Argument

The 'Go Slow' Caucus

As pressure builds for a military option in Syria, can the White House afford to keep quiet?

For all the recent discussion in Washington about how to proceed in Syria, the sense remains that the United States is not yet ready for an entirely new, more aggressive direction on the two-year-old conflict that has claimed at least 70,000 lives and created at least 1.4 million refugees. But with Turkey now asserting that Syria has used chemical weapons -- adding weight to the claims from Britain, France, Qatar, and the United States -- and with the conflict growing bloodier and more complicated each day, the Obama administration faces greater pressure to deepen its involvement on the political, humanitarian, and military fronts.

The past week has seen stirrings of diplomatic movement on Syria: Secretary of State John Kerry headed to Russia to meet with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and ended up leaving with a plan to "seek to convene an international conference." Meanwhile, in Washington a bipartisan duo of foreign policy heavyweights, Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, took to the Senate floor to push President Barack Obama to lead a military campaign against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who favors arming Syrian rebels, said he sees a "sea change" now turning in favor of the Syrian opposition.

Yet when it comes to turning the rhetoric into reality, few in Washington close to the Syrian conflict expect to see any quick action. Though calls to take more agressive action are getting louder and more frequent, Washington's "go-slow caucus" still exercises the power behind the scenes, emphasizing the narrative of a gradual, diplomatic approach -- one echoed in the White House. In conversations with State Department officials and three senior former statesmen and advisors, a picture emerges that when it comes to intervention into a murky and dangerous conflict in Syria, the consensus in the Obama administration appears to be that caution is the better part of valor.

Within the State Department, officials say that "whatever is going to be done is on a slow track" and that they have not yet felt a momentum shift in the direction of greater action.  More help for refugees and additional political and economic support for bordering countries may come; this week, the United States announced $100 million more for humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees, with nearly half that amount going to Jordan but that remains far short of the more muscular military interventions some have been seeking.

For its part, the White House has supported diplomatic overtures, including Kerry's visit to Russia, and asserted once more that "Syria's future cannot include Bashar al-Assad." But at 1600 Pennsylvania, the sense among several officials I spoke to at the State Department is that "this is not a war they want to be part of." Notes one State official, "if they are going to do something they are going to do it on their own time, in their own way, and they are not going to stumble into this."  

The White House disputes the idea that it has not been leading on Syria.

"We are working urgently to hasten a transition from Bashar al-Assad to a democratic Syria that is inclusive of all Syrians," says National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden. "Our nonlethal assistance to the Syrian opposition has been on an upward trajectory, and the president has directed his national security team to identify additional measures so that we can continue to increase our assistance. As the president has said, we continue to explore every available, practical, and responsible means to end the suffering of the Syrian people and accelerate a political transition. All options are on the table."

In Washington, those who support more actively backing the rebel forces have been heartened to see a push for one of those options -- legislation to arm the opposition.  Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-NJ) offered a bill  that would authorize the transfer of U.S.-supplied weapons, training, and supplies to vetted rebel groups.

But others say that for every Sen. Menendez and Sen. Marco Rubio who favor arming the rebels, there are an equal number of lawmakers quietly saying, "not so fast" -- and who want nothing to do with measures that place the United States on a greater war footing. Recent polling shows not even half of the American public support military force in Syria, even "if it is confirmed that Syria used chemical weapons against anti-government groups."

As discussions about options such as establishing no-fly zones, arming Syrian rebels, and pushing for lethal aid continue, many diplomatic veterans say time is of the essence. Amb. Tom Pickering, who reached the Foreign Service's highest rank of career ambassador and served as undersecretary of state for political affairs in a sterling diplomatic career that spanned five decades, has served as ambassador to both Russian and Jordan, two central players in the Syria crisis.  He is among those who argue the United States can and must push harder for a diplomatic solution to the conflict.

"Letting things continue to go on the way they are doesn't seem to me to do anything more than prolong the agony on a slow roll," says Pickering.  "In the end all conflicts end with politics  -- there is going to be a political consequence of the fighting in Syria, and if we don't seek to shape them then we are going to get what we get."

Pickering has been working on a plan to offer a way forward. This would include dropping the precondition that required Assad step down for talks to begin -- an idea Kerry embraced this week -- an immediate humanitarian ceasefire across Syria, and a U.N.-brokered election process that would lead toward a transitional government.

While all sides note that there are no good answers and no easy solutions, Pickering notes that slow diplomatic action has not increased America's odds of finding the best outcome among a slew of difficult options.

"I think we have tended to put the diplomatic side aside as in the ‘too hard' category," Pickering says. "We need to move this fairly soon or we are going to lose the opposition -- certainly the al Qaedization of the opposition has been fairly serious and the fractionation of the opposition is very large."

On the other hand, those who've seen the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from a front-row diplomatic seat say caution is the better part of policy prudence when it comes to Syria.

"There are no good options here and the pressure is growing to do something because that is what we do, we do things," says former Amb. Ryan Crocker, who served as ambassadors to both Iraq and Syria and now is a senior fellow at Yale University. " But everything of significance I can think of doing is likely to make the situation worse, not better and put us in a worse position, not a better one." In Crocker's view, the stalemate with the Russians at the United Nations regarding more concerted action has actually benefited America.

"The Russians are actually doing us a favor and I don't think they are actually going to come off it because they see a rebel victory as deeply destabilizing for the region and particularly for them," Crocker says.  "I hope they go on blocking any Security Council action because if you get an ‘all necessary measures' resolution, then you are in a very exposed position if you don't use all necessary means."  

What Crocker does favor, however, is more humanitarian aid and non-lethal support, and greater backing  for the Syrian opposition, which gathered this week in Istanbul, in the effort to come up with a vision for a post-Assad political transition. 

Crocker, however, rejects the idea that Syria is simply Iraq in a different form. He cites the willingness of the Assad regime to wage war by any means necessary as among the key differences, meaning more weapons for the opposition will not necessarily lead to less fighting.

"They have been training, equipping, and organizing for this for a very long time," he says of Assad's forces.  "They have got the weaponry, they are ruthless and they know what the alternatives are.  Whatever you say about them, they will stand and fight and you did not have that situation with a government in either Bosnia or Iraq." 

Many in the diplomatic community say that Washington's focus on military force has overshadowed a discussion of the very necessary diplomatic action required.  

Those fears are expressed by veteran diplomatic negotiator, Amb. Dennis Ross, who spent more than a decade helping to shape U.S. policy in the Middle East and brokering peace talks among Israelis and Palestinians.  Ross also served Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as a special advisor on Iran.

"What I worry about is that in the desire to avoid being sucked into something the situation will get to the point where we will have no choice but to intervene and in a way where the costs of intervention are higher than the y might have been," says Ross.  "In terms of the cost of inaction, there is a human cost but there is also a strategic cost -- the situation in Syria is going to get worse, and it is going to continue to affect all the neighbors, and the costs of not doing much will continue to go up."

Around the State Department and among diplomatic hands fears grow each day that the worst case scenarios for neighboring countries may actually come to pass -- that Jordan will implode from the burgeoning refugee crisis, that Lebanon will descend into civil war, and that Israel may be drawn into the conflict in one way or another even more than it already has.  There is also the scenario in which Syria ends up a failed and fragmented state in which segments of al Qaeda are embedded.

And then, of course, there is Iran.

While questions have swirled around whether and how chemical weapons have been used in Syria, what is certain is that Iran is watching to see how the United States deals with the "red line" President Obama demarcated on the use of chemical weapons.

"Having established a red line, if you don't act, the consequences of that would be felt throughout the region and certainly by the Iranians," Ross says.  "If we want to avoid the use of force against the Iranian nuclear program, the Iranians have got to believe that a failure of diplomacy is going to lead to action, and right now I don't think they believe that."

Ross says he believes the Obama administration will pursue military action if diplomatic efforts concerning Iran's nuclear program collapse. That said, if the Iranians don't believe he will, it could make the use of force more rather than less likely, a worst-case outcome for all sides.

And when it comes to Syria, the optics are as important as the concrete actions.

"We need to be seen to be active in ways that don't involve us taking military action," says Crocker.  "That is more of what Sec. Kerry is doing, more humanitarian assistance and being sure that the world knows about it -- and more interaction with the opposition."

What nearly everyone agrees upon, whatever level of involvement they favor, is that the options in Syria are limited and lousy.

"My sense is that the president is not at this stage interested in getting out in front in this situation" given the strong push toward a military campaign from the Hill and Washington allies, says Pickering. "I have a lot of sympathy for where he is leaning. My problem with the president has always been that he is a hell of a lot better at saying it than he is at doing it."

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

It's Morning in Islamabad

Yes, it’s broke, violent, and tumultuous. But here are five reasons Pakistan is better off than you think.

As Pakistan prepares to return to the polls on May 11, dark clouds loom. What should be a time of celebration for a country experiencing its first democratic transition in 63 years has turned into a somber and strange moment of quasi-reflection.

Politicians and their families face the ongoing wrath of the Pakistani Taliban, as terrorists keep their promises of spilling the blood of openly anti-Taliban parties. Electricity in many parts of the country is in short supply, the treasury is near empty, and the government -- unlike the Taliban -- is unable to keep its promise of preventing terrorist attacks and ensuring security.  

Meanwhile, tensions are surging on Pakistan's border. To the west, Afghan and Pakistani forces exchanged fire in early May, prompting Afghan President Hamid Karzai to question the very nature of the border between the two countries, known as the Durand Line. On April 26, an Indian terrorist serving a life sentence in a Pakistani jail was beaten to death by inmates. Indian prisoners responded with a pick-axe attack on a Pakistani prisoner in an Indian jail.

Domestic tensions, and those with Afghanistan and India, probably won't spin out of control, but still, life isn't easy for Pakistani optimists.

Despite it all -- and this is Pakistan, so all is quite a lot -- there are significant reasons to be hopeful. Here are the five biggest.

1. Feisty democracy

This first-ever transition from one elected government to the next is a big deal, partially because Pakistanis are depressingly familiar with military interventions preceding power transfers. But it's also important because Pakistan's recent experience with democracy has been so unpleasant.

The word "democracy" has become a tragic punchline in Pakistan, ever since President Asif Ali Zardari appealed to rioters reacting to his wife Benazir Bhutto's December 2007 assassination by stating that "democracy is the best revenge." Elected to succeed his wife, Zardari now oversees a notoriously inept government: his nominees for prime minister have all been investigated, indicted, or convicted for corruption.

Zardari's government has also had to endure, in 2008 alone, the blowback from the Mumbai terror attacks, near bankruptcy, and a return to the International Monetary Fund for another $7.6 billion after the global financial crisis. Three years later, 2011 saw the Raymond Davis incident, the humiliating U.S. raid to kill Osama bin Laden, and the U.S.-NATO attack on the Pakistani border post of Salala that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. These stresses claimed many scalps, including former Pakistani Ambassador to the United States Husain Haqqani, former Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi and former National Security Advisor Mahmud Durrani. That's not to mention several high-profile political assassinations -- and many thousands dead from fighting. To top it all off, in 2010, Pakistan experienced one of the most devastating floods of the 20th century, affecting more than 20 million people and marginalizing the agrarian economies of the Pakistani heartland for almost a year.

And yet, after enduring these calamities Pakistanis are not only engaged in a major political debate about the future, but also likely to break records for voter turnout on May 11.

What Pakistan has gone through since 2008 would have wiped out any chance of another free election in the Pakistan of the past. Yet there is now confidence and hope that not every government will be as feckless the last. Whatever the election result is on May 11, a young and fragile democracy is going to take a giant leap.

2. Activist judges

When then President Pervez Musharraf tried to fire him in 2007, Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry refused to go quietly into the sun. Like his predecessors, Musharraf had used the judiciary to help him discredit and imprison political opponents, and then disposed the judges that grow a conscience or chose a different team.

Instead of rolling over, Chaudhry fought back. He rallied some of the lawyers he knew, and within days, a movement emerged. Lawyers across the country gathered in support of a single cause: the reinstatement of Chaudhry. Musharraf miscalculated the intensity of the fury that they were channeling -- less around Chaudhry and more around the fatigue the country felt after eight years of Musharraf's monotonous and ineffective rule.

Two years, one national emergency, millions of marchers, and a national election later, the chief justice was finally restored in March 2009. Since then, he has revitalized the judiciary by making it part of the daily national discourse. To do so, he's taken on explicitly political cases, becoming a folk hero in the process. Former Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, elected unopposed in 2008 -- and, with a four year term, the longest serving PM in Pakistan's history -- was felled by Chaudhry after Gilani refused to reopen fraud investigations against his boss, Zardari. Chaudhry has repeatedly hauled in key officials suspected of corruption, cementing the Supreme Court's status as a power center.

Yes, Chaudhary's model of activism is fraught with all kinds of political and institutional risk, and will contaminate the imagination of the next generation of Supreme Court judges, some of whom will seek to grab more power than Chaudhry currently wields. But his activism has helped create a vital venting mechanism for Pakistan. In the Pakistan of old, Gilani might have been handed his walking papers by a general on a tank, illegally and unconstitutionally. The judges have found a way to challenge unbridled executive authority by bending the Pakistani constitution, rather than breaking it.

The most poignant sign of the judiciary coming of age is its treatment of Musharraf: The former dictator was jailed in April in the house he built to retire in. Once again, Chaudhry has showed Pakistan that the military is not above the law.

3. Freer media

Despite threats of violence from insurgents and terrorists, the media continues to hold up a remarkably candid and brutal mirror to the face of powerful Pakistanis -- be they in uniform, robes, or the suits and shalwar kameez of politicians and businessmen.

For example, consider the outrage sparked in April after lower court judges rejected the candidacy of politicians because they didn't seem "Muslim enough." In came the journalists, pens and microphones blazing. Three days later, the hullabullo was over. Ten years ago, very few of those politicians would have had any advocates in the public discourse, and most would have been shouted down by obscurantists batting for those judges.

There is, of course, much room for improvement. Pakistan ranks 159th in Reporters Without Borders' 2013 Press Freedom Index, just below Egypt. And on May 9, the major networks played, on incessant loop, video of people falling out of a burning building to their deaths. But that hunger for ratings and scoops is also what has produced a range of incredible acts of journalistic courage, all of which help sustain the status of the media as the steward of hope for a more free and pluralistic Pakistani public discourse.

4. Youth surge

More than 100 million of Pakistan's 177 million people are below the age of 25 -- and they're referred to in Islamabad as a "ticking bomb." Yet Pakistani youth are increasingly raised in cities, to families that can broadly be categorized as middle class. They are the apple of marketers' and advertisers' eyes; as regional and global telecoms and consumer goods manufacturers seek to expand beyond the BRICs, they are coming to countries like Pakistan. Pakistani youth have access to the Internet, to mobile phones, and to the ideas and information these technologies bring.

And this election has become about them. Prime ministerial* candidate Imran Khan, whose status as a Pakistani icon was sealed when he won for his country the cricket World Cup in 1992, became even more cherished when he raised money for the construction of Pakistan's premier cancer hospital in the mid-1990s, as a memorial to the mother he lost to the disease. Despite accusations to the contrary, Khan has an excellent record of public service and integrity, which drives his appeal among youth. For 16 years, he peddled these qualities in a Pakistan whose politics was dominated by Benazir Bhutto and the pro-business Nawaz Sharif. And then something shifted. It's hard to pinpoint exactly what it was -- maybe the fatigue from the tired and broken rhetoric of the traditional parties. But in October 2011, more than 100,000 Pakistanis, many young and middle class, came together in Lahore to demand "change."

Khan's rhetoric has not changed since the 1990s. It is raw, simplistic, and incredibly powerful: He wants an end to patronage and corruption. The crowds Khan is drawing across all four of the country's provinces are reminiscent of former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's cross-ethnic, cross-provincial appeal (though Bhutto didn't deliver on many of his promises). Then, as now, a national leader rode to power on the back of young people. Khan may not win the election on May 11, but he is the trigger-man for an entire generation of Pakistan and its engagement with politics. Their continued and sustained involvement in the affairs of their country could help mold a Pakistan that holds itself accountable for its actions -- internally and externally.

5. Indian thaw

Since the November 2008 Mumbai attacks, there has been a predictable hardening of opinion in India about what Pakistan represents: instability and violence.

But in Pakistan, India no longer represents the first, or even the second, most important villain. Sometimes, it's no longer even seen as a public enemy. It could be because of a new preoccupation with the United States as the principal tormentor, or because of domestic crises unrelated to India. Perhaps most importantly, Pakistan's elite have decided to prioritize trade and regional prosperity over disputes that neither country will outright win.

Consider the Pakistani reaction to events that have set the Indian national discourse on fire. In January, both India and Pakistan breached the uneasy border between the two countries. India was furious, particularly after accounts surfaced of Pakistani troops beheading an Indian soldier. A decade ago, Pakistan's response would have been to reciprocate and escalate. But this time, Pakistan's government and media barely responded at all, and Islamabad even offered India a U.N. investigation. Once India calmed down, tensions eased.

This is not to say that Pakistanis embrace their neighbor. They are still smart about India's role in separating Pakistan from Bangladesh, and still view with acrimony India's administration over large parts of Kashmir. Yet for all the bitterness and baggage, even the juiciest volleys from India are now returned with a disengaged "meh." This will likely remain the status quo for a while. As long as it does, the doors remain open for India to tap into an unprecedented national appetite for normalcy.

* * *

No one will accuse Pakistan of being a model of tranquility. It remains shackled by security, economic, and political challenges. Things are not great in Pakistan, but they're better than anyone could have expected. And on the  eve of a historic, if bloody, election, that's worth remembering.

*Correction, May 10, 2013: An earlier version incorrectly referred to Imran Khan as a presidential candidate. (Return to article.)

ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images