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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