterterrorism official John Brennan was out on the hustings yesterday trying to once again get the administration credit for what they're not doing. In this case, it was to foster the illusion that the administration is actively exploring options for intervening in Syria's civil war. "Various options that are being talked about ... are things that the United States government has been looking at very carefully, trying to understand the implications, trying to understand the advantages and disadvantages of this." This is little enough seventeen months into a popular uprising against one of the world's worst governments. Italians gave us the concept of festina lente, to hurry up slowly; the Obama administration wants to laurel itself for boldly acting cautiously.
But Brennan's comments are also illustrative for how they characterize the problem in Syria. While at pains to pretend the Obama administration is considering no-fly zones to prevent the Syrian military from killing civilians in refugee camps -- although the administration seems comfortable enough with the Syrian military killing civilians in their homes -- Brennan attested that the administration is "quite busy making sure that we're able to do everything possible that's going to advance the interests of peace in Syria and not, again, do anything that's going to contribute to more violence." That's incredibly revealing: the administration believes that violence is the problem, not the injustice and repression the regime of Bashir al-Assad is imposing on its long-suffering population.
The Obama administration seems not to understand that violence has political causes, and that "preventing violence" only reinforces the grip of those in power. They are diagnosing symptoms, not diseases. As no less a source than Elie Wiesel said, "we must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented." The Obama administration applauds itself for "new pragmatism." That should be called what it is: a studied neutrality to the claims of a people against their government, an even-handedness between repressors and repressed.
Kofi Annan's bitter resignation yesterday from his hopeless assignment as the UN's Special Envoy for Syria merely confirms what has long been apparent: the Obama administration's Syria policy has failed. The policy seems to have thus far consisted of a combination of sternly-worded denunciations, persistent outsourcing of international legitimacy to Russia and China, and belated, unenthusiastic, and possibly ineffective provisions of non-lethal aid to some Syria rebels for communications and logistics. As Peter Feaver has observed, this is not just "leading from behind" but rather "following from behind." Meanwhile, the fact that Syria represents a confluence of strategic interests and moral imperatives has not prompted a proportionate response from a White House wary of action in an election year.
Into this void comes a compelling op-ed by Anne-Marie Slaughter in the Financial Times. Slaughter, an eminent Princeton professor who served as Obama's director of the Policy Planning Staff at the State Department during the first two years of the administration, makes an impassioned call for meaningful action. Specifically she urges that the United States lead a coalition of nations in providing "heavy weapons (and possibly air cover)" to all Syrian opposition leaders who show their commitment to democratic principles.
Though now returned to the halcyon groves of academe, Slaughter remains one of the more influential foreign policy voices today. Recall her New York Times op-ed shortly after she left the State Department urging American intervention in Libya, which anticipated (and very likely influenced) the Obama administration's eventual decision to do just that.
Slaughter's latest op-ed takes seriously the many factors and risks that argue against intervention, including the possibilities of arms ending up in the hands of jihadists, or of exacerbating the conflict and increasing tensions with Russia and China, not to mention the potential unintended consequences of taking sides in a civil war. It also contains a head-snapping concession when Slaughter admits that "sending arms without U.N. approval would put the U.S. on the wrong side of international law." The fact that one of the most eloquent proponents of international law and multilateral organizations is now channeling her inner John Bolton shows how grave the situation in Syria has become. One would hope that this point will also chasten some of the sanctimonious voices who are so quick to denounce any perceived violations of international law. International law's many merits exist alongside ambiguities and cynical obstacles to actions that may be moral and strategic necessities.
Slaughter's article reminds us that statecraft is rarely the art of choosing good policies, but rather involves choosing the least bad policy among an undesirable set of flawed options. The downsides to supporting the Free Syrian Army are many, and at this point can be cited ad nauseum by any foreign policy expert and probably even the average man on the street.
But there are also the downsides of inaction, and I share Slaughter's worry that the White House has thus far not carefully assessed the costs of its own policy of restraint bordering on neglect. She cites several of these costs, most eloquently the opening words of her op-ed from the sister of a dead Syrian rebel soldier: "When we control Syria, we won't forget that you forgot about us." In other words, staying out now seriously diminishes American influence in whatever emerges as the new Syria. To this downside can be added that passivity also limits American influence in shaping now what the new Syria will look like; creates an opening for a greater role for jihadists and other malevolent elements; diminishes our ability to monitor and secure Syria's vast chemical weapons stockpiles; risks allowing the conflict to spill into neighboring countries such as Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq; removes one potent lever for cutting off Iran from its most important ally; and increases the perception in the region of American weakness. Most poignantly there is the humanitarian cost, the thousands of dead Syrians who perish each month while the State Department continues to "monitor the situation closely."
For these reasons I signed this letter organized by the redoubtable teams at the Foreign Policy Initiative and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, urging the White House to help create safe zones and provide arms to the rebels. Finding the best policy on Syria remains exceedingly difficult, but Kofi Annan's resignation and Anne-Marie Slaughter's op-ed together show that the White House's current policy has not been it.
Amidst Congressional calls for special prosecutors to investigate leaks of classified information, bipartisan concern about President Obama's team revealing sensitive intelligence details in order to make the president look like a stalwart commander-in-chief, and Mitt Romney giving a major speech (to the Veterans of Foreign Wars) castigating the president for condoning those leaks, the White House has once again subordinated national security to national campaigning.
In an article titled "Insight: Cautious on Syria, Obama Moves to Help Rebels," current and former Obama White House officials reveal that the White House drafted "a highly classified authorization for covert activity" allowing greater assistance to the Syrian rebels. They evidently assuage concern about revealing classified information by declining to say whether the president has actually signed the finding. So the White House wants us to believe the president is moving forward on the basis of a staff document they will not confirm he supports. Such is the politicization of these issues by the Obama White House and the Obama presidential campaign, between which there seems to be no distinction.
The story reveals that the U.S. has sent encrypted radios to the rebels, contradicts itself by confirming that the classified directive has been for some time languishing in the National Security Advisor's inbox, and also quotes an anonymous senior administration official assuring us that "no policy decision like this languishes at the White House."
The article states that "Obama made his boldest known move in the Syria crisis cautiously, underscoring his preference for diplomacy and coalition-building. Nearly a year ago, he called on Assad to step aside." Administration officials then recount the contents, and even the date, of President Obama's telephone conversation with Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan about Syria. Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes chimes in to explain how difficult and how significant a step President Obama took in removing his support for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
The White House account makes the Turkish president sound like an apologist for Assad, which "President (Obama) countered point by point." Either the White House believes this negative portrait of an important American ally is advantageous to both political leaders, or they are unconcerned about the effect it has on the president's counterparts. Some of those enterprising White House officials who trumpet the president's decisiveness for having a staff that drafts and leaks a classified intelligence finding ought to ask the government of Turkey how satisfied they are with the White House characterizing their head of state's views this way in public. If other world leaders believe they can have no private conversations with an American president, they are likely to only tell our president things they wouldn't mind reading in American newspapers. That cannot be advantageous to our national interests.
Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein asserted last week that the White House was the source of leaks of classified material. She later backtracked to say only that she shouldn't have speculated -- not to recant that she believes the White House is the source. This latest in a long line of White House releases of classified material just proved her case. Obama campaign surrogate Michele Flournoy recently tried to defend the administration's record on leaks, saying "there's been no administration that has been more aggressive in pursuing leaks than this one." Evidently it's only permissible for President Obama's messaging machine to release classified information.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
If words were weapons, the Obama administration would have already brought down the Assad regime and probably started a conflict with Russia and China. Last week, Jay Carney responded to Russia and China's veto of a United Nations Security Council resolution imposing additional sanctions on Syria by saying that the two countries were on "the wrong side of history," describing the vetoes as "very regrettable," "deplorable," and "highly unfortunate." UN Ambassador Susan Rice added "reprehensible and immoral" to the mix in an appearance on CNN, before saying: "The reality is that Russia and China are isolated outliers, [have] put all their chips on a sinking Assad vessel, and [are] making a big miscalculation over the long term, in terms of their interest and in terms of how history will judge them. History will judge them as having stood by a brutal dictator at the expense of his own people, and at the expense of the will of the international community and countries in the region."
But unfortunately, the tyrants of the world do not fear words, at least coming from this president. So how will history judge the Obama administration's handling of the Syrian crisis even if Assad falls in the coming weeks or months? Despite the self-righteous indignation of administration officials, Syria still burns. Secretary of Defense Panetta noted on Wednesday that the situation was "rapidly spinning out of control" and State Department officials have described a growing humanitarian crisis as thousands of refugees flee to Syria's neighbors to escape the violence.
This all comes as elements of Syria's chemical weapons stockpile are reportedly on the move, raising the real possibility that the regime might use such weapons against civilians in embattled areas in a last ditch, desperate attempt to survive or that these deadly weapons of mass destruction will fall into the hands of al Qaeda, Hezbollah, or other terrorist groups.
Even if chemical weapons are not used and the Assad regime collapses quickly, there is a real concern that violence between elements of the opposition or various sectarian groups could break out as state institutions collapse or fade away
Amidst all of this uncertainty, one thing is clear. The Obama administration is completely unprepared and possibly unwilling to shape Syria's future. What is also clear is that in recent months and even this week, the United States has sent a horrible message to tyrants elsewhere about the (non-existent) costs of mass killings of innocents.
On July 16th, Secretary of State Clinton told Margaret Brennan of CBS News that the key to resolving the conflict was all about the "will that we're trying to engender between both the government and the opposition to ease the violence and work toward a transition that leads to a democratic future." That followed this exchange:
BRENNAN: "How is the U.S. supplying the rebels at this point?"
SEC. CLINTON: "With non-lethal assistance. Which is what we said we would."
BRENNAN: "What would make you change the type of support?"
SEC. CLINTON: "At this point, nothing. We are focused on doing what we think is appropriate for us to do. We don't want to further militarize the conflict. We don't want to support either directly or indirectly the arming of people who could perhaps not use those weapons in a way
we would prefer."
Remember, this is more than 17,000 deaths into the crisis and even as chemical weapons were being pulled out of storage. The equivalence between the regime and the opposition is absolutely stunning, as is the statement that "nothing" would cause the administration to think about more aggressive actions. So much for a "responsibility to protect" or for the much publicized Obama administration's track record of faster, more nimble, less messy interventions than its predecessors.
Despite the ham-handed way in which the Libya intervention was explained to the American people and to Congress, it did save thousands of lives and has given Libyans an opportunity to make something of their country. But in Syria, there is a fifteen month record of "leading from behind" and empty rhetoric, but no real willingness to save Syrian lives or to protect and advance American interests. Even as U.S. allies in the region jumped in to fill the void, pursuing their own, more narrow interests, we stood largely on the sidelines, giving us little leverage now with Syria's future leaders.
So, even before the fall of Assad, which now in and of itself, may bring further chaos and bloodshed absent significant outside intervention, the Obama record is clear. Secretary Clinton and her colleagues will now join the pantheon of American officials who have stood idly by while thousands died. Move over James Baker -- although at least Baker was honest with his view that America had no reason to get involved in Bosnia, just as the Russians and Chinese are honest about their interests in propping up Assad.
So what would help to resuscitate this Obama record littered by the bodies of innocent Syrian men, women and children and the very real repercussions of an imploding Syrian state? At this point, short of a miraculous change in behavior, nothing.
Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.