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Everything in Syria Is Going to Plan

It just depends on whose plan you're talking about.

If you don't know where you're going, the old saying goes, any road will get you there.

The conventional wisdom on Syria has it that the external actors to the tragic drama playing out these many months don't know what to do, have no end game, and are thus incapable of acting alone or in concert to end the killing and create an effective transition to the post-Assad era.

But that's wrong. The key actors -- America, Russia, Turkey, Iran, and the Arabs -- know precisely what they're about (or at least what they want to avoid) and are acting quite willfully to attend to their own interests.

In short, we have a coalition not of the willing but of the disabled, the unwilling, and the opposed. And each has a clear agenda. The tragedy for Syria is that it's just not a common agenda. And here's why.

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The United Nations

 We can dispense with the idea that the United Nations is a consequential player quite quickly. The U.N. is only as strong as its member states, and in this case that means the five permanent members of the Security Council. The U.N.'s relevance in any global emergency occurs either at the front end of a crisis -- as a legitimizer of action -- or, if the powers that run the place agree, as an implementing arm once they do.

When there's no consensus, as in the case of Syria, the U.N. is relegated to articulating rather than acting. Enter Kofi Annan, whose six-point initiative was dead before it was born. Not only are the great powers divided, but the gap between the regime and the opposition is a galactic one that renders any diplomatic approach -- either on confidence-builders or on an end game -- pointless. The fact that the former secretary-general is trying to expand his contact group to include the Iranians has only added to the confusion, allowing the Russians (who have adopted the idea) to avoid any serious action.

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Russia

Vladimir Putin's motives on Syria are a mix of principle, pragmatism, and his own persona.  Like Howard Beale, the frustrated anchor in the movie Network, Putin's mad as hell and he ain't gonna to take it anymore. No more Western interventions. No more American diktats or schemes to crowd out Russian influence. There's nothing more insufferable than the leader of a great power that isn't so great anymore (see: France).

Russia has seen all of its former friends -- Saddam Hussein, Muammar al-Qaddafi, and now Bashar al-Assad -- undermined and deposed by the Americans. We even want his help to squeeze the Iranians on the nuclear issue, too. And he's pushing back. He knows Assad can't be saved and doesn't want Russia identified with massacres, but he wants to avoid a made-in-America settlement that puts Barack Obama in the driver's seat or leads to a post-Assad era where Russia has no influence or, worse, is holding Washington's coat.

Putin also fears -- genuinely, I think -- a post-Assad Syria dominated by radical Sunnis. He doesn't trust the Saudis, who are looking to counter Iran and the Shia. He worries about his own Muslims in the North Caucasus. (Indeed, Saudi support for Chechnyan rebel Wahhabists is a painful reminder of the Quran's long reach.) Finally, as with Nicolas Sarkozy, all life for Putin begins with the personal. Putin is both entitled and insecure -- a bad combo. He's just not going to let Obama roll him again after what happened in Libya. If there's a deal to oust Assad, Russia will have to be central to it.

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Turkey

On paper, you'd think the Turks would have been willing by now to assume a greater leadership role on Syria. Geography, Sunni affinity, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's leadership pretentions in the region would have all argued for much deeper involvement. But leadership requires standing up, and that can make people unhappy, or worse.  The Turks' "we want to be loved by everybody" approach (minus the Israelis) -- represents their preferred soft-power strategy. It's about adding countries to the Turkish fan club, not subtracting them.

Yes, it's hard to sit idle while Assad kills fellow Sunnis. But guess what? Everyone else is doing it. Why should Turkey stand up and press for safe zones or military intervention without an Arab consensus? That might anger Iran, the Kurds, and even the Alevis, a minority sect in Turkey that feels persecuted by the Sunni majority. Better to play it safe and watch carefully. Maybe somebody else will take the lead and fix the problem.

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Iran and the Saudis

The new Arab-Iranian cold war has been on for some time now. The Syrian crisis has only made it worse. Led by the Saudis, the Sunnis are determined to do what they can to check what they see as rising Iranian and Shia power. I'm sure the Saudis blame the Americans for the Shia government that now sits in Baghdad and for Bahrain, where Washington pressed for reform of in the early days of the Arab Spring, seemingly inattentive to Saudi concerns.

Iraq may be lost, but the game in Syria is still on and the stakes are high. Turning the Shia-affiliated Alawi regime into a Sunni one that can be influenced would be a tremendous victory for the Gulf Arabs. It would weaken the Iranians and break the exaggerated but still very real threat of Shia encirclement -- Iran, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq. And that's why Riyadh is backing the rebels with money and arms and allowing individual Saudi clerics to sermonize about jihad and encourage non-Syrian foreign fighters to carry it out. This, of course has a potential downside. We saw the blowback in Afghanistan, where Saudi-inspired Wahhabi doctrine motivated a cadre of Arabs to fight first against the Russians and then against the West.

Tehran, on the other hand, is pushing back: propping up the Assads with concessionary oil, money, arms, and whatever the regime can contribute from its own large bag of repressive techniques. The Iranians may be out of touch on some issues, but it's hard to believe they don't sense that the bell is tolling for the Assads and for the four-decade-old strategic relationship with Syria. If and when Assad falls, Iran's window into Lebanon and the Arab-Israeli conflict is going to be much harder to keep open, particularly its key relationship with Hezbollah. But that doesn't mean Tehran is going to cooperate on keeping Syria quiet and stable. Indeed, the fear of Sunni encirclement will intensify, and Iran will want to meddle even more to keep the pot boiling (see: Iraq). Iran might even cling tighter to its nuclear program to enhance its leverage and own sense of security.

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The United States

The American agenda on Syria completes the circle. Sure, the president is outraged by Assad's brutality, and yes he'd like to do more. But bad options and electoral politics provide little incentive or leeway for heroics on Syria. The president is more focused on the perpetuation of the House of Obama than on the fall of the House of Assad. And rightly so. Americans are tired of costly military interventions, and the election is going to turn not on foreign policy but on the economy. And the Republicans can't find a way to make political hay from an Obama foreign policy that on balance has been smart and competent.

The only issues Americans care about abroad these days are terrorism and high gas prices. The president may pay for the latter but has been very tough on the former. Foreign policy will not help him in November, but a costly stumble abroad could hurt him. And the Syrian crisis offers plenty of opportunities for that. If the president acts, it will be cautiously and in the company of others.

Next month, there will be another Friends of Syria meeting. And most likely, there will be a lot of talk and some ratcheting up of the pressure on Assad, but little else. The only thing that could alter this passivity is a spike in the killing and violence that goes qualitatively beyond the horrors we've seen so far. A successful intervention would require a grand concert of powers all focused not just on ending the killing but on creating and nurturing a post-Assad Syria. Right now, the external players are too divided, too self-interested, and too committed to their own narrow concerns for that. Syria may be fixable, but certainly not on the cheap. And nobody's yet willing to pay the price.

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Reality Check

The Enemy in Foggy Bottom?

Fine, Secretary Romney is a bad idea. But there are plenty of good reasons that presidents should cross the aisle when picking a secretary of state.

"Secretary of state is not something you throw at the other party to show how bipartisan you are. The job is way more important than that. This is your representative to the world." –Senator Arnold Vinick to President-elect Matt Santos, The West Wing, Season 7

A couple of weeks ago, I proposed a howler of an idea in this space: If Barack Obama is lucky enough to be reelected, he should choose his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, as his secretary of state.

The idea wasn't serious; the point behind it was. For the first time in a quarter-century, the United States has a bipartisan -- even nonpartisan -- consensus on many of the core issues relating to the country's foreign policy. Briefly put, if you can get past the campaign rhetoric, there's not much difference between the candidates on Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, fighting terrorists, avoiding costly wars, the Arab Spring, and even, in the real world of imperfect options, how to deal with recalcitrant Russians and Chinese.

That consensus may prove to be pretty durable. But to give it real meaning, whoever is elected president ought to choose a secretary of state clearly and unmistakably identified with the opposing party.

The key variable for selection -- of course -- must be the right qualifications to do the job. But if there's a candidate from the other party who passes the experience and résumé test, President Obama or President Romney shouldn't hesitate to pull the trigger. It will be good for the country. Here's why.

The Bipartisan Illusion: Make It Real

It's curious, particularly given that America prides itself on a foreign policy driven by bipartisan -- even nonpartisan -- logic, that it has never had a president in the modern period who appointed a secretary of state from the opposing party. Back in the day, you might have argued that since the secretary of state was third in line to succeed the president (it's now fourth), you wouldn't want someone from the opposing party that close to the White House. Indeed, it rarely happened. In a bipartisan gesture, President Grover Cleveland  nominated Walter Quinten Gresham as secretary of state in 1893. Gresham, who ran for president in the Republican primaries in 1884 and 1888 served until his death in May 1895.

It leads you to the somewhat inescapable conclusion that there's clearly a good deal more myth than reality to the old saw about politics stopping at the water's edge. The Founding Fathers fought bitter battles over relations with Britain and France. Americans have been arguing about war and peace ever since, even while they have signed up to various contradictory principles about their special role in the world and their frequent desire to avoid getting involved in it ("monsters to destroy" and all that).

Let's not forget Republican attacks on Bill Clinton's foreign policies -- "rudderless and illusory," as Bob Dole charged on almost every key issue from North Korea to Somalia -- nor the polarized climate in which George W. Bush pursued his. Before we get carried away on a wave of bipartisan togetherness, let's consider the fact that the United States has had just six secretaries of state successfully seek the presidency -- Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, and James Buchanan -- and a number of others who tried unsuccessfully. (I suspect the country may have a seventh before the decade is over.)

Yet, the position of America's top diplomat is curiously perceived to be bipartisan. Indeed, the public attaches great prestige to the office and image of the secretary of state and sees the job somehow as above the political fray. Both Colin Powell and Hillary Clinton were and are immensely popular, often more so than their respective bosses, partly because of this image. And the half-life of former secretaries of state -- as opposed to other cabinet officials, who fade very quickly -- is a prolonged one. The country's top diplomats tend to do very well after their time at Foggy Bottom, emerging as highly visible public figures who author bestselling books, write op-eds, urge bipartisanship, cooperation, and comity, and generally offer wise counsel in the conduct of the country's affairs.

Still, the selection process has remained hostage to party politics. This is self-defeating because it denies the president access to a greater talent pool and misses an opportunity to show greater resolve and unity to friends and enemies abroad. The time has come to make the image of a bipartisan foreign policy accord with the reality. Americans have been breaking plenty of tough taboos lately and crossing important lines in their politics relating to gender and race; why should the partisanship barrier not be broken too? There are plenty of precedents at the cabinet level for presidents reaching across the aisle: John F. Kennedy made Douglas Dillon his treasury secretary; Richard Nixon made John Connally his in 1971. Bill Clinton appointed William Cohen as his defense secretary, and Obama looked to Robert Gates to continue on as his.

Expand the Pool

Going across the aisle to find the country's top diplomat shouldn't be driven by the Mount Everest principle -- climb it because it's there. There are practical reasons for breaking the partisan ceiling.

This is one tough job. It requires judgment, political skill, leadership, managerial talent, negotiating chops, and a close relationship with the president. The latter shouldn't exclude potentially well-qualified candidates who are not necessarily of the same party. Presidents have entrusted the country's economy and defense to members of the opposing party. Why not foreign policy? If Obama put his erstwhile presidential rival in the job after a tough campaign, another president could certainly place a former senator, an experienced public servant, or a qualified public intellectual in the job just as easily. The United States hasn't had that many great secretaries of state; we can use all the help we can get in expanding the pool of possible candidates. It's just logical: Looking at a longer list of options gives you a better chance of picking the best one.

More Unum and Less Pluribus

One of the saddest, most destructive trends in America today is the loss of faith in government institutions and the increasing relish with which politicians and the 24/7, in-your-face media accentuate what divides rather than what unites Americans. The polls now have Congress's approval rating in the single digits. And the public's faith in the ability of government to do the right thing has also plummeted in general: Fifty-seven percent of Americans now have little or no confidence in the federal government's ability to solve domestic problems.

Autumn Brewington, the Washington Post's op-ed editor, even wondered last week in a column whether a queen might help: "Someone who, like a living Statue of Liberty, symbolizes the nation and represents not one ideology but the American people." (I actually thought that was supposed to be the president; how silly of me.)

Ironically, this downward trend, particularly the credibility gap and mistrust of government, began in the late 1960s and early 1970s with the conduct of foreign policy toward Southeast Asia by both Democratic and Republican administrations and the deception, lies, and coverups that accompanied it. And while these days the popular perception of government has more to do with incompetence than conspiracy, the country could use a restoration of trust and some unity all the same. Why not bring the process full circle by using foreign policy to restore rather than undermine confidence in government?

The fact is, Americans are deeply divided on some critically important domestic issues -- debt, deficit, the role of government. Those divisions aren't going away anytime soon. At the same time, there's an emerging consensus in U.S. foreign policy that's smart, functional, and welcome. We should build on it.

I don't want to idealize bipartisanship. Both its frequency and utility have long been overestimated in America's history and politics. But the country really could use a shot of togetherness these days, and not just in the wake of some horrible national trauma and tragedy. Identifying a political rival from the opposing party to lead the country abroad is something the president actually has the capacity to do without passing a law or breaking some venerable tradition. Indeed, with foreign policy figuring less centrally in the election campaign, it ought to be easier to go bipartisan.

By tradition, the secretary of state is regarded as the cabinet's highest-ranking officer, the third highest-ranking official behind the president and vice president in the executive branch, and by law fourth in the line of presidential succession after the vice president, speaker of the House, and president pro tempore of the Senate if the president dies or is incapacitated. There would be no better symbol of a functioning, unified bipartisan approach and spirit if the next president reached across the aisle to choose the next secretary of state. It would send a powerful signal to America's friends and enemies abroad -- and to Americans at home -- that U.S. politics and policies actually have some coherence and unity and are more than just a partisan free-for-all.

Sadly, I suspect even this idea is too much for America's politics and system. Some will argue that it won't make a damn bit of difference; others that a president needs people he can truly trust and positions to reward allies and loyalists. Some might even argue that the tension between parties on foreign policy is healthy. None of this convinces me. We have a major problem in the United States: too much pluribus and not enough unum in our politics. And somehow, we need to address it. A bipartisan choice in Foggy Bottom would be as good a place as any to start.

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