No Dog in This Fight

Why Obama is playing it smart on Syria.

As Syria heats up, one guy is playing it cool. U.S. President Barack Obama may be up all night worrying about matters closer to home -- like his poll numbers -- but he's not losing sleep over what to do about Syria or Iran. He knows exactly what his priorities are.

Right now, the president is rightly concerned much less about the fall of the House of Assad and much more about the survival of the House of America, which he equates with his own re-election, or to put it more succinctly, the perpetuation of the House of Obama.

If there is any doubt, just look at the outcome of Kofi Annan's contact group meeting in Geneva this weekend. The Americans backed a highly questionable plan for a political transition in Syria that, to placate the Russians, failed to even mention Bashar al-Assad's removal. Obama just wants the situation in Syria to go away. With the options at his disposal, can you blame him?  

Unless forced by some spate of violence that qualitatively and quantitatively exceeds the horrors so far (a Syrian Srebrenica?), Obama will try to avoid risky, ill-considered military ventures or half measures on both Syria and Iran that would likely to lead to war that could prove even more detrimental to his re-election efforts than inaction. But he's not just thinking about November: However painful, this is one of those moments when politics and the right policy instincts actually coincide.

Governing is about choosing, and Syria is the poster child for tough choices. So far, Obama has made the right ones. In a conflict that pits a still-powerful regime against an opposition that is growing stronger but still lacks the resources and power to overthrow the Assads, there are no good options. Too much blood has flowed for neatly packaged diplomacy, and military options -- arming the opposition, safe zones, air strikes -- are risky and really don't answer the mail on what to do after the Assads depart. Who or what will provide the thousands of peacekeepers and billions required to preserve order and rebuild the country in an environment where Sunnis and Alawis alike will be looking for retribution?

The moral and strategic arguments for a more muscular U.S. role may be compelling. The killing goes on day after day and America watches. Bosnia redux? Syria is truly important; it is not Libya. Its unique geopolitical location -- with Lebanon, Israel, Iraq, and Turkey as neighbors and Big Daddy Iran just over the horizon -- make its future of critical importance.

Still, for an American president, there are other considerations that need to be weighed -- factors that speak to Obama's politics, the November election, and the mood of the country he is responsible for governing.

Diplomats, scholars, even politicians (usually of the opposing party) sometimes question the legitimacy of domestic politics, which they consider crude and cheap, particularly when moral or humanitarian issues are involved. Presidents don't have that luxury. An individual may well have the moral imperative to act in the face of evil and wrongdoing; a leader of a country may well too. But he or she has additional responsibilities to consider, which involve the country as a whole and his or her own political future, which -- let's face it -- is often conflated with the nation's interest.

On both Syria and Iran, Obama -- much to the dismay of both the liberal interventionists and the neocons -- will try to dance the multilateral tango (always act with others); avoid military action (who knows where it might lead?); and make sure others take the lead in any rebuilding efforts (we don't need to own another Muslim country). And yes, America's image abroad -- along with that of just about every other member of the international community -- will suffer as a result of continued inaction. But this president has more important priorities and constituencies.

Here's a politically incorrect guide to the president's thinking on Iran and Syria between now and November.

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The Hero of Detroit, Not Damascus

Most Americans don't even know where Syria is.  I'm not trying to demean my fellow countrymen, only to highlight a fundamental truth these days.

After watching the two longest wars in American history  -- with 6,000 dead and counting and more than a trillion spent and counting, not to mention the thousands of troops grievously wounded and the loss of credibility, Americans want the focus to be on fixing their own broken house, not repairing somebody else's.

The public, poll after poll suggests, doesn't want to withdraw from the world, but does want to be smarter about how the United States operates abroad, and wants above all to concentrate more on domestic priorities. And that goes for both donkeys and elephants: A recent Pew poll on partisan polarization suggests that 83 percent agree we should pay less attention to problems overseas and concentrate on problems here at home -- the highest percentage expressing this view since 1994.

Despite his own initial "I am and can change the world" reveries, the president has known that from the get-go. And his policies so far have been pretty competent and smart in that regard: an early departure from Iraq, a responsible exit from Afghanistan, great caution on Libya, Iran, and Syria.

He knows from his predecessor that there's very little glory or political hay to be made in the Middle East. And he knows from his predecessor's father that there's much to be lost even in the winning. Remember: Bush 41 won a big battle against Saddam but lost the war at home because he wasn't in tune with the economic travails of ordinary Americans. This president is not going to make that mistake.


Foreign Policy Adventures: No Upsides...

Rarely has foreign policy -- outside of rising oil prices and terror attacks -- been less relevant to American voters. It figures almost not at all in a campaign focused on unemployment, disposable income, and mortgage woes. Republicans are having a hard time finding vulnerabilities in the Obama's foreign policies, I've argued elsewhere, and a consensus has emerged between the two candidates on some of the core foreign-policy issues.

What this means in practical terms is that success abroad -- even spectacular success -- won't mean much in election currency. As long as the administration doesn't allow the Republicans to outflank it on the one foreign issue Americans do care about -- fighting terror -- there's not much upside to risking military action or a big peace initiative that could be messy, costly, and worst of all seen as a failure. In political terms, Obama's Middle East policy has been pretty successful -- killing Osama bin Laden and whacking al Qaeda operatives from one end of the planet to the other, getting out of Iraq, and taking out Muammar al-Qaddafi without owning a mess in Libya. Other issues -- Israeli-Palestinian peace or the Arab spring turned winter -- really don't matter much in terms of the election, unless of course the president stumbles.


...But Plenty of Downsides

And that -- together with bad options on Iran and Syria -- is the source of the Obama's caution. I've never really understood the notion of the "October surprise" -- not in the world of foreign policy this president inhabits. The idea that any president would want to willfully plunge ahead into the broken, angry, dysfunctional Middle East looking for opportunities and glory to help him win re-election is an idea reserved for the conspiratorial and the interminably obtuse.

You can divide the Middle East Obama confronts in two: migraine headaches and root canals. There are no opportunities, only risks and dangers. And the president is resolved to avoid them for now, or at least minimize them.

On Iran, it's clear he and the mullahs share a common objective: avoid an Israeli attack anytime soon. A unilateral Israeli strike would inject tremendous uncertainty into the global economy, roil markets, raise oil and gas prices, and retard an already weak recovery. It could draw America into another Middle East quagmire. If things went badly, the Republicans would start hammering the president for not dealing with Israel's Iranian concerns earlier and charge weakness and incompetence.

The notion that Obama is more prepared to go to war with Iran because it's an election year and he must satisfy the pro-Israeli community or an Israeli prime minister is nonsense, given where the electorate is. At the same time, Obama isn't in much of a position to make concessions on the nuclear issue, either, because he knows he'll get hit with the appeasement charge faster than you can say the word "enrichment."

It's the fear of war, not the desire for one, that's driving the president, and this is very much related to his re-election. A war with the mullahs and the Revolutionary Guards is the last thing Obama wants or needs now. It's much safer to keep the nuclear talks limping along and get through November without a crisis.

Syria is in many ways worse because of the killing and the costs to stop it. The Russians are blocking more meaningful collective action; the U.S. military has warned that intervention would be much more complex than Libya. There isn't even a good policy-by-committee option, as there was in dealing with Qaddafi. Syria's just too complicated for that.

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Romney Can't Hurt Obama on Syria or Iran

Still, there are no domestic pressures to intervene. Sen. John Kerry has urged a more muscular approach, as have Mitt Romney and John McCain. But none of this interventionist pressure has gained much traction. That's because nobody has a clue how to get rid of the Assads, let alone create a political transition to something better and stable. Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel has called for trying Assad in The Hague; the neocons and liberal interventionists talk about safe zones and arming the rebels. But I'm not sure they really believe in it. Despite an effort on the part of some to make Syria the fulcrum of Western civilization (weaken Iran, avoid regional war, etc.) these arguments aren't taking, as there's just no stomach or heart for another U.S.-led intervention. The Republicans have no better ideas on Syria or Iran than the president does, and all the militant rhetoric sounds hollow.

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But Hillary May be More Vulnerable

In little more than six months, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be a private citizen. During this period, if the Syrian situation worsens and America is seen to be watching from the sidelines, her own legacy as secretary cannot help but be tarnished. It is neither fair nor right -- Obama is in charge of Syria strategy. But he will have other opportunities to craft a foreign-policy legacy. As the point person on the Syria issue, she won't. And the last thing the Clinton legacy needs is another Rwanda.

In the end, this is not about individuals. Syria is not Barack Obama's or America's singular responsibility, nor is it America's primary fight. Unless pushed by a bloodbath on a massive scale, the president will act cautiously and always in the company of others. When it comes to Damascus (and Tehran too), he'll prefer pressure, process, multilateralism, and talking over shooting and risky unilateral intervention. It's not pretty and it's hard to watch. But it's not only necessary politics, it's in the national interest right now too.

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Reality Check


Why the world doesn't have real leaders anymore.

A couple years back, I gave a talk at Princeton on the indispensable role leaders play in successful Arab-Israeli negotiations.

A very smart professor from Turkey dismissed my argument as "reductionist," and wondered how I could have missed the broader societal and political forces responsible for success and failure. I simply responded that whatever her views on these matters, she herself hailed from a land in which one guy had fundamentally changed the entire direction of her country's modern history. We left it at that.

Shoot me if you want, but I'm a sucker for the great man (and woman) theory of history. Yes, broad social, political, economic, and cultural structural forces shape and constrain what leaders can do. And yes, Marx was right: People make history; but rarely as they please. Indeed, we have a cartoonish view of leadership in which presidents or prime ministers articulate a vision and then through sheer will persuade us to buy it. That's not how it really works. Instead, a leader more often than not intuits and exploits an opportunity when the times or circumstances offer it up.

Still, individuals count -- big time. For my money, it's human agency -- certainly in matters of war, peace, and nation building -- that is responsible for pushing societies toward the abyss or rescuing them from it. Wherever you stand on this issue, scholar John Keegan's stunning assertion that the history of much of the twentieth century is the story of six men (Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Churchill, Roosevelt, and Mao) simply can't be ignored.

So here we are in the second decade of the twenty-first century, a full eight decades after this bunch tried either to take over the world or save it. Where are the big, bold, ballsy leaders? Plenty of very bad guys have come and gone -- Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic -- and some larger-than-life good ones like Charles De Gaulle, Konrad Adenauer, Anwar Sadat, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Nelson Mandela. But by and large, today we face a leadership deficit of global proportions. Some might even say we're rudderless.

One hundred and ninety-three countries are represented at the United Nations, among them more than 80-plus democracies. Is there one leader of any of them whom we could honestly describe as great, heroic, inspirational, transformational -- the author of some incomparable and unparalleled achievement at home or on the world stage likely to be seen or remembered for the ages? There are courageous dissidents in China, and Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi is indeed inspiring. But empowered leaders governing countries and directing change are harder to identify. Maybe we've entered the post-heroic era: tiny steps for tiny feet. And maybe that's not necessarily a bad thing. 

But a look around makes you wonder about the quality and effectiveness of those leaders we do have. Forget the return of the greats we miss and the bad ones we don't want back. Do today's leaders have what it takes to deal with the problems and challenges at hand?

Start with the world's greatest nations -- the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. You might expect great leaders from great powers. But you don't see much greatness in the individuals who lead them: Barack Obama, David Cameron, François Hollande, Hu Jintao, and Vladimir Putin.

Instead, what you have is a bunch of talented, well-spoken guys facing a variety of economic and political challenges they cannot possibly overcome. At best, if they're lucky, they can be successful transactional leaders -- fixing a problem here and there, managing a crisis, or coping with one.

But transformational leaders who leave legacies that fundamentally alter their nation's trajectories? Not likely. Among them, Putin may actually prove to the most successful given his control and his objectives, but even this is no longer certain because of the generational divide he confronts, with so many younger Russians seeking change.

What about those consequential powers outside of the Perm Five -- Germany, India, Brazil? Surely there have got to be effective leaders here.

Angela Merkel is resilient, politically skilled. She's a survivor in German politics, but has been roundly criticized for failing to show leadership on broader European issues, particularly the eurozone crisis. And by all accounts, she won't make it into the Konrad Adenauer, Willy Brandt, and Helmut Kohl category. India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh may also be a skilled politician and technocrat who was once popular, but he's now too entangled in political intrigue and charges of corruption to join the ranks of Nehru and Gandhi. Brazil offered up an intriguing candidate in former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, but, well, he's not in power anymore.

What about finding consequential leaders in the Arab and Muslim world? The Arab dictators whom we knew and never loved -- Saddam, the Assads, Qaddafi -- were and are brutal and extractive figures, taking so much more than they ever gave to their people. The next rung down weren't quite as bad -- Mubarak, Ben Ali, Abdullah Saleh -- but clearly better for the United States' interests than for their own peoples'. With the passing of the Ben Gurions, Sadats, Begins, King Husseins, and Rabins, the Middle East has been in the age of politicians not statesmen for some time now. A younger generation of Israeli leaders -- Netanyahu, Barak, Olmert -- bears this out.

What about the Arab Spring? After all, revolutions and crises have in the past been inspired and directed, indeed even produced consequential leaders. It's way too early to draw conclusions, but the trend lines don't look all that encouraging. The Arab uprisings have been effectively leaderless. Egypt's presidential election produced a pretty grey Muslim Brotherhood leader who will be constrained severely by the military and by his own party even if he wants to be bold.

Beyond Egypt, matters only get worse. Libya, Syria, and Yemen will be struggling for years with the quest for legitimate, respected, accountable, and effective leaders. The Arab kings who survive (in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, and Qatar) are more enlightened, even respected; and in the case of Saudi King Abdullah, even beloved by many Saudis. But to call them great leaders strains the bounds of credulity to the breaking point. Their prospective successors don't inspire much confidence, either.

Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan is one of the few standouts. He's presided over an economic boom, increased Turkey's regional influence, and is trying -- fairly successfully -- to balance Islam, modernity, and democracy. But he does have some asterisks on human rights and press freedoms, as well as a personal penchant for inflating his own role and Turkey's without a lot of "there there."

I give up. What's going on here? Where have all the enlightened, wise, effective, charismatic leaders gone, not to mention the truly great ones? I recently briefed some military officers and asked them: Who was the last American figure you'd describe as great? Silence. When I offered up my candidate, Martin Luther King, Jr, one guy exclaimed: "But he died in 1968." Exactly, I replied. Next year we will have gone the longest stretch in our history without an undeniably great president -- Washington ... Lincoln ... FDR ... ?

I wouldn't presume to offer a comprehensive explanation as to why we have a leadership deficit on a global scale. There probably isn't one -- certainly not a one-size-fits-all answer. We tend to romanticize the performance of some of the great leaders of yore. The world's gotten a great deal more complicated over the years, and then again leaders can always appear at the most unexpected of times and in the most unusual circumstances.

So why don't we have great leaders anymore? I'd welcome some suggestions. But here are a few thoughts to get us started.

Greatness Is Rare: By definition, incomparable and unsurpassed achievement in any field or aspect of the human enterprise is rare. And it's rarer still in politics and governance. Unlike with great artists, musicians, or even athletes, politics has many moving parts. There's a dependence and contingency that complicates success at any level, let alone extraordinary achievement.

My definition of greatness encompasses a leader's overcoming some truly national crisis and trauma, converting that exigency into some transformational legacy in a way that alters the nation forever for the better, or breaking out in some new direction that isn't just successful but transformational, too. (See Mustafa Kemal's preservation of Turkey's sovereignty and national identity; Churchill's leadership during the dark, lonely days of 1940-1941; FDR's presidency from 1941-1945; Sadat's visit to Jerusalem; Kennedy's leadership during the Cuban missile crisis; or LBJ's after Kennedy's assassination and passage of historic civil rights legislation.)

Been There Done That: Nations pass through foundational trials and crises that generate their myths and narratives and provide opportunities for heroic action by their leaders. The successful nations never pass that way again because the founders and early leaders have already addressed the existential questions. As a result, later national leaders deal not with whether the nation will be, but instead what kind of country it will be. These challenges are no less important, but they're more systemic and in many ways more complex. Big accomplishments like creating a democratic nation, saving it from its enemies, preserving a union, or guiding it through economic catastrophe lend themselves to bold words and deeds if the right leader is up to it. And the nation and the political system is more apt to follow.

Media Makes Ordinary: De Gaulle used to say that leadership and authority demands a certain amount of mystique. That's hard to do in today's 24/7, we-see-everything media world. In highly centralized leadership structures -- China, North Korea, even Russia -- that's possible. But no longer in democracies. Nicholas Sarkozy is caught blasting Bibi Netanyahu on an open mic; Reagan is caught dozing; Bush 43 mangling the English language; Bill Clinton and the blue dress. Had the media that covers American presidents today been around back then, the likes of FDR, Churchill, and Kennedy would surely have been taken down a notch or two.

When the media isn't intruding and exposing vulnerabilities, it's functioning as a challenge to leaders and regimes alike. Social media's role in the Arab Spring may be overstated, but it gives to ordinary people -- not to mention activists -- a new power to organize, mobilize, and communicate. And this can't help but trivialize and undermine any hope of the kind of distance and detachment that's required to maintain authority -- even dignity. This whole process serves to bring leaders down a level and even them out with their publics. Last year, President Obama held the first-ever presidential Twitter conference. Smart politics, maybe, but somehow using the word "Twitter" -- with its 140-character form of communication -- in the same sentence with an American president seems somehow ... well, not very presidential.

It's Just Too Complicated: The world's smaller and more connected, and the challenges of the modern era make governing -- let alone good or great governance -- much harder. Even monumental challenges such as the U.S. civil war were essentially limited to one continent. (Clearly, the world wars were exceptions, though the dire nature of the threats focused the minds of the democracies in ways no other events have since.) Now, a leader's political viability and the country's economic health is linked to global events beyond his or her control, be it debt in Greece or a currency meltdown in Thailand. A country's security -- even while protected by two oceans and massive conventional and unconventional military power -- can be rocked by transnational terror.

The nature of the problems that need to be addressed, particularly in a democracy, are systemic and require solutions driven by process and compromise. America's five deadly Ds -- dysfunctional politics; debt; deficit; dependence on hydrocarbons, and decaying infrastructure -- are slow bleeds that demand a political consensus seemingly beyond the control of a single leader.

Still, look on the bright side. Clearly, the fewer caudillos, Dear Leaders, and supreme ayatollahs there are, the better. And perhaps even the passing of the great democratic heroes will be good, too. Nations, the experts tell us, fail primarily because they lack inclusive institutions. I'd trade a few great men for some of those, particularly in the Arab world. The idea of the great leader also tends to infantilize the public and create an expectation that people are waiting to be rescued. And who knows -- maybe if we stop yearning for the ONE, we'll start taking our own civic responsibilities more seriously.

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