National Security

Neocons vs. Realists Is So 2008

Your guide to the new foreign policy divide.

President Obama may not say so explicitly in his State of the Union address, but his administration's foreign policy is poised to shift significantly in his second term. The shift is the result of an ongoing debate between two camps that I call "restrainers" and "shapers." Restrainers and shapers sharply disagree about the threats to the United States and this leads to very different views about how to engage the world -- and it may well lead to a division within the Democratic Party.

Restrainers see a crumbling infrastructure, the budget deficit, a subpar education system, and a sluggish economy as much more threatening than events elsewhere in the world. Democrats of this stripe call for "nation-building at home," to use President Obama's phrase, and want to prioritize these tasks at the expense of international commitments, which they see as a drain or a distraction. Republicans have their restrainers too. They eschew the notion of an activist government but also want to concentrate on the domestic tasks of reducing the deficit and restoring growth.

The shapers have a starkly different view. They agree that domestic challenges are important -- and should be the subject of a strong domestic policy agenda -- but they don't believe international difficulties are on the wane. The U.S. economy is in a slump largely because of a crisis prone international economic order. A new foreign economic policy that advances new free trade agreements and a more stable international structure is crucial but thus far lacking. On security, the United States is a global power and detrimental developments in the Middle East, East Asia, or Europe will severely damage U.S. interests. For instance, war between China and Japan would likely spark a new economic crisis and create the conditions for decades of instability in a crucial region. Any notion that the United States can take a sabbatical to tend to the home front is mistaken, the shapers argue.

Diverging accounts of the challenges to American power lead to different approaches to foreign policy. Restrainers want to find ways to limit America's exposure to international events. Shapers want to find ways to influence them.

Restrainers believe that the United States is overcommitted in the world. They see the country as involved in a wide range of problems that have little bearing on the security of the homeland. Restrainers view the world as something that happens to the United States. U.S. efforts to shape the world are seen as likely to be counterproductive, either because the world is too complicated for the United States to calibrate its approach appropriately or because it will lead to too many new commitments. Restrainers are comfortable with the use of force as long as it entails a light footprint -- in and out. There is little appetite for the messiness associated with protracted involvements, whether that is in the use of lethal force or shaping the post-conflict environment.

Restrainers are not a monolithic group. At one end of the spectrum is the realist restraint school within the academic field of international relations. They come close to neo-isolationism. One of the leading theorists of this approach, MIT professor Barry Posen, proposes to slash U.S. alliances, including with Japan and Western Europe. Several other academics are working along similar lines (see here, here, and here). In general, they believe the world can take care of itself. The world may become a more dangerous place, but the United States has the wherewithal to insulate itself and may even take advantage of the situation. If they have a catchphrase, it's The United States can be safer in a more dangerous world, just as long as it is not too involved.

But the academic purists cannot be found in the policy community or in the administration. There, a very different type of restrainer prevails. These restrainers want to preserve America's core alliances and commitments. For that reason alone the neo-isolationist moniker does not apply to them. However, they do want to avoid new entanglements that go beyond core commitments -- hence the reluctance to get involved in Syria -- and they do intend to scale back U.S. involvement overseas. They would also like to shift the burden somewhat to America's allies -- hence the Obama administration has done less to help France in Mali than President Hollande has hoped.

Shapers believe that the United States must remain a global leader and influence developments all over the planet, particularly in the Middle East, Northeast and Southeast Asia, and Europe. They do not just want to preserve America's alliances and commitments; they want to increase them to account for the changing nature of international politics. They believe that an increasingly competitive world means that the United States will have to work harder to maintain its military and diplomatic edge. This means building new strategic partnerships in Southeast Asia, influencing events inside Syria and Libya, and strengthening military capabilities. They also want to embrace and prudently advance concepts like the Responsibility to Protect, which they see as a crucial component of a values-based foreign policy. They know America will make mistakes, but they hope to minimize them by learning from the past and they believe that the risk of error is outweighed by the risk of inaction.

The Obama administration has had elements of both sides. It has been a shaper in East Asia and a restrainer in the Middle East. Indeed, the shaping in East Asia was embraced by some restrainers who saw an opportunity to get out of the Middle East. But, the balance recently shifted in favor of the restrainers. The departure of several leading shapers, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell, and National Security Council Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs Samantha Power, has moved the needle in favor of those who want to do less in the world. Chuck Hagel is squarely in the camp of the restrainers. John Kerry is something of an unknown quantity -- he seems to want to engage diplomatically in the Middle East, but his attitude toward Syria and Asia is unclear.

Perhaps most important of all, President Obama seems comfortable as a restrainer. Bob Woodward has reported that Obama chose Hagel because the two share the same philosophy: "the U.S. role in the world must be carefully scaled back -- this is not a matter of choice but of facing reality; the military needs to be treated with deep skepticism; lots of strategic military and foreign policy thinking is out of date; and quagmires like Afghanistan should be avoided." Of course, this is only a second-hand report, but it is consistent with parts of the president's record.

Restraint is an idea that seems to fit the moment. Americans are tired of war and feel more constrained after the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. However, over time, the realization will set in that staying out also shapes the world -- and probably in a way that is detrimental to America's interests. It creates a vacuum filled by others. It fuels uncertainty. And it exacerbates crises.

If President Obama does move in the direction of restraint, the next few years are likely to see the development of a Democratic critique of his foreign policy. This critique may be spearheaded by experts, including former Obama administration officials, who are seeking to shape the foreign policy platform of Hillary Clinton should she decide to run for president. Its core insight will be that the United States must continue to exert global leadership because in an interdependent world, retrenchment will not work. Welcome to the Democratic Party's new foreign policy debate.



Syria's Battle Royale

The struggle for Damascus looks poised to transform this bloody conflict.

In recent days, fighting has erupted in and around the Syrian capital. The intensification of violence suggests that what many have dubbed "the grand battle for Damascus" is gathering force -- a major rebel offensive that has been in the works for several months may soon begin.

This isn't the first time the rebels have made a bid to capture the Syrian capital. In less coordinated efforts in July and December, rebel forces advanced in several neighborhoods and even took restive towns surrounding Damascus. However, lacking adequate supplies and overpowered by the regime's air force and artillery, their advances were repelled or contained. The battle for Damascus is likely to see more such fluctuations -- buildups of rebel forces followed by regime counterattacks, with civilians caught in the middle.

It's a common misconception that Damascus has been immune to the political upheaval that has swept the country since March 2011. True, President Bashar al-Assad can count on a large base of support: state bureaucrats, employees of state-owned and regime-favored companies, relatives of members of the security forces, members of the country's religious minorities, and middle- and upper-class Sunni urbanites. The regime has taken care to maintain the loyalty of Damascus: Its Sunni merchant class benefited under former President Hafez al-Assad's rule for remaining loyal during the Islamist insurrection of the 1970s and 1980s, and from Bashar's liberalization policies in the 2000s.

But many of the outlying towns that have been incorporated into the capital's urban fabric have wholeheartedly joined the revolution. For instance, Christian and Alawite dissidents -- arguably a minority within their communities -- drove to Daraya and Douma to join demonstrations (the slain activist and filmmaker Bassel Shehade was among them). Inside the city, the conservative, middle-class neighborhoods of Barzeh and Midan -- whose residents did not benefit from the regime's largesse and from the growth of the previous decade -- also joined the uprising. The same goes for the poor Sunni area of Qaaboun, where protesters have long been coming out en masse.

While much of the urban Sunni clergy has remained loyal (at least publicly) to Assad, others have joined the revolution and opened their mosques to protesters. This is true of Moaz al-Khatib, the former imam of Damascus's Umayyad Mosque and current head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition.

The stakes for the two warring sides couldn't be higher. For Assad, holding the capital at any cost is vital. Its loss would amount to an enormous symbolic, military, and political blow. His self-portrayal as the head of a still-functioning state would be decisively shattered. Regardless of urbanites' skepticism toward the rebels, the loss of Damascus would mean that they could no longer cling to the president as their defender. The same holds true for those who still support him out of hostility to the rebels' presumed ideological and political beliefs, but who lack an organic link to the regime. Without Damascus, which Assad would never be able to retake, he will probably lose command-and-control over loyal units across the country -- except in the northwest, where his most loyal supporters reside.

Indeed, should he lose Damascus but physically survive, Assad and his top Alawite commanders may flee to "Alawistan" -- the presumptive statelet that many see as the Alawite community's last refuge. The geography of the fighting in the northwest suggests that such a strategy is already in the making: Sectarian cleansing and major battles are occurring on the outer edge of the mountainous region separating the Alawite heartland from the predominantly Sunni hinterland, and many Alawite families have moved back to this enclave. In the wake of such a defeat, however, Assad's leadership may well be contested from within the community, and his remaining forces could split into competing militias. Alawistan, moreover, might not be economically viable or military defensible.

For all these reasons, Assad is certain to mount a fierce defense of the capital. The very landscape of the conflict will be tilted in his favor: The French political geographer Fabrice Balanche refers to Damascus as a "controlled city," purposely surrounded by military and security garrisons and loyal neighborhoods (such as Mezze 86, a poor area populated by Alawite security personnel and families).

Assad has also amassed considerable firepower in and around Damascus. The regular army is only the first line of his defenses: The Republican Guard and the 4th Division, which has been at the forefront of the fighting in the city's vicinity, remain fiercely loyal and formidable fighting units. The number of such troops is unknown, but estimates vary between 50,000 and 80,000. Reports have also emerged that residents in the predominantly Christian neighborhood of Bab Touma -- and more importantly, Hezbollah-backed Shia in Sayyida Zeinab, southeast of the city -- have formed local militias supplementing the regime's forces. And much of Assad's artillery and his air force is located in and around the capital -- the regime's incessant pounding of Daraya in the southwest has much to do with the proximity of the Mezzeh military airport.

To preempt a major offensive, government forces have attempted in recent weeks to clear many of the suburban areas where rebel units are active. The insurgents, however, have held much of the eastern suburbs and make frequent appearances in the city, such as in Jobar and nearby Abbassiyyin Square. There have also been vicious -- and so far inconclusive -- clashes in and around the southern Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk.

Assad himself allegedly spends most of his time holed up in his palace on Mount Qassioun, which overlooks the city. He is believed to have left his private office, located in his father's old abode, and his private house in the neighborhood of Malki -- the fact that he lived there instead of his perched-up marbled palace once stood for some as evidence of his humility. Conscious of the need to demonstrate he still controls the capital, Assad has recently shown his face outside, though near, his palace. He delivered an uncompromising speech at the Opera House on central Umayyad Square on Jan. 8, and attended prayers on the occasion of Prophet Mohammad's birthday at the al-Afram mosque, in the northern neighborhood of al-Muhajereen, on Jan. 24.

In public, Assad has continued to present a defiant face to the world. Al-Akhbar, a Lebanese newspaper that serves a mouthpiece for Assad and his Lebanese allies, quoted the Syrian president in late January saying that pockets of resistance in the countryside around the capital were being "dealt with" by the army. Damascus itself, he assured his supporters, remained firmly under control. "Its strategic points -- despite all the attempts by the militants -- remained safe, especially the airport road."

The president's position is more tenuous than he lets on. The airport road has come under regular rebel shelling, such that in late November and early December, these attacks led to the momentary suspension of air traffic, a humiliation for a regime intent on projecting a sense of normalcy.

Assad is probably counting on the fact that a unified rebel strategy may well collapse under the brutality and cost of the battle. Once that happens, he expects rebel ranks to fragment and more radical opposition elements, like the al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, to come to the fore. Assad would then be in a position to market himself as the sole guarantor against Islamist extremism and chaos. Given the turn of events in Aleppo -- where a similar chain of events took place -- this is not implausible.

The rebels have as much at stake in the battle for Damascus as Assad. They certainly long for the city -- in recent months, they have operated ever closer to the capital's center, and seized large parts of its eastern vicinity. In September, they mounted a daring attack against the Army General Command in a heavily guarded part of the city. Several YouTube videos show rebels taunting Assad with Mount Qassioun in the background.

But the shadow of Aleppo, which stands as the rebels' worst mistake, hangs over them. In the northern city, Syria's largest, the insurgents went in divided and overconfident. They lacked a military strategy and adequate logistical support, and the mostly rural fighters made no attempt at outreach and offered no guarantees to the city's terrified residents and anxious minorities. They displayed a lack of discipline and little preparedness to address the ensuing humanitarian crisis, which alienated many civilians. The rise of radical groups has made it even more difficult to swing Syrians still on the fence into the opposition camp.

A repeat of that scenario in Damascus would work to Assad's short-term advantage. Urban warfare in the capital will likely take an enormous humanitarian toll. It will send tens if not hundred of thousands of refugees on the road, many of whom will try to make it to the border with Lebanon roughly 25 miles away.

Rebel commanders insist they have learned their lesson from Aleppo. They say many of the fighters who will participate in the assault are military defectors, under disciplined military command -- not rowdy civilian combatants. It is likely that high-level defectors who have found refuge in Jordan are involved in the preparations, have obtained good intelligence, and reached out to local contacts to prepare the ground. Recent YouTube footage suggests that insurgents in the south are receiving better quality arms, including anti-tank weaponry, rocket launchers, and more powerful rifles. The rebels also calculate that Assad will have to call regular and elite troops from other places to hold the city, thus ceding control over territories across Syria. But Islamist militias already operate in and around the capital, including Jabhat al-Nusra, which mounted car bombings last year. A repetition of the sudden collapse of the Libyan capital of Tripoli is highly unlikely.

There is an old adage that both Assad and his opponents no doubt know well: Whoever controls Damascus controls Syria. For that reason, the battle for the capital will be long and costly. Assad could check his opponents there, or exit the stage altogether. Given the ongoing fragmentation of the country, however, a rebel victory won't be the end of this struggle. At the end of this battle for Damascus, it just may be that nobody controls Syria.