Shadow Government

Obama's Syria disaster

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.

FRANCISCO LEONG/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Making the same mistakes all over again?

The Senate's war hawks, John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman, are giving voice to their concerns that the Obama administration is about to repeat in Afghanistan the policy choices that squandered the national security gains and political influence bought with blood in Iraq. All three are making direct parallels between the endgame in Iraq and Afghanistan. Senator Graham cautioned "Iraq is falling apart. Political progress has stopped, al Qaeda is beginning to remerge. What you see in Iraq is going to happen in Afghanistan if we do not have a post-2014 presence."

Ostensible secretary of defense candidate Senator Jack Reed told reporters yesterday that such criticism was "comparing apples and oranges." His rationale? "Reed noted that botched withdrawal from Iraq was set in motion by the Bush administration, and said President Obama is intent on not making the same mistakes in Afghanistan." There is evidently no statute of limitations beyond which this Administration will take responsibility for its own choices -- even when the president actually campaigned on the policy choices Senator Reed is saying are the fault of their predecessor.

All of the significant choices about the end of the war in Iraq were made by the Obama administration:

  • An arbitrary end to "combat" operations in Iraq in August 2010, confining U.S. forces to a support role nowhere required in U.S.-Iraqi agreements made in the Bush Administration and curtailing the effectiveness of our contribution.
  • Not confronting Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as he used the courts and security forces against domestic political rivals.
  • Having expressed no interest in the importance of Parliament for the 18-month stalemate after the shamefully manipulated outcome of Iraq's elections, insisting that any agreement on future presence of U.S. military forces must be approved by that Parliament, leading to the breakdown of negotiations on any long-term stationing.
  • A ridiculously extravagant and unexecutable plan for civilian presence after our military withdrawal that conveyed the lack of seriousness in our involvement.
  • Not investing any political capital in coalescing neighboring states into support of a government emerging from international isolation.
  • And, having achieved "an end to the war in Iraq," President Obama seems not to care whether that war continues, only that we not be participants in it.

The result? An authoritarian Iraqi government turning the military we built against its domestic rivals, aligning itself with Iran and excusing the depredations of the Assad government against its own people.

And the Obama administration appears poised to make the exact same set of choices in Afghanistan. The President conveyed early that he cared about the timeline, not the objectives of the war, leading all affected parties to hedge against us. President Obama chose not to draw attention to the malfeasance of the 2009 election that returned Hamid Karzai to power, instead over-investing in the incumbent. President Obama cared less about risk -- either to our forces or to achievement of the objectives for which they were fighting -- than about diversion from "nation building here at home," evidenced by his limits on resources requested by commanders. His diplomats never were able to deliver on either of our strategy's seminal political objectives: Pakistani cooperation and Afghan governance. His administration promised a "civilian surge" that never materialized. His administration sprayed money ineffectually through aid programs uncoordinated with our strategy's objectives and inadequately supervised to prevent colossal corruption (the Special Inspector General's report should infuriate every American taxpayer). His exit strategy was contingent on Afghan security forces being able to undertake the fight, yet the fact that only one of 23 Afghan brigades are capable of independent operations has not affected either the timeline of our withdrawal or the size of the force that would remain in the country. And now the Obama administration is negotiating a long-term stationing agreement that would consolidate around 6,000 U.S. forces at a single base outside Kabul to conduct raids throughout the country and train small numbers of Afghan security forces. But the Karzai government seems unlikely to allow U.S. forces to retain immunity, likely considering himself better off if he appears to force our retrenchment than simply be the victim of it.

Why would President Obama repeat the mistakes of Iraq in Afghanistan? The saddest and likely truest answer is that he doesn't consider them mistakes. Small wonder parties to the conflict have been positioning themselves against U.S. abandonment of our allies and our objectives in Afghanistan.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images