Shadow Government

President Obama's Asia Trip Takes a Syrian Detour

It is telling that during his recent trip to Asia, President Obama took a rhetorical detour to Syria. In an impassioned defense of his foreign policy record, it was the first example he raised, before even the crisis of the day in Ukraine or the tensions in the East and South China Seas, which were presumably the focus of his travels.

The Syria crisis gnaws at the minds of policymakers not only because it has proven so intractable, but because it is seen by allies around the world as a sign of diminished American will to act in the post-Iraq era. Few of them question our capacity, but from Asia to Europe Syria is seen as the canary in the retrenchment coal mine.

In venting his frustrations, President Obama will have done little to allay these concerns, however. His policy in Syria is not working, even on its own terms. Years have passed since Mr. Obama said that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must step aside, yet Assad has a stronger grip on power than ever. High-profile American efforts to broker a transition of power diplomatically have gone nowhere. Assad's chemical weapons may or may not be successfully removed, yet the terrorizing of civilians by Assad's forces continues. And the CW initiative afforded Assad time and space to regroup, which he has used to his advantage against opposition forces. Meanwhile, Iran and Russia's support for Assad has not abated.

Rather than acknowledge these setbacks, however, Mr. Obama suggested that the United States has no strategic interests -- only a desire to "help the Syrian people" -- and no options in Syria, and demeaned his critics as warmongers. His arguments are made all the more puzzling by the fact that he himself once championed military strikes in Syria, only to abandon the idea when faced with opposition from Congress.

One might sympathize with the president if criticism of his Syria policy were mere partisan carping. But many of Mr. Obama's smartest critics are former officials in his own administration, and they are responding not to a political impulse but to the abominable conditions in Syria and the failure of American policy to achieve its goals. They are also responding to Mr. Obama's own suggestion that Washington needs to review its options in Syria -- a review that would be crippled by summarily ruling out the use of military tools.

The United States does have strategic interests in Syria, which converge with the humanitarian imperative to bring a halt to a conflict that has killed tens of thousands of civilians and made refugees of millions more. The conflict has sown instability in neighboring countries, exacerbated sectarian tensions in the region, drawn in foreign fighters who already threaten the West, and placed an economic and security strain on allies who can ill afford additional challenges.

Our inaction in the face of these threats has led countries inside and outside the Middle East to question our commitment to the region and value as an ally -- perceptions which will be more costly to rebuild than they would have been to maintain. President Obama faced questions in Asia about Syria -- and Ukraine, for that matter - not because it is a vitally important issue to our allies there, but because of what our response says about us.

For all of this, President Obama's desire for a diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis is not off-base; he has simply not done what is needed to enable diplomacy to succeed. Diplomacy is not merely a matter of convening conferences and summits; for parties to a conflict to accept a diplomatic compromise, it must appear better to them than the alternatives. If they think the alternatives are superior, two courses of action present themselves: improve the deal and worsen the alternatives.

The unique challenge in Syria is that the United States, supported by our allies, is insisting that Assad resign as an element of any diplomatic deal, which means that he personally is likely to always prefer the alternatives, however bleak they may appear to others. It also means that those who depend on Assad for their own power, if not survival, and those Syrians who believe that Assad's departure will mean a Sunni-dominated regime bent on revenge against ethnic minorities, are unlikely to abandon him.

Right now, Assad and his supporters believe that they can win militarily. Conditions on the ground support that view, as do statements such as President Obama's ruling out the use of force. There is little incentive for them to accept a deal, especially if they see it as leading to their own eradication. The opposition, on the other hand, views continuing to fight, and perhaps to control Syria's hinterlands, as preferable to what would await them under Assad.

This set of problems calls for a three-pronged U.S. strategy -- degrading Assad's military and economic strength; strengthening the opposition militarily, politically, and financially; and offering credible assurances to Assad's supporters and Syria's ethnic minorities that they will be protected. If we set ourselves to this -- using, as President Obama said, "all the tools in the toolkit" -- we can both help Syria and advance the interests of the American people and our partners in the region. If not, the questions about Syria and about the United States will continue to dog President Obama and his successors.

Malacanang Photo Bureau via Getty Images

Shadow Government

President Obama’s Second Chance in Afghanistan

Please join me in welcoming Neil Joeck to the Shadow Government stable. Neil served with distinction in both the Bush 43 administration and in the Obama administration. His areas of expertise are as important today as they were over a dozen years ago when he joined the Bush administration, as this analysis of the stakes and prospects in Afghanistan makes clear.

--Peter Feaver

Recent headlines have been unkind, but not unfair, to President Obama. With the completion of his Asian tour, a trip that was once intended to highlight the so-called "pivot to Asia" became something far less ambitious: an effort to reassert the natural U.S. position as a Pacific power and dependable ally. A New York Times headline on April 25 put it bluntly: "Obama Suffers Setbacks in Japan and the Middle East." The far less widely read Oakland Tribune was less kind: "Obama Foreign Policy Reeling."

But with the president perhaps buoyed by Malaysia's cheering crowds, he now has an opportunity to prove the critics wrong and score an important foreign policy success -- this time, in Afghanistan. 

Afghanistan's recent election has demonstrated the value of the democratic process: an evenly and coherently contested campaign, widespread turnout, significantly reduced ballot irregularities, and reduced violence. In comparison to the 2009 election, which was marked by widespread fraud, the balloting serves as an important milestone as Afghan leaders seek to take control of their country after more than three decades of civil disruption and conflict. Moreover, the two men headed toward run-off, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, would represent a significant break with the fraught relationship with the United States that has marked President Hamid Karzai's time in office. Both men have pledged to sign a bilateral security agreement that Karzai negotiated but has so far refused to sign.

Once the second round of voting is completed, the United States now has a chance to work with a fairly elected government to institutionalize many projects begun but not completed since Taliban-supported al Qaeda terrorists attacked the U.S. homeland. Obama never managed to get on the right foot with Karzai and regrettably declared in December 2009 that he would begin withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan before it was at all clear whether conditions on the ground would support such a decision. This election gives Washington good reason to reassess those conditions and work with a new government to ensure continued development and security. The election also gives Kabul hope of getting the country back on its feet, with all that implies for education, economic growth, healthcare, and a myriad of social advances above and beyond the basic need for security. But Kabul can't do it alone. Stable, effective governance that is absent violent conflict will not happen unless the U.S. now pays close attention to the broader regional context that may fester in the absence of U.S. attention and substantial diplomatic engagement.

The as yet unsigned bilateral security agreement, intended to sustain a minimal U.S. troop presence and now more likely to be signed, is not itself a solution to the challenges facing Afghanistan and U.S. foreign policy. At least four important and highly interconnected outcomes should be considered if the United States wishes to avoid leaving behind a badly broken country at war with itself and a threat to U.S. security and global stability. The first is to prevent the return of terrorist safe havens, which can only happen if we also achieve a second outcome: avoiding another civil war. This will require achieving a third objective: finding the political space for India and Pakistan to engage politically with Afghanistan's government -- and each other -- in order to avoid a proxy military conflict after 2014. That, in turn, cannot happen without achieving a fourth objective: sustaining a constructive American presence.

None of this will be easy given the other crises now vying for Obama's limited attention. Inattention in the early stages of other crises, such as those in North Africa, the Middle East, Ukraine, and East Asia, established the conditions for regional insecurity and instability. Inattention to post-2014 developments in Afghanistan will yield similar results -- chaotic conflict on the ground followed by an ad hoc U.S. response. When running for president in 2008, then-candidate Obama vowed that he would "make the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban the top priority it should be," adding "this is a war we have to win."

It is not too late to make good on that promise.

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/GettyImages