The Syrian civil war exploded over the weekend, with mass murder and sectarian cleansing along the coast, Israeli airstrikes in Damascus, and confusion, frustration and paralysis in Washington to the point where the New York Times described President Obama as trapped “in a geopolitical box, his credibility at stake with frustratingly few good options.”
Foreign policy, it turns out, is hard. Samantha Power, President Obama’s special advisor on the national security council, author of a very influential history of genocide (A Problem from Hell) that criticized the US failure to save Rwandans under President Clinton, and possible future US ambassador to the United Nations, announced earlier this year that she was leaving the administration to focus on her two young children. It’s an honorable and understandable decision, but it leads to a disturbing truth. Bashar Assad has outlasted Professor Power, and the country’s most influential advocate of the right to protect left office having failed to a make any headway against the greatest mass slaughter since the Rwandan genocide.
Arguably, the greatest triumph of the humanitarian hawks in the Obama administration was the attack on Libya. The “Wilsonian war” encouraged people in Syria to rebel in the hope of western intervention, but made President Obama much less willing to get involved again. Good intentions in Libya made the ghastly spectacle in Syria more likely and meant that the humanitarian hawks had less influence in goading the President to action when the greater challenge appeared.
Acting on good intentions without deep strategic analysis can and frequently does lead to the worst possible consequences. One of history’s most important and least acknowledged truths is at work here: those who want to change the world for the better need to be much better at understanding it than cynical Machiavellian strategists. The cynics are simply focused on surviving; the reformers and the improvers are trying something much more difficult. Like 20th century ballroom dance sensation Ginger Rogers with Fred Astaire, those who want to combine global moral uplift with their diplomacy must do everything the other side is doing, but backwards and in high heels.
Most who try it trip and fall.
As a general rule, sad to say, the good guys and the smart guys often play on different teams. For too many foreign policy humanitarians, it is more important to have good intentions than to understand the crooked and wicked ways of the world you want to change. This instinct for the ideal over the real was a hallmark of humanitarian policy failures all during the 20th century and on the evidence to date the deadly mixture of political amateurism with ambitious humanitarian international agendas has persisted into the 21st. America’s university campuses are packed with people who believe that the flaws in our foreign policy are failures of morality rather than failures of forethought and execution, but morality unhinged from wisdom is one of the most destructive forces known to man.
We don’t mean to be glib or unkind. Trying to stop horrible slaughters is a noble goal, one that American foreign policy can never quite put out of sight, and Samantha Power is nothing if not determined and smart. In our view, she stands head and shoulders above many in the profession and we would never discount her as a force in the land. In any case no single presidential advisor can be blamed for policies that were shaped by many hands. But given the evidence to date, historians are unlikely to hold up the policies of the administration she served as a stellar example of humanitarian foreign policy at its best.
History is a slippery and a twisted thing, and the gap between intention and execution is almost always wider and harder to bridge than every new president and his shiny new team of advisors believe. As it is, Samantha Power is resting from her labors while Butcher Assad is carrying on with his. Our policy on genocide has changed, apparently, from “never again,” to “just one more small one can’t hurt.”
With the ‘right to protect’ based foreign policy now lying in ruins, Syria really is turning into a problem from hell for the White House. Whether considered from a humanitarian or a strategic point of view, all the choices are getting worse while the problem is becoming more important and harder to avoid.
Let’s review where things stand as of this weekend:
1. Assad’s forces seem to be on the rebound militarily and are taking back some territory recently seized by the rebels. This smart analysis in the Jerusalem Post paints a picture of a regime deftly retrenching itself and thinking very strategically about the future.
2. But just because Assad is fighting smart doesn’t mean he’s not being brutal. The regime has been resorting to horrific levels of violence: a mix of retaliation, ethnic cleansing (to create a more secure Alawite base in the coastal area) and a deliberate use of terror to cow opponents. Case in point, there were fresh reports of a massacre this weekend in the coastal city of Banias. The source of this particular report was a pro-rebel group and so its numbers and details must be taken with a grain of salt, but overall there’s little reason to doubt that this kind of stuff is going on.
3. The reason for Assad’s recent success appears to be effective foreign support, especially from Iran. The most glaring evidence for this came this morning, with reports that Israel had struck a warehouse in Damascus full of advanced Iranian missiles intended ultimately for Hezbollah. This isn’t just a nasty local civil war. This isn’t just a broader Sunni-Shiite rivalry which threatens to spill over into Lebanon and Iraq. This is an important proxy battle for influence in the whole region, and Tehran is intimately involved. At the moment, it is defying the United States, the Sunni Arabs and western Europe, and it is succeeding.
You can deep six any hope of a nuclear compromise if Tehran comes to believe that its enemies are paper tigers. The lesson from Tehran’s perspective as of this week is evident: stand up to your enemies and they give in.
The White House’s Syria policy is in ruins. After some highly gratifying and dramatic chest-thumping about the responsibility to protect, tough talk about Assad having to go, and a series of ever-shifting red lines over chemical weapons, the United States looks confused and weak. (The morning report in the New York Times that President Obama’s “red line” comment on chemical weapons was ‘unscripted‘ will not help.) Assad is still sitting pretty in Damascus and the humanitarian toll is rising. Meanwhile, the worst of the worst have gained both power and visibility in the anti-Assad camp, and Iran is asserting itself regionally rather than recoiling in defeat. The prospect of further internationalization of the conflict is growing, given Israeli concerns over weapons transfer. And the worst-case scenario outcome for the US, in which groups linked to Al Qaeda get chemical weapons, is also menacingly more probable if the situation continues to deteriorate.
Presumably at the very least, one result of all of this will be to reduce the feelings of intellectual superiority and moral righteousness many Obama staffers had coming into office. Besides four years of ugly Guantanamo failure, they now have a genuine set of mass murders for which they bear some indirect moral responsibility and for which they have found no effective counter. This is a painful and an unpleasant feeling, but it is also the beginning of wisdom in foreign affairs.
From the cold and amoral standpoint of American interests, the mess in Syria is not a total dead loss. Just as their failure to solve the Bosnian War taught the Europeans that they still needed an American alliance after the Cold War, so the failure of the Sunni Arabs to manage Syria effectively reinforces their understanding that they also need the American connection. However, just as a reluctant Clinton administration was ultimately forced to raise its profile in Bosnia and later in Kosovo, it seems that the Obama administration is going to have to do more in the Middle East.
The Syrian war is also undermining Iran and turning Russia into a hate object across much of the region. It has weakened Hezbollah in Lebanon and it has driven a wedge between Turkey and Iran. It probably will end by increasing Israel’s strategic domination of the neighborhood; it will be a long time before Syria can reconstitute itself as a powerful foe.
So what comes next? The anti-Assad alliance looks to be set to try to change the military balance on the ground. The administration is clearly looking harder at sending lethal aid to the rebels; presumably the Sunni Gulf states are throwing in more money at a critical time. It may be that Israeli airstrikes, though limited in theory to interfering with the transfer of arms to Hezbollah can have a significant collateral impact on the regime’s war-fighting capability. If you bomb a warehouse containing Iranian missiles bound for Lebanon it’s quite possible that the explosion will detonate an ammunition dump containing supplies intended for the domestic civil war. The Israelis are probably hearing from Washington and from anti-Assad Arab leaders that this is one case in which the international community won’t scold Israel over collateral damage.
As the White House looks to escape its geopolitical box, the most important job is to recover a sense of strategic perspective. This administration has two strategic goals in the Middle East: cooling the fires of global jihad on the one hand while avoiding the horrible choice between accepting Iranian nukes and taking military action against Iran.
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. But if US policy inadvertently stoked the fires of the global jihadi movement and helped rebuild jihadi prestige and finances across the Sunni world, there remains the question of Iran.
For Washington, the center of gravity in this crisis is in Tehran rather than in Damascus. The White House needs to be looking at what US policy choices in Syria will induce Tehran to compromise over nukes. A war between the US and Iran could stoke the sectarian war across the region to new levels of genocidal rage along with other consequences too horrible to think cooly about. The alternative, of accepting a nuclear Iran after so much talk and so many categorical threats, is not to be thought of. Whatever the case in the abstract for seeking an accommodation with a nuclear Iran, President Obama has so committed himself and the United States to prevent an Iranian bomb that a flipflop on this issue would carry a catastrophic price. (This is another geopolitical box of the President’s own making.)
What this means in real terms is that having said that Assad must go, President Obama must now make him leave. That still does not mean boots on the ground and may not even mean airstrikes, especially if Israel continues to degrade Assad’s arsenal and perhaps expands its attention to such targets as the regime’s fuel supplies. (If Assad doesn’t have any gasoline, he can’t ship any weapons to Hezbollah.) Over time continuing Israeli airstrikes in Syria might backfire politically, but a short, sharp series of decisive and carefully targeted blows like those reported Saturday night might help tip the balance on the ground.
The United States should do what it can to arm and equip rebel groups opposed to the most extreme of jihadis and be prepared to do what it can (which may not be much) to improve the political climate in Syria after the war. However at this point the United States has little choice but to deal with whatever new Syria emerges. In a perfect world we could wait for an acceptable Syrian opposition to emerge before ousting Assad but in the real world the longer we wait the less acceptable the opposition becomes. Even so, President Obama is bound by his own words and those of his top officials, clearly stated and oft repeated. If Assad “must” go, President Obama “must” help make that happen.
The Obama administration has largely forfeited its ambition to inaugurate an era of humanitarian foreign policy. Support for the Arab Spring hasn’t done much for democracy, development or peace across the region. The reconciliation with the Muslim Middle East policy also looks pretty tattered. But decisive action in Syria now can still improve the chances that President Obama avoids a war with Iran. There is nothing to be gained by delay.