Obama's Syria Dilemma

Damned if he does; damned if he doesn't.

Barack Obama has a real problem. It's self-inflicted, really -- and it's a cautionary tale against articulating public positions that may seem correct and convenient at the time, but that can pose serious challenges down the road.

Obama has been confronted with evidence from a variety of credible sources -- including from his own intelligence community, with some caveats -- that Assad used sarin gas against his own people. Ever since August 2012, Obama has held that Syrian use of chemical weapons constituted a "red line" for the United States, and that crossing it would be a "grave mistake" for Assad. The president is now faced with a dilemma: Defending his red line could undermine his carefully crafted strategy of steering clear of direct military involvement in the Syria crisis.

Here are some things worth keeping in mind as the president grapples with his conundrum.

No more red lines

Whatever Obama does on Syria, he should make sure that he doesn't say anything that he's not prepared to act on. "As president of the United States, I don't bluff," he famously said with regard to U.S. policy toward Tehran. It's just as good advice when it comes to America's approach to Damascus.

U.S. street cred is already at all time low in the Middle East. We don't need what remains of U.S. credibility to be lost in the gap between the president's words and his deeds.

This has obvious implications for that other famous red line on Iran. First, there's a huge problem with defining where that line lies: Israel says Iran must be denied a nuclear capacity, and has put percentages on the danger zone for enrichment (see Bibi's cartoon bomb); Obama says Iran must be denied a nuclear weapon. That gap is already enormous enough even before we consider the issue of how to enforce any red lines, which have a way of turning pink when states reach the moment of truth. The broader point is: Who's going to take any U.S. red line on Iran seriously if the president isn't prepared to enforce his red line on Syria?

Syria isn't an opportunity

To Obama's critics, particularly the inestimable Sen. John McCain, Assad's use of chemical weapons isn't only a problem -- it's a chance for Washington to up the ante against Assad. Fair enough. But let's be clear about one thing: Syria was never an opportunity, and it's going to get worse before it gets better. After two years of violence, religion-fueled animosity, and civil war, it's not a land of milk and honey for the United States.

There are no good options in Syria. Choices run the gamut from unacceptable (do nothing) to ineffective (provide non-lethal assistance) to risky (arming the rebels or establishing a no-fly zone). Caution is still the order of the day.

Obama's reluctance has been justified by events

I know that's not a popular judgment in Washington, but it's true. The president's calculations have been risk-averse, matching the uncertainties of the situation. The rebels are divided and dysfunctional, far too many in the opposition are Islamist extremists, the humanitarian crisis is unmanageable -- and even if President Bashar al-Assad departs, it is uncertain who or what will assume responsibility for the mess that is left behind.

From Obama's perspective, one thing is clear: It won't and shouldn't be the United States. Even acting in concert with others, he's not prepared to own Syria if it means billions in financial and economic aid, let alone American peacekeepers on the ground.

Iraq and Afghanistan are false analogies, but they are apt in one regard. These two wars -- the longest in American history -- have cost thousands of American lives, billions of dollars, and damaged U.S. credibility for an end result that has not (yet) been worth the price. In short, and quite rightly, Obama doesn't want the United States to get stuck with the check on this one.

Iran, Iran, Iran

I've always believed that the other calculation that's influencing the president on Syria is the issue of Iran and its nuclear program. Many believe that bringing down the Assads is the way to weaken Iran, though the fall of the Syrian regime might only intensify the mullahcracy's need to protect itself and accelerate its nuclear program.

Still, the president knows there's a pretty good chance the Iranian issue may come to a crisis, and the United States may be forced to respond militarily. He is going to need Russian and Chinese support for whatever he does -- and he isn't going to get it on both Syria and Iran. Staying out of the Syrian crisis will give him more flexibility and options on Iran. Getting involved militarily could well lead the Russians and Iran to increase their own military support for the Assads too.

This time we're stuck

There used to be an ad for a muffler company: "You can pay me now, or pay me later." Obama chose to pay Syria later -- but now the long-deferred chit is coming due.

It's a headache for a president whose main mission was to get America out of bad wars, not into new ones. But there's likely no way around it -- sooner or later, Obama will have to make good on enforcing his red line. Failure to do so will undermine his credibility, encourage the Assad regime to deploy additional chemical weapons, and send a powerful signal to America's friends and adversaries that we don't mean what we say.

Obama won't be pushed into action -- he will patiently look for a middle option between doing nothing and going all-in. And whatever the president does, he'll ensure he has international support and legal grounds on which to act. The White House letter to McCain that admitted Assad's likely use of chemical weapons already pointed in that direction, declaring that the United States is "pressing for a comprehensive United Nations investigation" and "working with our friends and allies" to determine what occurred.

But a red line has indeed been crossed -- not only in terms of Syria's use of chemical weapons, but also in the slippery slide toward American military involvement. What Obama needs to decide is whether such military action is designed to deter the use of chemical weapons or topple the Assad regime by giving the rebels the advantages they've long sought -- weapons, a no-fly zone, or direct U.S. military strikes against regime targets.

There's a lot that's murky about Syria right now, but one thing is clear. For America, a messy situation is about to get a whole lot messier.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Reality Check

YaLa Young Leaders

How a Facebook organization could transform the Middle East.

A month before the fateful Camp David summit in July 2000, when U.S. President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (for whom I worked) made a last-ditch effort to bring peace to the Middle East, I got a call from my friend John Wallach, journalist for Hearst Newspapers and founder of Seeds of Peace, a conflict-resolution organization that brings young people, principally from the Middle East, into programs designed to promote understanding and trust, in Maine and in the region.

John, who had already been diagnosed with the non-smoker's lung cancer that would take his life two years later, was excited and emotional as only he could be. "Aaron, you must convince President Clinton and Secretary Albright to host a delegation of Palestinian and Israeli Seeds kids at the summit. They have to tell Yasir Arafat and Ehud Barak about what this opportunity means for the future, their future."

I humored John when he tended to dream about things that could never be, and told him I'd get right on it.

What I couldn't say was this: John, it's a month before one of the most decisive moments in Middle East peacemaking, and you want me to waste Albright's time trying to arrange a meeting with Barak and Arafat for a bunch of kids? It sounds like a cute photo-op. But give me a break.

It wasn't that I was opposed to the meeting in principle. But I worried that I wouldn't be taken seriously if I proposed it. After all, this was only about kids.

Only about kids, indeed.

Wallach's frame of reference -- without overly dramatizing matters -- wasn't about kids; it was about the future. I'll never make that mistake again. As adults, we say we take the younger generation seriously, but I wonder. Certainly in politics and diplomacy, that's not the case. We occupy a discrete physical space for a very short period of time and understandably consider it our time. We rarely take those without power and influence seriously, particularly teens and twentysomethings. Indeed, what we often ignore or relegate to token consideration -- because we're in charge and don't have to consider it -- is the possibility of taking the younger generation into our calculations in real time and making that generation part of our strategy.

And there's little doubt that when it comes to U.S. foreign policy, we're in need of a strategy that's generational in character. Trust me on this one. All of the problems we face today in the broader Middle East -- the Arab Spring, nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Syria -- are long movies that will produce outcomes well before they'll produce solutions. And this will require time -- the ultimate arbiter of what works and is of value in life.

And what we need is a comprehensive strategy that marries transactional diplomacy (how governments can create openings to resolve conflicts) with transformational diplomacy (how non-government initiatives supported by governments can work to change attitudes and build personal ties that break down the barriers of suspicion and mistrust).

Enter YaLa Young Leaders.

Launched in May 2011 as a joint partnership between the Peres Center for Peace and YaLa Palestine, based in Ramallah and chaired by Salah Elayyan, the Palestinian Authority's cabinet secretary, YaLa-Young Leaders is a Facebook-based movement that promotes dialogue and engagement as a means to secure a safe, productive, and peaceful Middle East.

It sounds utopian. But the movement has grown to 355,000 people, including Egyptians (103,000), Israelis (13,800), Palestinians (22,100), Jordanians (20,500), Lebanese (2,200), Syrians, Yemenis, Sudanese (100), Turks, (8,700) Moroccans (25,200), Tunisians (24,600), Iraqis (29,000), Libyans (9,900), Saudis (3,700), Algerians (40,700), Emiratis (1,100), and Kuwaitis (1,100).

The driving force behind YaLa was Uri Savir, former Oslo negotiator and now head of the Peres Peace Center, who was inspired by lessons learned from his experiences during the negotiations. Savir's takeaway was that the Oslo Accords -- as a top-down approach -- lacked the inclusiveness of Israeli, Palestinian, and Arab societies. So YaLa is very much bottom-up.

Through the power of Facebook, YaLa has spread through the region. YaLa-Young Leaders provides a platform for ongoing dialogue and seeks to harness the power of youth that has driven so much of the Arab Spring and the Rothschild protest movement in Israel. In a way, YaLa can be defined as a meeting point between Tahrir Square and Rothschild. Rather than meet once a month, as Israeli and Arab negotiators might do, YaLa allows thousands of interactions a day on a variety of issues from protests in Egypt, to Syria, to the latest international crisis between young Arabs and Israelis who physically cannot engage. To imagine thousands of young Arabs and Israelis with 24/7 access to one another is to imagine the future.

Now with 355,000 members, it's the biggest movement of its kind in the region and has developed partnerships with governments, including the United States, Italy, Norway, and Switzerland, as well as the support of private-sector companies such as Microsoft and Facebook. YaLa's members are active, not only in ongoing dialogue, but also in peace advocacy through the promotion of YaLa's Peace Initiative and in YaLa's Online Academy (YLO@), with online courses for Arab and Israeli students from leading universities in the United States, such as Princeton, Harvard, Vanderbilt, and University of Michigan. It has also launched an online media platform, YaLa Media Cafe, with blogs from young leaders emphasizing peace, democracy, and gender equality.

John Wallach was a dreamer. But like Uri Savir, he also understood reality. And in a historic conflict likely to take time to resolve, investing in a younger generation is critically important.

"The aim of YaLa-Young Leaders," Savir told me, "is to be a regional voice for the generation of change in the MENA region in order to promote common values and aims in relation to the respect of human rights, democracy, peace, and economic cooperation.... I believe that in these times, governments in the region and the international community will have to listen more carefully to the voices of young constituencies in the MENA region as expressed on YaLa. It is a voice of change, equality, and hope."

And who can argue with that?

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images