The Ugly Choice in the Middle East

Permanent chaos, or a new generation of strongmen? Take your pick.

In conversations last week with Middle East experts from the U.S. government and from the region, a disturbing set of themes recurred. First, there was a growing sense that absent some major initiative that currently lacks a leader, concept, and resources, Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria could hold on for years to come, perhaps even as long as another decade. Next, were that to be the case or even if Assad were to fall sooner, Syria would remain an open wound, an ever more desolate, violent, chaotic battleground. Finally, even in the wake of a conflict-ending settlement, if Syria were to land in the hands of extremists, the aftershocks would reverberate around the region, spreading outward from Syria to Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Israel, and the Palestinian territories.

Combine all this with the growing sense of unease about the outcomes of "Arab Spring" upheavals in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt and concerns regarding regimes in the Persian Gulf -- not to mention Afghanistan and sub-Saharan Africa -- and there is a credible scenario that calls for years of unending ebbing-and-flowing upheaval from Mali to Pakistan with few reliable pockets of stability in between. It is by no means a certainty, but one possibility is that we go from having been concerned about failed states to having to grapple with the harsh realities of a failed region.

We could be in the midst of what will someday be seen as decades of interconnected conflicts. For this reason and because most of the world's major powers fear this outcome and the potential costs it would pose for them, there is a growing sense that rather than focusing on democratic outcomes to all this upheaval, the United States and others will soon be contenting themselves with another generation of strongmen throughout the Greater Middle East. The U.S. willingness to embrace dubious "partners" like Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai or Iraq's Nouri al-Maliki and U.S. reluctance to publicly criticize leaders with questionable values such as Egypt's Mohamed Morsy are seen as signs of this growing predisposition.

Similarly, these analysts see U.S. reluctance to undertake policies that might meaningfully affect outcomes in some of these at-risk countries as a contributing factor both to the coming era of protracted instability and to the likely rise in our appetite for strongmen. Syria is again a signature case. While the United States has in recent weeks ratcheted up its rhetoric and its peripheral involvement in the situation there, America's inaction is still seen as more important to the situation on the ground as its action.

Sending 200 troops into Jordan, making a commitment to provide more night-vision goggles, or having the CIA sort through the opposition in the hopes of finding a leader we can live with are all positive steps. But they are offset, and their true character as symbolic or halfway measures is revealed, by articles such as that in April 23's New York Times once again noting that the Israelis (like others) have concluded that Assad has used chemical weapons in his own country, thus crossing U.S. President Barack Obama's "red line."

When the red line was established, it was hardly thought that the potential U.S. response would be sending over more body armor. But now that using a new tougher list of adjectives appears to be the prime change in U.S. behavior, an inadvertent message has been sent: America's bark is worse than its bite. This is a dangerous message to send to dangerous people. Thus, while drawing red lines is risky behavior, Obama appears now to be on a course toward demonstrating that ignoring them after the fact is even riskier.

It could be argued that the U.S. intelligence community is still evaluating the evidence of the chemical attacks. Perhaps it is doing much more behind the scenes than the public knows. The reality, however, is that the situation is deteriorating. Further, U.S. efforts to marshal others into a constructive role have produced mixed results. Some, like the government of Qatar and to a degree that of Turkey, stand accused of supporting extremists. Others, like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have sought a different path but think that without stronger U.S. leadership, effective international action is not going to be possible.

The problem of course, is that the American people's appetite for further deep involvement in the region is near zero. Iraq and Afghanistan have proved to be costly disasters. Americans have very serious problems at home. New energy resources in the United States have led to a sense that Americans will find it ever easier to distance themselves from the region's problems. America's European allies have no organized foreign policy to speak of, have less appetite than the United States does to be involved on the ground in the region, and have even greater problems at home. The Russians are being systematically unhelpful. The Chinese are only willing to get involved at the margins, essentially making the case themselves that they are not ready for prime time. Regional actors range from the malevolent in Iran to the relatively weak, at risk, motivationally questionable, or all of the above among most of the moderate states. And none of these factors seems likely to change anytime soon.

Thus, we face a region in which there are few effective external or regional stabilizing forces. At the same time, Syria has illustrated that even if the United States, Europe, or others are slow to take significant action, extremist groups seeking to capitalize on the action are moving quickly to take advantage of the void. Estimates have Syria's al-Nusra Front, which has pledged its fealty to al Qaeda, now surpassing 12,000 in strength, with foreign fighters drawn from every corner of Europe and the surrounding region.

This leaves a choice between protracted chaos and autocrats. It doesn't take an Einstein to do the math. In that equation, democracy and the hope for real political reform in the region seem likely to lose out.

OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images

David Rothkopf

Road Warrior

Can John Kerry travel all the time and still be a great secretary of state?

John Kerry returns to Washington having completed his first trip to Asia as the U.S. secretary of state. The trip came at a time fraught with peril and complications -- much like his prior trips to the Middle East and Europe. That said, in every case he has shown signs that he is capable of being an exceptionally effective chief diplomat for the United States -- and shown warning signals that he is tempted in directions that may undo his efforts.

Certainly, Kerry has been energetic. He has already put his personal imprint on U.S. diplomacy, meeting with most of America's principal allies and diving into the toughest problems from Israel-Palestine to Syria to Iran to Afghanistan to North Korea to cyberwar to the complex relationships with U.S. allies in Europe and frenemies in China. This is not to be minimized. Personal relationships with top leaders, the ability to speak candidly with them and show personal investment in critical issues -- all will bear fruit in the years ahead. People and personalities almost always trump policy and process in the real world of foreign policy.

In addition, Kerry has shown a canny sign of understanding that for all the hoopla and photo ops that commonly come with cabinet-level missions around the world, the most important work is done in private. He spoke of this in Asia, referring to North Korea but also more broadly to the nature of diplomacy. "Subtlety and definite secrecy and absence of advertisement" are required in sensitive cases, he thoughtfully observed. Offering Richard Nixon's secret diplomacy with China as an example, he said this principle would guide him in his interactions with China and in matters from North Korea to the Middle East.

For a man who devoted considerably less of his travel as Foreign Relations Committee senator to Asia than to other global hot spots, Kerry showed some of the deftness that he exhibited in Europe and the Middle East, regions where he has invested an extraordinary amount of time. With North Korea, Barack Obama's administration has behaved with exceptional balance. As Kim Jong Un ratcheted up the rhetoric, the U.S. military moved assets into position to show that the United States took the threat seriously and would respond to provocations forcefully. But Kerry also suggested that America was "prepared to reach out" to the North Koreans if there were signs they would moderate their threats and were genuinely interested in talks.

In China, in addition to establishing high-level ties, there were signs of progress on several levels. The Chinese agreed to join the United States in sketching out a plan forward toward a resolution of the North Korea problem. And, on another front, the United States and China agreed to set up a working group to address cyberissues. Working groups might seem the province of process-happy wonks, but in this case the agreement is wise on several levels.

First, given the broad number of sources, goals, and impacts of cyberattacks, there is a need for something like a "cyberhotline" to avoid escalation of tensions due to a misunderstanding, much as there was a need for a red phone during the days of the Cold War to avoid nuclear miscommunications and catastrophe. Next, the best way to diffuse potential tensions on this front is through constant, working-level communications, better understanding, and ultimately the establishment of rules by which both sides -- and ultimately the entire world -- agree to live. Finally and most importantly, such a working group carries forward the efforts established as part of the "strategic rebalancing" toward Asia and the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue to systematically deepen the relations between the two countries, forming more lines of interaction, at ever-deeper levels, between their large and complex public bureaucracies.

As Kerry has no doubt come to realize in his trips through Europe and the Middle East -- not to mention in his years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee -- few major world issues can be solved or effectively addressed without cooperation and communication between the United States and China. This is precisely why the China trip was so heartening after Kerry's initial preoccupation with the Middle East. While the problems of the Middle East lie within its borders, the only way for the United States to have the leverage and resources it needs to address those problems -- from Syria to Iran to broader questions of how to stabilize the region -- is for it to find new ways to collaborate with the world's other major powers that have both a stake in stability and the clout to do something about it.

As Iran and Syria have shown, for the first time in history that means working with the Chinese. Without them, no sanctions against Iran would have worked (to the extent that sanctions today are working). Without their cooperation it is impossible to gain traction in the United Nations. Should they side with the Russians on issues like Syria, progress is almost impossible.

In fact, one of the fundamental realities of the world in which Kerry is serving as U.S. secretary of state is that for the foreseeable future, America's most vital international partners are the two great powers that most share its interest in minimizing global unrest and fostering economic growth: the European Union and China. Together with the United States, these are what my friend Tom Friedman of the New York Times calls "the forces of stability" -- the players who have the greatest stake in the peaceful functioning of the international system and are able to do the most to promote it.

China, of course, is new to the global stage and has many interests and impulses that run contrary to America's. Europe is weakened by economic crisis and feeble institutions and has little culture of having a true continental purpose or set of objectives. But no other great powers are as globally engaged, are as economically potent, or have the reach or, should they desire to use it, political leverage of the triumvirate that those two powers form with the United States. Indeed, there is little effective use of U.S. "smart power" that does not involve creative steps to leverage it with that of one or both of these other megapowers.

Here, however, we come to a core early challenge facing Kerry. He must now realize that whether he is dealing with Israel-Palestine, Syria, Iran, Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, North Korea, the South China Sea, global economic relations, or climate change, he can't be the man working the day-to-day issues on the ground and the one shaping and implementing a grand strategy. The new alliances and institutions of the 21st-century require as much attention as, or more attention than, the business of fighting fires in the world's hot zones. Ensuring that any U.S.-EU trade deal is part of a broader reinvention of the transatlantic alliance, that the same is true of what emerges from the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks, and that the United States also works on developing international structures to deepen critical relationships (including those with other vital established and emerging powers such as Japan, India, and Brazil) requires that Kerry devote the next few weeks to finalizing his team at the State Department and that he work with the president and his top aides on ensuring his team dovetails with seemingly imminent changes coming to the White House National Security Staff and at economic cabinet agencies.

The mordant joke I've heard from within the State Department during the past couple of months has been "John Kerry phone home." What it means is that there's no place for one-man diplomacy in this increasingly complex world. Just as the president must empower his cabinet more in this second term to achieve legacy goals, so too must Kerry put in place senior leaders who can work the issues he has started to explore. Although his involvement will be critical going forward, he must view his role as that of a conductor or a commanding general -- overseeing, orchestrating, providing vision, reaching in to provide leadership where needed, but empowering others to save him from getting trapped in the alluring (if exhausting) illusion that shuttle diplomacy is actually getting something done. It has its place. It sometimes helps. But it should be used sparingly, only when necessary, or it is devalued. There will be no legacy of Kerry the statesman that does not effectively incorporate that of Kerry the effective leader of a global bureaucracy.