The Goldilocks Principle

No one's perfect, and surely not President Obama. But in the rough and tumble world of foreign policy, it's hard to argue he hasn't done most things just about right.

Gas prices and bad news from Afghanistan aside, the presidential gods seem to be looking more favorably on Barack Obama these days. Not only are job numbers rising, but as the campaign debates have revealed, the U.S. president's Republican opponents are having a hard time finding a sweet spot on which to attack his foreign policy. And here's why.

Almost four years in, Obama's approach to the world might seem like the poster child for dashed hopes, deflated dreams, and unrealized expectations. Yet the president's foreign policy also reflects a pretty impressive tale of competence in the rough and tumble world in which America now operates.

Despite some tactical blunders and far too much Panglossian rhetoric early on, Obama has gotten the big issues just about right, and like the unnamed English general who claimed that some of his greatest victories were the battles he never fought, Obama has managed to stay out of trouble too.

With the exception of killing Osama bin Laden, the president has had no spectacular victories -- but no spectacular failures either. Indeed, on balance, he has crafted a policy suited to his times and to American interests. Not too cold, not too hot on key issues, Obama has defined a mix of "just right" policies that would make Goldilocks proud.

It certainly didn't start out that way. Obama has always fashioned himself a transformational political figure destined to alter the arc of America's domestic and foreign policies. He came into office with the economy as his most important priority, which meant some retrenchment with regard to expending his time and America's resources abroad.

Still, as an internationalist by temperament and experience, Obama was a man of the world committed to improving America's image. Just as on the domestic side, where fixing the economy was to be accompanied by transformative social change, Obama wanted to do big things abroad.

If George W. Bush had sought to transform the world through regime change, preventive war, and the division of the world into Manichaean poles of good and evil, right and wrong, Obama set out to produce his own countertransformation -- largely through engagement, diplomacy, multilateral cooperation, high-sounding rhetoric, and the symbolic power of his persona.

Either it was a very smart approach designed to substitute words for deeds at a moment when resources and political capital for an active role abroad were in short supply, or it was a naive ideal out of touch with the realities of the cruel world the president had inherited.

Within days of his inauguration, the president would announce the first of two special representatives (for Israel-Palestine and Afghanistan-Pakistan) in what was to become an empire of envoys, and he set a high bar for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement and a higher one for a settlements freeze. In June 2009, he would drive the Arabs and Europeans wild with excitement and expectation with his speech in Cairo, raising their collective hopes that, finally, American policy toward the region would be fair and tough (toward Israel) and that the Arabs would finally get a hearing from a man who understood them. To America's adversaries, Iran and Syria, he seemed to offer serious engagement. And to the international community, in a 2009 speech in Prague, he offered a vision of a world free of nuclear weapons.

Back on Planet Earth, Obama's foreign policy 1.0 proved long on good intentions and nice-sounding words but very short on strategy and results. It didn't last long. Within two years, the transformer-in-chief seemed to have been transformed himself: He proved unwilling to close the Guantánamo Bay prison, stepped up the drone war (over a three-year period, the president has approved at least 239 strikes, more than five times the 44 approved by his predecessor), stepped back from the settlement freeze and his fight with Israel over the peace process, toughened sanctions on Iran and kept them on Syria, and surged in Afghanistan. The president's 2.0 seemed a lot tougher and far less transformative.

That Obama took on some of the policies of a less reckless, less ideological, and much smarter version of Bush is indisputable. And the reason was pretty clear: In inheriting two wars (three, if you count the so-called global war on terror), the new president had very little room to maneuver.

Between the generals invested in a win, the Republicans waiting to pounce, and the deep commitment in American lives and treasure, not to mention the always present concept of U.S. credibility, early extrication was never an option. So Obama surged and doubled down on the good war in Afghanistan and got out of the bad one as quickly as possible in Iraq. Not much room for bold, transformative action here. Best to concentrate on fixing the economy and color between the lines.

Even without the parameters laid down by his predecessor, the world Obama had visions of transforming just wasn't going to cooperate. America wasn't in absolute decline, but its own broken economic house and the new competitiveness of a number of powers great and small made challenges to American leadership and power more than credible.

This new world is defined by asymmetrical wars in which tribal politics, ethnic divisions, and loyalties trump military power; by historical conflicts driven by trauma, memory, and religion, immune to the charms and persuasions of American diplomacy; by the presence of spoiler states like Iran and Syria with regional ambitions that conflict with America's own; by nonstate actors like Hamas and Hezbollah that America can neither engage nor destroy; and by allies -- some close (Israel), some not so (Pakistan) -- that have proved to be tough traders when it comes to protecting their interests.

In this world, being loved counted for very little. Being respected -- even feared -- mattered far more. And the president was not nearly as respected, let alone feared, as he needed to be. Sadly, for the great power, president "yes we can" heard "no you won't" far too frequently. From Hamid Karzai to Nouri al-Maliki, from Benjamin Netanyahu to Mahmoud Abbas, everyone said no to America without much cost or consequence -- all of which undermined U.S. street cred.

Still, despite the flaws, uncertainties, messy outcomes, and screw-ups, an honest man or woman would have to say that Obama has fared pretty well in this less-than-brave new world. He isn't a transformer of U.S. foreign policy offering bold new visions or spectacular military victories or diplomatic triumphs. He's more the cautious actor searching quite deliberately for that middle ground between what's desirable and what's possible.

And he's getting better at it. His call to leave Iraq by the end of 2011 was a sound one. In doing so, he found the balance between what America's staying could possibly have achieved and the positive benefits of extrication from a war in which America's direct presence no longer really mattered. And even though he surged in Afghanistan, he's on a glide path toward extrication from a war that can't be won there too.

The same search for the middle was evident in Libya, where Obama found the right balance -- however messy it was -- between doing nothing and everything unilaterally. He assembled a coalition for cover (consisting of the U.N. Security Council, NATO, and the Arab League, too) that actually succeeded in removing Muammar al-Qaddafi without putting America in a position where it would have to own yet another Muslim country.

His reaction to the Arab Spring was another balancing act: try to get on the right side of historic political change, but understand that Washington's role and influence really aren't determinative anymore. Obama seems to understand intuitively that if you stand in the way of history's power you'll likely get run over by it. So he operated from the sidelines, supporting change in Egypt, Yemen, and Tunisia, precisely where America belonged.

We see the same wise caution on Syria, where the president has rightly resisted the calls from Congress and the chattering classes for half-baked ideas that could get America in an encumbering, open-ended intervention with no clear goals. America may yet be drawn in, but it will only be after all other options have been exhausted and a strategy with clear goals, with responsibility shared with others, and without illusions emerges.

Iran may yet constitute Obama's greatest challenge. There may simply be no middle ground. But the president has found a "just right" Goldilocks approach for the moment. He has also bought time and space for diplomacy and the heightening of nonmilitary pressures on the Iranian regime. But unless the mullahs back down on the nuclear issue -- or the Israelis do -- we're drifting toward a confrontation.

All presidents make mistakes. The only question is whether they learn from them and make the necessary adjustments.

Barack Obama set out to end two wars and improve America's global image in the process. His goal was not to withdraw from the world, but to be wiser about how and where the United States projects its power. We can forgive him for setting expectations way too high and for overreaching, in large part because -- unlike his immediate predecessor -- he has steered clear of disaster. In the process, the president has learned to respect history's power, the future's uncertainties, and America's limitations. And for that he has made America's foreign policy all the stronger.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Reality Check

How Not to Intervene in Syria

After everything that's happened over the last decade, shouldn’t we know a quagmire when we see one?

In 20-plus years of government service, I saw more than a few reruns of the same movie, particularly when we faced a really tough challenge. "Give me some options!", "Yes, Mr./Madam Secretary. We'll get a memo to you shortly."

Most of the time, the movie ended more or less the same way. The options that might work involved serious political and strategic risks, the others cost much less but wouldn't work quickly -- or more likely, at all. And so followed the much-caricatured but very real three-option memo: (1) do everything (2) do nothing (3) muddle through as best you can.

And so we muddle. The Syrian uprising is a blood-soaked tragedy playing out on a big stage, in full view of the international community. A brutal, repressive regime willfully and indiscriminately kills its own people in a desperate -- and so far successful -- effort to stay in power. It encourages and looses upon the land sectarian hatreds and resentments that play out in a fury of murder, kidnappings, and torture.

The fecklessness and powerlessness of the United States, and the international community writ large, only becomes more evident as the horrors mount. We have seen an Arab League observer mission that actually legitimizes the regime, a "Friends of Syria" group that highlights the division rather than the consensus in the international community, a U.N. General Assembly resolution condemning the Syrian regime that only showcases the absence of tougher Security Council action because the Russians and Chinese won't play along, repeated (and empty calls) for President Bashar al-Assad's removal, and sanctions that hurt but can't topple the regime. We have also seen the so-far unsubstantiated hope that in some way, all of these pressures will combine to create circumstances for the proverbial inside job, in which some Alawi military commander -- worried about his own skin and a war crimes prosecution, or perhaps even in an enlightened moment about the future of his country -- somehow challenges the regime with armor in the streets of Damascus and takes out the Assads.

But muddle through we must. The takeaway from any honest and unforgiving analysis of Syria produces a series of options that range from bad to worse. So we continue to play at the margins. We can't significantly ease the humanitarian crisis, unify the opposition, and stop the killing -- let alone get rid of the Assads.

Syria has always been different. The minority character of the regime, with its mix of profound insecurity and grandiosity as the vanguard of Arab nationalism, separates it from all the other Arabs. In the late 1990s, during debates about whether to focus on the Israeli-Palestinian or Israeli-Syrian negotiations, I recall telling Secretary of State Madeleine Albright that Assad the elder was the Frank Sinatra of the peace process: He wouldn't make his peace with Israel and the West like Egypt's Anwar Sadat, King Hussein of Jordan, or even Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat had done before him -- he'd do it his own way. And as a consequence, the process and substance of an Israeli-Syrian peace deal on the Golan Heights would be different than the others, and much harder. Albright got it; I'm not sure anyone else did.

The rise of the Assads, and their view of Israel and America, was unique -- and the arc of their demise is likely to be as well. A year in, the uprisings in the Arab world have offered up three pathways for regime change, none of them appropriate to Syria.

First, the Egyptian model: Let's call it the do-it-yourself (DIY) approach. Here, the military eases Hosni Mubarak out because it refuses to use massive repression and violence against the people and undermine its own power, perks, and influence in a post-Mubarak Egypt.

Second, the Yemeni model: Outside forces with influence and access -- the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), with American help -- ease a wily but weakened President Ali Abdullah Saleh out of power, with promises of immunity and perhaps some future role.

Third, the Libyan model: The international community, empowered by a Security Council resolution and the military muscle of NATO, wage limited war in support of a Libyan opposition that manages (eight months later) to defeat Muammar al-Qaddafi.

Syria really is different than these three. Unlike with the Egyptian military, the Alawis who dominate Syria's military and security services are borrowing a page from our own revolutionary founders: "We're either going to hang together, or hang separately." And the regime will continue to use whatever force is required to protect itself and its corporate interests.

Unlike Yemen, there's no GCC fix for Syria and no immunity for Assad's bloody hands. And Syria, unlike Libya, has real defenses -- chemical weapons, a credible air-defense system, and a real military determined, as its bloody takeover of Homs suggests, to do anything to stay in power -- that will make NATO think twice before launching a war. A Security Council resolution, with NATO as its enforcement arm, seems unlikely as long as the Russians and Chinese won't cooperate. The United States has the power to crush the Syrian military, but there's no will or stomach to deal with the risks and consequences of a sustained intervention -- not yet, anyway.

These challenges haven't stopped a fair number of experts, former practitioners, and leading U.S. senators from urging that old college try. As was the case before the Libyan intervention, calls for stronger measures have come from both liberal interventionists and neoconservatives. Whoever doubted that foreign-policy crises -- like politics -- make strange bedfellows?

Those suggestions include, among other things, arming the Syrian opposition and setting up "no-kill zones," an idea I still have not been able to understand either in terms of its design or purpose. I do see the implications of such an approach, though: an open-ended, ill-advised slide to deeper military involvement without any rigorous calculations of the costs. Others have urged a comprehensive strategy of indirect intervention, which includes training the opposition and the supply of arms, such as mortars, anti-tank weapons, and improvised explosive devices. Inaction, these interventionists point out, also has its costs.

Indeed it does. Syria isn't Libya: It's a more important place, the consequences of sustained sectarian conflict are more severe, and the advantages -- weakening Iran -- much greater. (Bring down the Assads, and you can undermine the mullahcracy in Tehran too.)

But then, actions that aren't properly thought through also have consequences, for precisely the same reason. Syria isn't Libya: The circumstances and conditions that made intervention succeed in one case aren't now present in the other, and may never be. Great powers behave inconsistently, sometimes hypocritically. Their power and size have given them that luxury and latitude -- it's part of their job description.

I think we get it -- President Barack Obama's administration certainly does -- that there really are no good options on this one. Taking out the headquarters of the Fourth Armored Division or the Republican Guard barracks with missile strikes would certainly feel good, and it's clear that Syria's killers deserves that and much more.

But without sticking our heads in the sand, we ought not to lose them either with reckless ideas of how to make the Syrian tragedy ours as well through direct military intervention or indirectly supplying weapons. That the Arabs -- notably the Saudis -- see the region through the frightening filter of a Sunni-Shia war doesn't mean we should too. In fact, without infantilizing the Arabs and imposing on them the prejudice of low expectations, one can only wonder why key Arab states -- equipped with the most advanced American fighter aircraft and so concerned about their fellow Arabs in Syria -- can't or won't act more boldly, beyond providing weapons to their favored side. I think I know the answer.

As the George W. Bush administration has instructed us, getting into these regional messes is always a lot harder than getting out. And as painful as it is to watch, the wrenching reality of a brutal dictator killing his own people isn't a compelling enough reason to justify a unilateral, open-ended American military intervention to topple him.

We should stop beating ourselves up for once. Given the complexity of the problem, other pressing priorities, our interests, and the potential costs of an intervention, the administration is doing what it can. Chances are the longer the killing goes on, the more likely we be will dragged into doing more. But the notion that we should intercede quickly with some dramatic,  ill-advised, poorly thought through idea of kill zones or safe havens without thinking through the consequences of what protecting those areas would entail is a prescription for disaster.

Intervening militarily now isn't about left or right, liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat, or even about right or wrong -- it's really about choosing between being dumb or smart. I know where I come down.

-/AFP/Getty Images