Argument

It's Evening in America

At the first GOP presidential debate, the Bush-era neoconservative movement seemed as good as dead.

When most of us hear "George W. Bush" and "foreign policy" in the same sentence today, the word that most quickly comes to mind is "neoconservative" (well, perhaps after "ill-fated"). Yet, when Bush first ran for president in 2000, his foreign-policy agenda was something else altogether. He bemoaned Clinton-era nation-building and pledged to focus as president on promoting a more "modest" foreign policy. His chief foreign-policy advisor, Condoleezza Rice, even wrote a lengthy realpolitik tract for Foreign Affairs magazine titled "Campaign 2000: Promoting the National Interest."

Of course, as we now know, that talk barely survived the campaign trail. As president, Bush's embrace of neoconservatism came to define not only his foreign-policy vision, but also the foreign-policy vision of the Republican Party. So it's perhaps a bit of a surprise that on Monday, June 13, at the first Republican primary debate, the protagonists seemed to channel not President Bush, but instead candidate Bush.

Republican realism made an unexpected comeback at the debate as the GOP field sought to offer an alternative to President Barack Obama's military escalations amid growing public concerns about the costs of U.S. global leadership. If anyone three years ago had predicted that this would be the emerging division on foreign policy for Obama's reelection campaign they would have been laughed out of the room.

Are we seeing a newly realist Republican Party? Or is this a momentary search for political opportunity? Only time will tell, but if Monday's debate is any indication, the fault lines for Campaign 2012 might not be as predictable as once imagined.

Perhaps the most surprising foreign-policy moment of the night came when Mitt Romney, channeling his inner Dennis Kucinich circa 2003, said on Afghanistan, "It's time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can," adding, "We've learned that our troops shouldn't go off and try and fight a war of independence for another nation. Only the Afghanis can win Afghanistan's independence from the Taliban." (Less surprisingly, Ron Paul was also in favor of U.S. troop withdrawals, though he suggested a far more immediate timetable.) It's worth noting that just this past January, Romney was speaking of the need for a long-term U.S. presence in Afghanistan and his desire "not to leave" the fight there.

Libya gave the Republican wannabes a chance to go even further in a realist direction. When asked whether the war there was in the "vital national interest of the United States," Michele Bachmann said, "No, I don't believe so." She was seconded by Herman Cain and to a lesser extent by Newt Gingrich, though in fairness he seemingly has had more positions on Libya than he now has campaign staff. Had former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman been at the debate he likely would have been speaking in similar terms, as he has been the one GOP candidate to offer the greatest skepticism of Obama's military campaigns in Libya and Afghanistan, citing spiraling costs and the lack of national interest.

It was former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty who took the opportunity to sound the most aggressive note, pledging that he would continue drone strikes against suspected al Qaeda targets. This is at pace with Pawlenty's generally hawkish statements to date. "[If] you're dealing with thugs and bullies, they understand strength," Pawlenty said in March, describing a foreign-policy vision that he claimed to have learned on the playground. "They don't respect weakness." He was joined, in part, by former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum who seems to think that the United States needs a greater global presence to combat the threat of radical Islamic jihadism (a threat that Obama doesn't fully appreciate, says Santorum).

Pawlenty and Santorum are certainly not the only ones making implicit or explicit charges that Obama lacks the toughness to be commander in chief (a perception among Republicans that even the killing of Osama bin Laden has apparently done little to change). But to be fair, it can be perilous to read too much into just a handful of questions over a two-hour debate -- especially when most responses seemed more directed at snubbing the president than at defining a cogent set of policy principles.

But the debate's emphasis on vital national interests rather than an assertive defense of U.S. values suggests that Republican presidential candidates may be testing the winds on foreign policy and feeling the onrush of a realist moment.

It might make for smart politics. For all the reverence for American power that one hears on the campaign trail, realism is very much in tune with growing skepticism among voters about Washington's seemingly limitless conception of U.S. power and interests.

This skepticism goes beyond opposition to the current engagements in Libya and Afghanistan. According to recent public opinion polling, two-thirds of Americans believe that it "should not" be the role of the United States to "promote the establishment of democratic governments in other countries." A February Gallup poll suggested that only 16 percent of Americans think the United States should adopt a "leading" role in world affairs, down from 23 percent in 2009. This is consistent with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs' yearly survey of public attitudes on foreign policy, which shows that while Americans want to see the United States engaged internationally and exercising strong leadership, they would prefer more selective engagement, a lighter U.S. military footprint, and more support for multilateral institutions to share the burden of managing global affairs.

GOP rank-and-file voters are historically more solicitous of military might. But the party's Tea Party wing has issued calls to put the Pentagon's bloated budget on the cutting block. It's a position that no potential candidate other than Paul has yet openly embraced, suggesting that old habits die hard for GOP politicians.

That's why it's probably far too early to tell whether Monday's debate was an aberration, a sign that deficit fears have spread to national defense or an indication that à la Bush in 2000, Republicans are prepared to start talking about a foreign policy of modesty and restraint. But a GOP foreign-policy debate that was shaping up to look like who could be the more vocal hawk suddenly got a lot more interesting -- and more reflective of precisely the sort of conversation that the country should be having on the issue of America's global role.

EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Obama Can Stop the Killing in Syria

The United States has leverage with the murderous Bashar al-Assad; it has simply chosen not to use it.

As the Syrian uprising against the regime of Bashar al-Assad concludes its third month, U.S. President Barack Obama's administration is coming under increasing fire for its slow, reluctant reaction. The administration continues to call on the Syrian president to lead a transition to democracy and argues that the United States simply lacks the leverage to affect the situation in Damascus. As one senior U.S. official told the Atlantic in May, "The Syrian government knows it can act with a certain amount of impunity because we have no real leverage over them."

Not all significant players agree with Washington. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak have stated that Assad's rule is "illegitimate." Washington is lagging behind.

Against all odds and expectations, the Syrian revolt has spread to almost every part of the country. The spark that began in mid-March in the southern town of Daraa has extended to the Kurdish areas in the northeast, the mixed Sunni-Alawi coastal towns, central Syrian cities such as Hama and Homs, and even the suburbs of Damascus.

Initially, Washington was skeptical. An anonymous U.S. official revealed in April that the Obama administration's general assessment was that such a broad uprising "wouldn't happen, that Assad was too good at nipping these movements in the bud, and also that he was not afraid to be brutal."

Save for the last part, that analysis has proved wrong. Despite unspeakable brutality, including the wanton torture and murder of children, the uprising continued apace and quickly became a national movement whose demands have coalesced around toppling Assad. The protesters' chants have echoed the refrain heard in Tunis and Cairo: "The people demand the removal of the regime."

Yet even after its initial analysis proved wrong, the Obama administration hesitated to support the protesters. Syrian dissidents who met with administration officials in Washington in April relayed their overall disappointment with America's "lukewarm" response.

Lukewarm is the right word. Even as the administration moved to impose sanctions on senior regime figures, its reluctance was obvious. Anonymous officials lamented to journalists that, due to a lack of leverage, they doubted whether sanctions would have any tangible effect. "We already have sanctions," a senior administration official said in April. "We could pursue whether there are additional ways to tighten pressure, but I don't want to suggest there is anything imminent."

These lamentations are a self-fulfilling prophecy. The evolution of the Syrian uprising has presented Washington with a unique opportunity to squeeze Assad. The United States has leverage; it has simply chosen not to use it.

The first and easiest avenue for Washington to pursue would be to recall Robert Ford, whom Obama appointed as his ambassador to Damascus despite congressional objections. Bringing Ford home would be an obvious way to deprive Assad of the legitimacy that comes with relations with the world's only superpower. It would send an unambiguous message that the United States is done dealing with the Syrian regime. That message would embolden the protesters and dishearten Assad. Perhaps most importantly, it would send a clear signal to the silent majority in Syria, which is watching apprehensively and wondering who will win.

In addition to severing diplomatic ties, Obama should finally come out and declare Assad's rule illegitimate. The president's current reluctance to make such a declaration is incomprehensible, especially when other allies, such as France and Israel, have already done so. Yet the administration persists in its fanciful call for Assad to "lead the transition."

The Arab media is already rife with perceptions that America is soft on Assad, an impression his regime surely wishes to foster. That is why Assad's advisor, Bouthaina Shaaban, recently expressed to the New York Times her belief that the international community will fall back in line once the regime has restored control. Obama could lay this notion to rest by washing America's hands of Assad once and for all.

Assad's brutality has already cost him critical relations with three countries that have been instrumental in his efforts to rehabilitate himself in the world: France, Qatar, and Turkey.

In 2004 and 2005, France was Washington's principal partner in the effort to isolate the Assad regime in the wake of its alleged murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The French then shifted gears and tried to engage Assad, but to no avail. Now they are spearheading the European effort to impose sanctions and other restrictions on Assad and his cronies, and are leading the way at the U.N. Security Council in seeking a resolution targeting the Assad regime.

Qatar likewise invested in Assad and even played a role in Paris's opening to Damascus, while counterbalancing Saudi Arabia's sometimes fraught relations with the Syrian regime. Today, the Doha-based satellite channel Al Jazeera has been a powerful tool in exposing Assad's crimes, while providing a platform to Syrian dissidents and human rights activists. In late March, the influential Doha-based Egyptian preacher Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi publicly expressed his support for the Syrian revolution, declaring "the revolution train has reached a station it was bound to reach: the station of Syria." The Syrian media retaliated by unleashing its venom on Doha and its assets.

Turkey, meanwhile, has not only criticized Assad's brutality, but is also playing a direct role in setting in motion a transition in Syria. To that end, it allowed a conference of Syrian opposition leaders to be held on Turkish soil, much to Assad's ire. For that, it too came under attack from the Syrian regime's media. In recent days, as the Assad regime's assault on towns in northwestern Syria has sent thousands of refugees across the border into Turkey, Ankara has escalated its rhetoric and expressed support for efforts to pressure Assad at the Security Council.

These states form the nucleus of a coalition capable of putting tremendous pressure on Assad. Washington's regional allies are not holding back. Even the claim that Israel is somehow protecting Assad is false and has been dispelled by a number of Israeli officials, including the ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren.

The United States, along with Britain and France, is halfheartedly seeking to overcome Chinese and Russian objections to a Security Council resolution condemning Assad. But one crucial element is missing here: a clear strategy, backed by strong American leadership. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton laments the lack of international unity on Syria. Yet consensus requires American leadership to coalesce. French, Qatari, and Turkish officials are operating on their own because they cannot be sure of Washington's position.

That is why it is essential for the United States to abandon its hands-off approach to Syria. Once Washington states unequivocally that it sees no role for Assad except for him to leave, everything else will follow. The position of the superpower, after all, matters. The Turks, for example, who are divided on how to proceed, will stop vacillating if Obama makes it clear that he would like to see Assad depart in a manner that safeguards their interests.

Once the administration makes that decision, its ability to muster leverage increases. Washington could then widen the coalition against Assad to include other key Arab states, including Saudi Arabia. Washington should make clear that it seeks Assad's ouster as part of a broader strategy of countering Iranian influence in the region -- something about which Riyadh remains deeply concerned. There are several signs that the Saudis will be receptive to this argument, not least of which is the relentlessly critical line Saudi-owned media have taken against Assad over the last three months.

The administration could then induce other regional allies to use the leverage they have on Syria to its advantage. To assuage their worsening financial distress, for instance, the Assads have been reaching out to the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Iraq. Obama can lean on these Arab allies to refrain from assisting Assad's regime and investing money in it, just as he works with the Europeans to choke off sources of revenue for Damascus. These measures could become a significant factor in the calculation of the Sunni business class still on the fence and might potentially accentuate rifts in the army, which is already showing signs of cracks and fatigue amid growing reports of defections.

There is much more the United States could do. Washington could approach allies that share borders with Syria -- Iraq, Jordan, and Turkey -- and make contact with local leaders in the country's border towns. America has plenty of leverage with Iraqi Kurds, and it could build on this relationship to communicate with Syrian Kurds. Similarly, it could encourage advantageous alliances between tribal groups that span Syria's borders with Iraq and Jordan. It could also supply the protest movement with communications equipment.

In the end, the real problem is not the lack of leverage so much as the Obama administration's refusal to use it. Obama and Clinton have said much about multilateral diplomacy, and Syria now presents them with an opportunity to put it on display. So what are they waiting for?

Syrians are fully aware who stands behind them in the international community. In recent weeks, they have burned the flags of China, Russia, and Iran. Why haven't they burned the American flag? Perhaps it's because they still hold out hope that Washington will come to their aid. That hope is itself a form of leverage. Obama should not squander it by continuing to bet on Assad as he murders people in the street.

LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images