Henry Kissinger has frequently observed that two of the key challenges of conducting foreign policy are learning to distinguish between urgent and important matters, and then devising techniques to keep the urgent from driving away all consideration of the important. In other words, the volume of pressing work is so great that officials sometimes fail to answer key strategic questions because they are too busy answering the telephone.
With the constant stream of news coming from the Middle East these days, Kissinger's observation is more important than ever. The world -- including, undoubtedly, no small number of U.S. officials -- is currently captivated by the death throes of Muammar al-Qaddafi's regime in Libya. Just last Thursday, Aug. 18, however, Washington's attention was focused 1,300 miles to the east, on the travails of a completely different dictator, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who was called upon by Washington to step aside. And of course, in the weeks and months before that, the foreign-policy community was focused like a laser on Cairo, Tunis, and Sanaa.
Today, naturally, the urgent questions U.S. senior leaders are asking include: How can the United States encourage Libya's rebel movement to adopt an inclusive, transparent system of government? How can the international community prevent a bloodletting of revenge killings in Tripoli? And, looking to Damascus, who will work with Washington to oust Assad, and what is the best method to exploit fractures in his regime?
Pressing though these questions may be, they must not be permitted to drive out deep consideration of the most important challenges faced by U.S. foreign-policy leaders. These are: What are America's overarching strategic goals in the Middle East? And what role does its Syria policy play in achieving them?
In other words, we must go back to basics. This highly inconvenient moment is exactly the right time to do so, because the call for Assad's removal represents the final disintegration of the strategic paradigm that had guided Washington for the last two-and-a-half years. Constructing a new model, though not urgent, is of the highest importance.
President Barack Obama's administration came into office guided by a comprehensive critique of George W. Bush's "war on terror." After 9/11, Bush had adopted a very broad view of the strategic threat facing the United States, defining it as "nexus": the convergence of state sponsors of terrorism, terrorist groups, and weapons of mass destruction. This approach, as the Obama administration saw it, led to strategic overreach. Lumping al Qaeda together with states that had no clear connection to Osama bin Laden's organization mired the United States in a pointless and costly war in Iraq, while also fostering a highly adversarial relationship with many other countries, Iran and Syria being the two most notable cases. The nexus doctrine branded these states as pariahs.
For its part, the Obama administration certainly recognized that Tehran and Damascus were hostile and deeply problematic actors, but it also observed that these regimes had good reason to feel threatened by al Qaeda. U.S. policy, therefore, should seek to exploit the potential overlap in interests. In addition, Iran and Syria seemed to be unnatural allies. It was the Manichaean template of the Bush administration, the Obama team believed, that had forced the two powers together. The smarter play was to pry them apart, by wooing Damascus away from Tehran.
Bush had fallen into a trap laid by bin Laden. By taking up a fight with so many Muslim adversaries simultaneously, his administration had inadvertently corroborated the core narrative of al Qaeda, which presented the war on terror as a war on Islam. At the same time, the excessive coziness, as the new administration saw it, between the Bush team and right-wing Israelis only further affirmed the narrative by making the United States appear as the key indirect enabler of the oppression of the Palestinian people
Obama revamped American strategy with this critique in mind. His overarching goal was to construct a new narrative of Muslim-American friendship. This effort began in earnest with the June 2009 Cairo address, titled "A New Beginning." In the speech, the president emphasized that "Islam has always been a part of America's story" and promised to do his best to resolve points of friction in the relationship, most notably the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.