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You Know It's Bad…

When progress in the Middle East seems more in reach than a Washington that works.

It says all you need to know about the current state of the Obama administration that the region of the world in which its greatest opportunities may lie over the next several years is the Middle East. This is not because there are any great opportunities in the Middle East. Quite the contrary, it's perhaps more dangerous, complex, and immune to successful international intervention that at any time in memory. The point is this: on pretty much every other front, a series of missteps, self-inflicted wounds, and worse have damaged President Obama in ways that are likely to limit his options and effectiveness for the rest of his term.

Before the latest flare up regarding Benghazi, before the IRS scandal, before the chilling encroachment on a free press of the AP investigation, the president faced an uphill climb on his domestic agenda. The political environment in Washington is toxic. The president's allies on Capitol Hill are weak or inept, and many are both. His congressional opponents are masters of the art of obstruction.

So Obama already faced near insurmountable obstacles to getting his legislation passed. We had already seen it on gun control. Despite the horror of Newtown and all the gun death tragedies that preceded it -- and the virtually universal wave of public support for basic common sense reforms like background checks for gun buyers -- the president's bill faltered. Much of this was due to the pressure of the gun lobby, merchants of death who continue to pursue profit literally at any cost. But some of it was due to faulty strategy and unsuccessful leadership from the White House, not least of which was the inability of the president to get his own party in line on Capitol Hill.

Progress on fiscal reforms has been halting at best for several years now and despite the hopes that may have emerged that last November's elections would be seen as a mandate for both the president and bipartisan cooperation, we seem ready to enter another game of chicken with the markets on debt limits because little else actually has proven able to effectively mobilize our legislators ... and again, because the White House has not effectively been able to formulate a winning legislative strategy.

Immigration reform was seen as perhaps the last best hope for progress. And as recently as last night in speaking with senior administration officials they expressed hope that even the House of Representatives might pass such measures. But given the current political environment -- and the many weapons that Obama's opponents now have to use against him due to his administration's mismanagement and overreach -- even the comparatively modest, commonsensical reforms being considered by Congress now are at risk.

Besides, soon it will be 2014 and the focus will be on midterm elections. And already, as the attacks on Democratic 2016 frontrunner Hillary Clinton have shown, the next presidential election cycle is weighing on the minds of the American political class. So making progress on anything domestically will grow harder before it grows impossible. The one hope of avoiding that scenario had been the prospect of a big Democratic victory in 2014 that would give the president majorities in both houses of Congress for his last two years. A year and a half is a long time in politics. But how much less likely does such a big Democratic victory look this week than it did last?

All of which leads to the inescapable conclusion that this president and his team, as so many second-term presidents before him, are likely to look overseas for their "legacy" issues. Second-term presidents find that few people understand them like their counterparts around the world. Bonds build. But even here, prospects for true success are questionable. To start, Obama has developed a smaller international network of friends in high places than his last four predecessors. What's more, an America that is weakened economically and tarred by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will have a harder time getting anything done beyond its borders. So too does the relative rise of other powers impact what Obama can hope to accomplish. Our neglect of creating effective international institutions -- indeed, our active cultivation of weak ones -- also makes it harder for the United States to lead, where once we could with our massive checkbook and greater willingness to use force or to throw our political weight around.

We won't rebuild Europe's teetering economy. We can't fix Japan. There are no big breakthroughs lurking in our relationships with China, India, Brazil, or Russia. We have a couple of trade deals on which progress can -- and should -- be made: the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the emerging trans-Atlantic trade deal. But the TPP will be harder to conclude than anticipated and is only a modest step forward that will have virtually no domestic political or historical resonance. The trans-Atlantic deal could be important, especially if it is a step toward a reinvigorated, reinvented trans-Atlantic security relationship, but it is very likely to be complicated and if past deals are indicative of the pace at which this will unfold, unlikely to be concluded until well into the term of Barack Obama's successor.

That leaves the Middle East. There are no easy solutions there. Even just getting out of Afghanistan is likely to produce a mess and Iraq poses looming great problems. We don't have the resources to make a big difference in Egypt nor are we sure how we feel about its post-revolutionary Muslim Brotherhood leadership. In Syria, the choices we face are all bad. There are no good partners among the forces fighting to oust President Bashir al-Assad. The best outcome we might hope for is not anything like peace or a more benign new government, but merely containing the fighting that is likely to rage there for years to come. In Israel and the Palestinian territories, well, solutions have eluded us for 50 years -- and don't seem any closer at hand.

Still... The new U.S. secretary of State, John Kerry, has been indefatigable in his first few months in pressing the case for progress on both Syria and Israel/Palestine. He is winning the attention and respect of leaders in the region. And while it would be naïve beyond reason to expect his efforts to produce miracle breakthroughs, it is not unreasonable to think he could help engineer international mechanisms or processes that could at least re-engage the opposing sides in Syria or Israel and the Palestinian territories -- which would be progress indeed, if only of the fragmentary sort. The president seems committed to such an outcome. His team is working on it. And in talking to diplomats from the region, it seems possible that the administration's efforts could produce something somewhat more akin to progress than that which we are likely to see at home in America. Because really the situation here is a truly disheartening mess.

Few of us have seen in our adult lives a confluence of blunders bespeaking arrogance, mismanagement, and bad judgment like we have seen this past week in Washington. In particular, the inexcusable transformation of the IRS into a political cudgel and the grotesquely hypocritical threat to the First Amendment in the AP case of an administration that has selectively embraced leaks as a political tool for years are indefensible. Taken with the questions raised by the bungled communications surrounding Benghazi, and the credibility of the Obama team will be damaged for a long, long time -- permanently if the president does not himself lead an effort at introspection, reevaluation, admission of mistakes, and real change within his team. But even with such an effort, we have come to a point where the situation in Washington is so bleak on so many levels that the last best hopes of achievements by this administration almost certainly lie outside our borders. You know things are bad when making any real headway with Congress on the important issues we face at home seems less likely than progress toward peace in the Middle East

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

David Rothkopf

Red-Line Follies

Sorting the mistakes from the fiascos on Syria.

There is so much wrong with the current "red-line" mess with Syria that a little sorting out is in order. It has gotten to the point that you can't tell which fiasco you are talking about without a scorecard.

In the first instance, of course, there is the self-inflicted wound element of the problem, as reported in Sunday's New York Times. Apparently, according to the paper, the president's initial use of the term "red line" was an ill-considered bit of rhetorical muscle-flexing on his part. Since the president is the font from which all policy flows, it can hardly be called freelancing, but it was something close, making policy with a slip of the lip and less reflection on consequences than is truly desirable.

Of course, the word "consequences" cuts to another dimension of the problem that goes beyond the process misstep involved. Declaring a red line without figuring out the consequences you are willing to impose in advance is asking for trouble. It is the equivalent of a parent threatening an unruly child by counting to three: It works fine if the child doesn't have the courage, curiosity, or recklessness to find out what happens after you get to three. Typically, however, the approach doesn't work if the one you are seeking to talk back into line is a proven mass-murderer.

Another problem associated with the red line that Sen. John McCain quipped was written in "disappearing" ink has to do with the various ways United States has hemmed and hawed about the issue in the days since evidence appeared that suggested the red line might have been crossed. Admittedly, some of this was soundly cautious, a "let's be sure" reaction that was a hard-learned lesson from Iraq. But some of it -- notably the mixed signals that included Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's suggesting that the line might have been passed (a little, somehow, but not too much, but still worrisomely) while also saying the United States was considering tougher measures while also not actually taking any -- was a classic illustration of a rudderless reaction.

Also unsettling was the press spinning in the past 24 hours in the wake of the Israeli strikes on Syria. While the Israeli action was, as the president has indicated, wholly justifiable, the United States seems to be playing both sides on this one. On the one hand, there were assertions to the press in the wake of the first attacks that the United States was not notified of them until after the fact. On the other, on Monday morning NBC reported that U.S. national security sources had indicated the Israelis had used U.S. intelligence in their preparations.

None of the dimensions of this muddle is nearly as ugly as the whole notion that it is appropriate to have declared the use of chemical weapons to be a red line in the first place. There should be no debate about the fact that the use of weapons of mass destruction is an especially heinous threat warranting strong response. But events have underscored just how arbitrary and morally questionable the distinction is. According to the United Nations, as of last month, more than 70,000 people have been killed in Syria by conventional means in the past two years. And, as reported by CNN, citing comments from U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights Navi Pillay, that may "actually be an underestimate." Not only is that more than twice the estimated death toll in the Libyan conflict but, as it happens, it is roughly the same as the immediate death toll in the wake of the nuclear attack on Nagasaki at the end of World War II (60,000-80,000).

So we're really splitting hairs here when it comes to red lines, aren't we? Are we more concerned by the means of attack than we are by the ends achieved? Surely to those who are victims, the losses are just as grievous.

Secretary of State John Kerry is visiting Moscow this week to try to encourage Russia to assist in the bringing of this conflict to an end. While cajoling or pressuring the Russians has not worked to date, this is the right move at the moment. Frankly, there is no way to further pressure Syrian President Bashar al-Assad -- he has no Plan B. The day after he ceases being Syria's ruler (and its executioner-in-chief), he will become a prisoner or be one of its casualties. Similarly, his backers in Tehran have embraced their pariah status.  They are flaunting global rules regarding nuclear proliferation and remain the world's leading state sponsor of terror. Expecting them to change their stripes anytime soon is foolish.

That leaves Russia's Vladimir Putin, who perversely is enabling a mass-murderer as part of a campaign to remain globally relevant. The Russians have a big event coming up next year in Sochi -- the Olympics -- that will have all eyes of the world upon them. To date, their support of Syria has had no real cost. It is time for Kerry to indicate that the United States has both carrots and sticks and the will to use them to move the Russians to a position more consistent with international law and basic human decency. Now that Washington has become more engaged, post-Boston, in its awareness of the problem of fundamentalism in Russia's near abroad, it can more effectively partner with the Kremlin in a way that will be increasingly important in the run up to the Games. Alternatively, the United States can and should privately send a message that should the Russians refuse to play a more constructive role, America will have to reconsider its involvement in their big party.

Admittedly, evoking a Jimmy Carter-era policy is hardly a sure-fire winner in terms of public opinion. And there are certainly other ways to pressure the Russians (how aggressively and quickly we go into the business of offering Europe a cheaper, more dependable alternative to Russian natural gas is just one example). But because Russia is the one key player in this equation that is vulnerable to international pressure and because its behavior to date on this has been so egregious, Kerry must be clear that the United States will use all the tools in its toolbox to get the Kremlin to move on Syria. If then, he can also find a way to work with others in the region -- not just the Israelis but the moderate Arab states of the Middle East -- to turn up the military heat on Assad, then perhaps the Obama team can use the confusion and reflection associated with these red-line follies to help move us toward a more constructive approach in that ravaged country.

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