Missed Engagement

In Congress, vitriol and partisan attacks are dominating the debate over the next U.S. ambassador to Syria.

Almost five years to the day after George W. Bush's administration withdrew America's ambassador to Syria in response to the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, President Barack Obama this February announced the appointment of Robert Ford as his envoy to Damascus. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a confirmation hearing for Ford, a respected former deputy chief of mission in Iraq, in March. On Friday, Senate Republicans blocked a motion to confirm Ford by unanimous consent.

The nomination of Robert Ford to be the first U.S. ambassador to Syria since 2005 has prompted a typically partisan, myopic, and sterile Washington debate about whether this step by Barack Obama's administration represents "appeasement" of Syria. The charge is offensive and absurd, but as was typical of the previous administration's outlook, it ignores entirely what's really important to the United States in favor of ideological purity.

This overheated rhetoric is in desperate need of a reality check: A U.S. ambassador is not a policy. A U.S. ambassador is not kryptonite. At best, a U.S. ambassador is a diplomatic representative of the president empowered to speak for the United States to the highest levels of a foreign government. And, apart from running the U.S. Embassy or mission, there's not much more to it.

The job can be done well or poorly, but the idea that the appointment of a U.S. ambassador is either a panacea or a form of appeasement is, at best, silly.

In the end, what matters is not whether or not a U.S. diplomat lives in Damascus. What matters is what the ambassador will have to say and whether that message is part of a well-considered and effective foreign policy. What matters is whether or not Syria stops recklessly arming Hezbollah, meddling in Lebanese politics, hosting Hamas in its capital, allowing foreign fighters to enter Iraq, seeking weapons of mass destruction, and working to destabilize the Middle East.

For four years George Bush's administration tried to achieve these aims without a U.S. ambassador in Syria. And what happened during that period? U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, which prohibited arms sales or transfers to Hezbollah, was violated on a massive scale. A campaign of assassinations targeted anti-Syrian Lebanese journalists and parliamentarians from Lebanon's anti-Syrian March 14 alliance, whittling down their majority. Hezbollah waged a short but successful street war against the Lebanese government to maintain its independent telecommunications network and, implicitly, its status as a state within the state.

Saudi Arabia and France, sensing the failure of U.S. policy, ceased supporting isolation and began to court Damascus. Syria's al-Kibar reactor was allegedly bombed by Israel, but Syria then promptly denied the International Atomic Energy Agency sufficient access to the site, preventing an effective investigation of Syrian nuclear activities, a step that appears to be clearly contrary to its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The list of policy failures goes on. But were any of them due to the lack of a U.S. ambassador in Syria? Of course not. The Bush administration's failure to respond effectively in each of these cases was the result of its inability to acquire sufficient incentives or disincentives to induce or compel Damascus to change its behavior.

Had there been a U.S. ambassador in Damascus, the outcome in each of these cases likely would have been the same. The real problem was that the Bush administration was overstretched -- politically, economically and militarily. Its rhetoric far outstripped its actual reach. Sadly, the reverses Damascus and its allies suffered from the Cedar Revolution, the popular 2005 uprising that forced Syrian troops from Lebanon, have now mostly been undone.

The supporters of the Bush administration -- who ought to have slunk off in shamed silence for having watched fecklessly as U.S. interests suffered reverse after reverse -- are now crying that Obama's new policy amounts to appeasement, in a strained attempt to prevent the return of a U.S. ambassador to Syria. They remain oblivious to the main lesson learned from the previous administration: What counts in the world -- and especially in the Middle East -- is power, hard and soft, and the will and capacity to use it. And during the years from 2005 to 2009, all of Bush's bluster notwithstanding, our foes took our measure, and found the United States lacking.

Apart from the sleazy indecency of comparing the merely squalid, reckless, and obnoxious Syrian regime with the unique horror and evil of Nazi Germany, the cheap demagoguery of the word "appeasement" fails to capture the Obama administration's policy in the region. Where, one might ask, is the long list of U.S. concessions to Syria? How have we sold out our allies? Where is the retreat in the face of challenge? A few airplane parts? A few inconclusive meetings?

The Obama administration's foreign-policy recalibration is the consequence of having inherited a total collapse of U.S. credibility in the region. Sending an ambassador back to Syria will not solve our problems. It will allow us to gather better information about Syrian thinking and deliver messages to the Syrians more effectively. What matters is what we do with that information, what messages we choose to send, and what means we contemplate to back those messages up.



The Stressful Relationship

Hamid Karzai might be able to convince Washington of his good intentions this week, but it won't change the bleak reality on the ground in Afghanistan.

When Barack Obama welcomes Hamid Karzai to Washington this week, you won't hear much, at least officially, about the tension that has defined their relationship thus far. The April media circus over the Afghan president's erratic behavior -- he reportedly threatened to join the Taliban in one bitter anti-Western rant -- appears to have spooked both sides into pretending that they are getting along just fine, thank you very much. Obama and Karzai are scheduled to spend what one White House advisor described as an "extraordinary" three hours together. Call it reconciliation -- a word more often used to describe the Afghan government's flailing efforts to bring wayward Taliban over to its side.

Karzai even took to the pages of the Washington Post on Sunday to proclaim his commitment to the U.S.-Afghanistan relationship and a shared "overriding strategic vision of an Afghanistan whose peace and stability can guarantee the safety of the Afghan and the American peoples." And though he engaged in a bit of hyperbole ("Success in Afghanistan will define the course of this young century"), he did manage to hit on all the right buzzwords, from "governance" and "corruption" to "strategic partnership." Nobody has ever accused Karzai of not knowing his audience.

One issue the two men will undoubtedly discuss is Karzai's upcoming Consultative Peace Jirga, a forum including members of parliament, civil society, and representatives of Afghanistan's nearly 400 districts. Karzai hopes to use the event to show national unity and lay out a framework through which members of the Taliban -- who have not been invited -- can be brought in from the cold.

The Afghan government is working on an ambitious peace plan ahead of the conference that will reportedly get into specific details of how Kabul intends to lure Taliban fighters away from the battlefield. According to the Guardian, the international community has pledged some $160 million for a complex set of activities across 4,000 Afghan villages that include deradicalization programs, job training, and even biometric "reintegration cards." Foot soldiers will get amnesty for any crime they may have committed; top leaders may be offered exile abroad.

If you think the Afghan government will be able pull off something like this when it can't even collect the garbage, there's a bridge in Arghandab I'd like to sell you. As an unnamed diplomat told the Guardian, "One gets a sense that there are people on the military side who will do most of the work and then give it some sort of an Afghan face."

But reconciliation talks may be the only game in town, says J Alexander Thier, an Afghanistan expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace. "The profusion of players, motivations, conditions, and potential spoilers seems to cast serious doubt on prospects for a negotiated peace," he writes in a recent paper (pdf) for Current History. "But the status quo cannot hold either."

Then there is the upcoming push into the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, which the U.S. military initially billed as a grander version of its recent offensive in Marjah. But so far, reviews of that first operation are mixed. According to a recent critical report (pdf) by the International Council on Security and Development, 61 percent of Afghans in the area "feel more negative about NATO forces than before the military offensive." U.S. military spokesmen acknowledge some setbacks, but point to clear signs that residents are returning to the town and economic life is reviving.

Whatever the case, residents of Kandahar don't seem all that eager to repeat the experiment. Now, U.S. officers are calling the coming offensive there a "process," meaning a slower, longer period of shaping operations aimed at creating a more favorable environment for Western troops.

"Unlike a Marjah operation, where there was a D-day and an H-hour for part of the operation," U.S. commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal said back in March, "it is more likely that this will be a series of activities that target different parts of it to increase that security." Typically, this means lining up support from key local elders and using information operations to paint a negative picture of the enemy, among other activities.

But when Karzai visited Kandahar in early April to take the city's temperature and promote the upcoming offensive, he got an earful from anxious local leaders, who told him they feared the Taliban's growing strength and despised the city's corrupt police.

"Listen to me carefully," Karzai responded before an applauding group of some 1,500 turbaned elders. "Until you're happy and satisfied, we will not conduct this operation." Asked more recently whether public opinion in the city had since turned around, a spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry said, "We are working on this."

All of which is to say that if Karzai and Obama are able to hug and make up this week, that's fine and it will probably help prevent the Afghan leader from actively working against U.S. interests. But the hard work is being done on the ground, and much of it by U.S. troops rather than the Afghan government. With little more than a year before Obama's planned withdrawal, the U.S. military is doing what it always does when faced with an impossible mission on an unrealistic timeline: saluting and muddling through.

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