On Syria, dozens of people explicitly said that the United States (not the Arab League, Gulf states, or the European Union) bore direct responsibility for the suffering of civilians caught in the civil war. This blame was framed with versions of the same question: "If Libya, why not Syria?" Nine days into the Libya intervention, deputy national security adviser Denis McDonough famously observed: "We don't get very hung up on this question of precedent. Because we don't make decisions about questions like intervention based on consistency or precedent. We make them based on how we can best advance our interests in the region."
When I attempted to translate the Obama administration's careful and deliberate decision-making over Libya, it was dismissed as a hypocritical excuse for inaction. Moreover, President Obama's only "red line" on Syria -- "a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people" -- was perceived as self-serving and irrelevant to the needs of the Syrian people. In the words of an Arab-language media executive: "All Obama cares about in Syria is WMD, WMD, WMD. To us, this sounds just like Bush in Iraq."
When pressed for specifics on what exactly President Obama should do with regards to Syria, absolutely no one thought the United States should intervene militarily, including via no-fly zones or safe zones. Allegedly, the United States should work with the UN Security Council, (despite the failed efforts to do just that over the past 18 months) to endorse an UN-sponsored mediation effort -- exactly what long-time diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi is doing today. If this route failed (as it is), then the proposed "Plan B" was a UN Security Council resolution authorizing a limited military intervention to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian services, but not to support the armed opposition. A former foreign minister said that President Obama could compel Moscow and Beijing to change their votes on such a resolution "if he wanted."
Finally, nearly everyone raised the issue of the U.S. use of drones to conduct targeted killings. The bad news -- from the perspective of the Obama administration -- was that even those with a general understanding of U.S. drone strikes were not aware of their corresponding justifications by American officials. When I would describe the (rhetorical) justifications, many were surprised that the United States had made any public defense of drone strikes. Roughly half the people accepted that the United States needs to use drones, but virtually everyone believed that it is impossible to discriminate between militants and civilians. In short, the narrative that U.S. drone strikes cause civilian casualties was much more pervasive than the rationale for targeted killings. In addition, no one was aware that the United States received either the explicit (in the cases of Yemen and Somalia) or tacit (Pakistan) consent of the governments where the attacks occurred. It was widely assumed that the United States acted as an aggressor state without any permission.
Beyond the impact that drone strikes have on perception of the United States, I was struck to learn that targeted killings are the lens through which many view all counterterrorism activities. The very word "counterterrorism" was derided as an excuse for the West and tyrannical rulers (most notably Bashar al-Assad) to use violence against legitimate political protesters. Several military and intelligence officials hoped that President Obama would transition to treating terrorism as more of a law enforcement issue, rather than hewing to what many viewed as a drone-first, ask-questions-later strategy. That said, these same people acknowledged that they hoped to expand their own drone fleets, if only they had the money to do so.
The overarching theme was that the previous, longstanding U.S. strategy of achieving its national interests in the Middle East via bilateral relations with authoritarian rulers has been rendered obsolete. The Arab uprisings, specifically their demands for social and political justice, demonstrated the need for U.S. policymakers to take into account (and not just rhetorically) the aspirations of the majority of the people. If the United States hopes to secure its enduring interests -- assuring reliable energy supplies, countering the rise of regional hegemons, sustaining a close relationship with Israel, and facilitating an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement -- it must make this strategic shift. But few thought that it would.