Friday, March 9, 2012

Eyeless in Syria

Every other day, it seems, an American official complains that the conflict in Syria is a tricky one for the United States to tackle.

On Monday, President Barack Obama described Syria as “more complicated” than Libya. Two days later the cautionary note was sounded by Leon Panetta, the defense secretary, and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, before the Senate Armed Services Committee. The Pentagon officials were effectively responding to Senator John McCain, who has called  for airstrikes against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

Dempsey revealed that the White House had asked the Defense Department to begin a “commander’s estimate” of military options. But his tone, like Panetta’s, suggested that this was more a case of contingency planning than the reflection of a serious desire to go to war in Syria. Indeed, the options under review in Washington are humanitarian airlifts, naval monitoring, aerial surveillance of Syria’s military and the establishment of a no-fly zone. All fall short of decisively shifting the advantage to the Syrian opposition.

Why is it that Obama and his advisors have had such trouble clarifying their thoughts on the broader Middle East? Why have they been so poor at adopting a holistic strategy toward a region where there is considerable integration between different countries and crises? A principal reason is that this president, even more than his predecessors, is moved primarily by American domestic affairs.

For instance, America’s behavior in Iraq was never truly defined by Washington’s rivalry with Iran. For Obama, it was all about reversing the legacy of George W. Bush and bringing the troops home. Tehran interpreted things differently. Iranian officials saw ascendancy in Baghdad as a vital step toward regional hegemony.

American actions in Afghanistan have, similarly, been shaped by domestic politics. Obama once described Afghanistan as the “right war” and demonstrated it by adopting a counter-insurgency scheme with a nation-building component. The president soon changed course, focusing on anti-terrorism, when he sensed his ambition would be costly and that Americans were uninterested. Regional priorities little affected Obama, whether the proximity of Iran or the Afghan role in tensions between India and Pakistan.

The same lassitude is evident in Syria. The options are limited; the situation is thorny; there isn’t a lot America can do. These are the despondent tropes we hear time and again from the administration, as if the situation in Syria is, above all, a matter of persuading the American public that Obama is blameless.

But politics and foreign policy are about imagination, about creating opportunities, about turning complex situations to one’s advantage. Iran and Russia have been cruel and cynical in Syria, but they know precisely what endgame they want to impose. They want to maintain Bashar al-Assad in power. What endgame does the White House hope to impose? Obama has assured us that the Syrian leader’s downfall is inevitable, so what course of action is America examining to accelerate that outcome? Humanitarian airlifts, naval monitoring and aerial surveillance? Let’s be a bit serious.

The problem is that the debate in Washington is, as usual, centered on America itself. Senator John McCain’s outrage over Syria is laudable. However, there are many things that can be done, in collaboration with the Syrians themselves, short of deploying American warplanes.

The United States, with its Arab and European partners, must help arm, train and organize anti-Assad combatants, allowing them to neutralize the regime’s military advantage, and set up and then expand areas where the Syrian regime cannot enter. It can assist in preparing a police force to manage security in “liberated” areas. And if this proves successful, it can engage Russia to persuade President Vladimir Putin to reassess his objectives in Damascus.

Yes, this is “complicated,” but maybe that’s because the world is a complicated place. Unfortunately, like President Bill Clinton with Bosnia during the early 1990s, Obama only reacts to criticism from within the United States. Clinton’s decision to intervene in the Bosnian war was mainly provoked by the massacre at Srebrenica and his fear of the domestic backlash this might cause. His empty oratory aside, Obama, especially in an election year, doesn’t want to be painted by his adversaries as soft on mass murder.

Whatever happens in Syria will have a profound bearing on American interests. This has been said enough times for Obama to grasp the importance of getting Syria right. Assad’s exit would represent a major setback for Iran and Hezbollah. A democratic Syrian government would likely return to negotiations over the Golan Heights (this may not please Israel, but resuming such talks are a declared American ambition). And ideologically, a Syria rid of dictatorship would presumably represent a net gain for America, which insists that it favors a liberal, pluralistic Arab world.

But don’t expect Barack Obama to go into those details. He has no real strategy for Syria, and will only develop one if pushed to do so. Syrians will continue to be killed, America’s welfare will continue to be harmed, and bureaucrats in Washington will continue to fidget.

No comments: