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The Time for Action

The Obama administration has backed itself into a corner in Syria, a crisis with few good options. But the endgame is clear, at least, and the time to get involved has come.

From the time that the peaceful protests in Syria turned into an armed uprising, it has been reasonable to argue that any imaginable outside intervention would do as much harm as good. I have made that argument myself. But the situation on the ground has changed, and so the calculus of outsiders must change as well. U.S. President Barack Obama's administration should accept that the only desirable outcome in Syria is a victory by the rebels and should work much more actively than it has both to hasten the day of that victory and to avoid the terrible settling of accounts that might well accompany such an outcome.

It is true that Syrian forces have committed terrible atrocities in recent weeks, both in the house-to-house killings in the Damascus suburb of Daraya and in aerial bombardments of civilians waiting in bread lines in the northern city of Aleppo, which have been documented in an appalling video recently posted by Human Rights Watch. But the moral case for intervention became incontrovertible many thousands of deaths ago. What has changed is the practical case.

Many people who supported the intervention in Libya, including officials in the White House, have opposed comparable action in Syria out of concern that escalating hostilities could turn an insurgency into a full-blown civil war, inflaming sectarian hatred and threatening neighbors with massive refugee flows and ethnic and religious tension. But almost all those things have come to pass simply as a result of the demons Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has unleashed.

The war has already escalated to previously unimaginable levels. The Syrian regime is now engaging in the strategy of counterinsurgency-by-atrocity used so effectively by Sudan against the people of its south and Darfur -- intentionally killing large numbers of civilians in order to shatter the opposition's will. Assad has sown the seeds of sectarian hatred by unleashing largely Alawite forces against Sunni civilians, in turn making Syria into a new crusade for Sunni extremists, many of them crossing the border from Iraq. And he has exported the conflict beyond Syria's borders, with Sunnis and Alawites facing off in the streets of Tripoli, Lebanon's second-largest city. The greatest danger to Syria and the region now comes from allowing Syria's civil war to continue unabated.

If the calculus of potential harm has changed, so too has the calculus of potential good. A no-fly zone would have done nothing to stop the thugs and soldiers who carried out the massacres in Daraya. The regime, however, doesn't have enough troops to repress the rebellion everywhere at once. Assad has been deploying helicopters and jets in Aleppo, Idlib, and elsewhere in the north not only to terrorize civilians but to prevent the rebels from establishing control over a large swath of territory, as the Libyan opposition did in Benghazi. The rebels have begun to shoot down a few of the government's helicopters and jets, but Assad is still counting on aerial terror to subdue the region. A no-fly zone might not stop the killing, but it could give the rebels the foothold they desperately need.

And unlike in Libya, where it was clear from the outset that NATO planes would have to take on Muammar al-Qaddafi's tanks and armored personnel carriers, a no-fly zone extending perhaps 75 miles south of the Syria-Turkey border could turn the tide in Syria.

A no-fly zone now makes sense. Perhaps if the Libya intervention had never happened, Western and regional powers might be prepared to take on such a task. But Libya exhausted NATO's resources and outraged Russia, China, and other countries that said they had voted only for a more modest no-fly zone. Russia and China will see to it that the U.N. Security Council never approves a resolution authorizing such an attack. And there is little evidence that any of the likely participants in a new effort -- the United States, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia -- have any appetite for ambitious military action in Syria, especially absent U.N. approval.

Turkey's foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, has asked the United Nations to establish a safe haven, but the Turks know perfectly well that Russia and China would veto such a resolution. The Turks, who are deeply worried about the destabilizing effect of the massive influx of Syrian refugees, now thought to number over 250,000, could establish a safe haven on their own, but apparently have no intention of doing so. While in Turkey in mid-August, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the United States and Turkey were setting up a working group to study a no-fly zone and other options. But one U.S. intelligence official with whom I spoke said that no serious military planning for a no-fly zone was currently under way.

Administration officials say that they cannot act without Turkey, but complain that Turkish political and diplomatic leaders barely speak to the Turkish military, which has shown no interest in military action. That may be true, but U.S. officials seem all too happy to use Turkey the way Turkey uses the U.N.: to avoid blame for failing to take action. With the U.S. president trying to get reelected by a public that is paying as little attention as it can to the world beyond America's borders, the White House does not want to be dragged into a foreign campaign that could turn ugly. Indeed, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland immediately rejected Davutoglu's safe-haven plea, saying that the United States wants to help the refugees get to Turkey, not protect them inside Syria.

One administration official said to me that because the rebels are now winning, outside intervention has become unnecessary. But that, too, sounds like a mighty convenient excuse for inaction. Assad may eventually lose his battle with the rebels, but many more thousands of Syrians are likely to die before he does, and an already poisonous atmosphere will become yet more lethal. Because it is now beyond obvious that Assad will leave only if he fears death or imminent defeat, the end must come with a rebel victory. And if the United States wants the rebels to win, then it should be doing everything it can to help them win -- and win in a way that prevents a post-Assad Syria from degenerating into Iraq. Nor do you have to be John McCain to believe that the United States needs to range itself on the right side of history.

Is there an alternative? The obvious one is to give the rebels the military equipment they have been begging for. Until now, the Obama administration has provided only nonlethal equipment, mostly communications gear. But according to the New York Times, U.S. officials have granted an export license to a Syrian émigré group seeking to funnel weapons to the rebels. Why then should Washington not do directly what it is now prepared to do indirectly? One former U.S. government official with extensive experience in Syria suggests an alternative: "Just earmark $50 [million] or $100 million in covert assistance, and have agency guys walking around with bags of money."

Of course, that conjures up memories of Afghanistan in the 1980s, when the CIA supplied anti-Soviet jihadists with Stinger missiles that ultimately fell into the hands of al Qaeda. That's not an encouraging precedent. But CIA officials are reported to be on the ground in Syria and in Turkey helping to direct assistance to rebel commanders whom the United States believes it can work with. That assistance has been grossly inadequate, in part because Saudi Arabia and Qatar have not been supplying arms as promised. The rebels have been forced again and again to break off battles they might otherwise win for lack of ammunition and firepower. With anti-aircraft capability, the rebels could create a safe haven on their own. With anti-tank missiles, they night quickly turn the tide in other disputed areas.

The United States has a profound interest not only in bringing the slaughter in Syria to an end, but in having a meaningful presence on the ground when that happens -- as it did in Libya thanks to the NATO air campaign. It will not be easy, under any circumstances, to prevent Syria from collapsing into religious and ethnic enclaves, or into a war of all against all. But if Washington remains on the sidelines, as it has until now, it will have little influence with those who will ultimately prevail, and thus little ability to help shape the post-Assad landscape.

Obama might decide to postpone the decision until after the election, but that would be an act of consummate cynicism. He should act now, before it's too late.

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Terms of Engagement

Get on This Train

When will Americans realize we're losing the infrastructure race to China?

I have never felt so utterly like a remnant of history as I did when I opened FP's special report on "The 75 Most Dynamic Cities" of 2025. Of the first six cities on the list, five are Chinese. New York is seventh, and Los Angeles twelfth. London clocks in at 21, and Paris at 26. As decisively as the United States passed Europe after World War II, so China will have passed the United States a decade or so from now.

The list, compiled by the McKinsey Global Institute, ranks growth, of course, not absolute position. Tokyo, with its giant metropolitan area, will still generate the most wealth of any city in the world by 2025, and New York will still rank second. But what is striking, and unnerving, is that McKinsey ranks cities not by growth rate but by the absolute difference between its GDP in 2010 and its projected GDP in 2025. On growth rate alone, Chinese cities would occupy 23 of the top 25 slots, with the Indian cities of Delhi and Bangalore rounding out the list. But even though New York's economy is eight times larger than that of Shenzhen, the Chinese metropolis will be growing more in absolute terms than New York by 2025. By 2030, Shanghai and Beijing will be bigger than New York in absolute terms.

They will not, of course, necessarily be better. The ranking is accompanied by articles in FP noting the gross failure of urban planning in China, the mega-traffic jams and pollution, and of course the stifling effect of an authoritarian state. But the new Chinese cities will be more effective than Western ones at generating wealth, as well as at the basic urban business of moving people rapidly, cleanly, and safely from here to there. And they will be new! By contrast, New York and Los Angeles and Chicago, which always felt new compared to European capitals -- not just more recent, but more open to renewal -- will be part of the New Old World.

I don't feel any more ready for this moment of relegation than the average Londoner was in 1950, watching the empire drop away piece by piece. Less so, really, because Britain had already been exhausted by the war, while the United States still leads the world in everything important -- GDP, weapons, action-adventure movies, Olympic gold medals. It seems so ... unfair.

And I don't know China. I have never been to China. Suddenly that admission sounds shameful: I have never seen the future. What I know is the past. India, the developing country where I have spent the most time, inhabited a timeless world when I first started going there in 1976 -- folkloric and shambling and apparently irremediable. That's no longer true, of course. The New Delhi I first knew was the elegant colonial city of British architect Sir Edwin Lutyens; today's Delhi has metastasized in all directions. This is, all in all, a great thing. But Delhi does not threaten to eclipse New York or Paris. As an urban machine, it's not very effective. Delhi's GDP in 2010 was less than one-fifth of Shanghai's.

If I have to be eclipsed by somebody, I would like it to be India. It is a democracy and, almost miraculously, it has held together as a nation despite what Indians like to call "fissiparous tendencies" -- cleavages of language, religion, ethnicity. Perhaps I could live with being eclipsed by "the emerging world" collectively.

But it is not to be: In a separate report, McKinsey estimates that the 440 largest cities in the emerging world will generate half of global GDP growth between now and 2025. And of those cities, slightly more than half will be in China. China is expected to contribute 40 percent of the world's growth in urban GDP between 2010 and 2025. So we should just be honest and say, "China is eclipsing the West."

Of course, the projections, and thus the Spenglerian hand-wringing, could prove wrong if China's economy stopped defying the laws of gravity. China's growth has been investment-driven rather than consumer-driven, as in much of the West. That investment, above all, takes the form of the astonishing building and infrastructure projects that have propelled the growth of China's cities -- bullet trains, highways, ports, and giant manufacturing complexes. Local governments issue the debt for these projects, which now stands at a stupefying 10.7 trillion yuan ($1.58 trillion). The city of Tianjin -- number three on the McKinsey list, behind Shanghai and Beijing -- recently announced plans to invest another $236 billion in industrial development over the next four years. If enough of these speculative investments fail, city and regional governments could face unsustainable debt. A recent Economist article, however, argues that those debts have never endangered "the fiscal position of the country as a whole." The claim that China's economy is a house of cards may be an elaborate form of wish fulfillment.

China's urban model is powerful but brutal, like China itself. Cities like Shanghai have bulldozed their past on the way to a glittering future. It's not a model to be emulated, at least in the West: Urbanites, at least in the Old World and New Old World, want to live both on the cutting edge and in the past, and great cities like New York and London and Paris let them do so. But that doesn't mean we can't learn from China.

I cannot read about China's bullet trains and super-modern airports, or the "traffic-jumping bus" described in FP, without feeling mortified by New York's absurdly cumbersome "train to the plane," or the decades of stop-and-start planning that preceded the Second Avenue subway line now under construction. Democracies, of course, cannot sweep away local opposition to infrastructure projects as autocracies can. But as Harvard scholar Edward Glaeser asserts in Triumph Of the City, preservationism -- whether in Manhattan or Paris -- can be an asphyxiating ideology.

But local opposition is not the greatest obstacle to infrastructure development in the United States -- money is. A recent report by America 2050, an advocacy group promoting strategic investments in America's physical plant, notes that after almost two centuries of investment in canals, railroads, ports and highways, U.S. spending on infrastructure has dropped to 2.4 percent of GDP, compared to 4.6 percent in India and 9 percent in China. "No national strategy exists," the authors write, "to build and manage the infrastructure systems needed to sustain inclusive economic growth and our competitive position in the global economy."

Right now, there is zero prospect of significantly raising infrastructure spending. As part of the 2009 stimulus package, Congress authorized $10.1 billion for the U.S. High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program, which would provide grants to states seeking to enhance existing passenger rail service and build new dedicated high-speed railways.  Very few states succeeded in securing grants to develop high-speed trains before Congress eliminated funding for the program in 2011. And that was under President Barack Obama. The long-term budget proposed by Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney's running mate, would halve discretionary spending as a fraction of GDP over the next decade. The document, known as "The Path to Prosperity," was endorsed by the House of Representatives -- and it does not mention the word "infrastructure." Ryan appears to believe that the private market will supply public transportation, sewer systems and power grids, and repairs bridges and roadways.

Perhaps even more dangerous than the Republican idée fixe over government spending is the chest-thumping braggadocio that insists the United States is the greatest nation the world has ever seen, and has nothing to learn from anyone. When will we wake up? Only, I imagine, when it too late to do much about our plight.

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