The New Problem From Hell

Obama's options in Syria are awful. But the United States is headed for intervention anyway.

Speaking from a refugee camp in Turkey last year, Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami told CNN that, like Bill Clinton, who felt ashamed for not intervening to stop the Rwandan genocide, Barack Obama will look back with regret at his refusal to use American power in Syria.

By any standard, Syria is a disaster.

But it's not Rwanda, where 800,000 Tutsis were massacred within a period of eight months. Nor is it Obama's disaster in the sense that he's responsible for what has transpired there by not intervening.

Obama has avoided intervention not because he's insensitive, incompetent, or even uninterested. He has done so because his options aren't just bad, they're terrible. Syria is already a disaster, but a ham-handed intervention could make matters worse, certainly for America.

The commentariat is looking for ways to press the administration to act. Their arguments are largely correct: Syria is indeed a moral, humanitarian, and strategic disaster. But their prescription for action is long on generalities and short on specifics, and even fuzzier on how the United States could stabilize the country and then extract itself from yet another entanglement in the Middle East. No analogy is all that relevant here -- not Rwanda, not Libya, not Bosnia. The Syrian calamity is unique.

The American experience in Afghanistan and Iraq looms large over the Syrian conflict. The parallel that's worth paying attention to isn't boots on the ground -- it's the question of connecting means to ends. In the Syrian case, the central question is: How does militarizing the American role -- through providing arms to the rebels, creating a no-fly zone, or even launching military strikes -- pave the way for a successful outcome?

None of the incremental steps that have been proposed so far have answered the following questions: Can these actions degrade Syria's military power so that President Bashar al-Assad's regime collapses? Or, alternatively, can they produce a stalemate that would force the regime, the Russians, and Iran to accept a negotiated transition?

Even if Assad falls, why do we believe that the battle in Syria will end? In the wake of the regime's collapse, the Syrian war may well expand -- Alawite militias will continue the fight, opposition groups will struggle among themselves for control, and foreign powers will continue to meddle in the hopes of emerging on top of the new Syrian political order. If America wants to play in this war, so be it -- but experience suggests it's the kind of arena in which we can't win.

It's not that America can't intervene militarily in Syria, or even that the options on the table are too risky. The problem is that the incremental steps being considered probably won't work without a much more sustained and aggressive military intervention. And after America's baby steps into the Syrian war don't resolve it, Obama will face a choice: He can either stand down and reveal we don't have the will to stand up, or he can escalate. On this front, I agree with my former colleague Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who argued that being heartless is better than being mindless.

Those are all good reasons to avoid intervening in Syria -- but I doubt they will carry the day. By the end of the summer, more than 100,000 Syrians are likely to have died in a calamitous civil war that shows no signs of abating. As a result, the pressure to intervene will mount on the risk-averse Obama administration. Here's why we are headed for a militarization of the U.S. role in Syria.

Time's starting to run out

The Syrian crisis might go on, in one form or another, for years. But the Obama presidency won't. The president's awareness that the clock's ticking -- and that there's no third term on the horizon -- will increasingly weigh on his decision-making.

Yes, we're only six months into Obama's new term. But second-term presidents -- not to mention their advisors -- quickly start to focus on what's important and what's not, because they know time is now limited. How a president will be remembered becomes critically important.

History -- an important commodity for presidents -- is likely to judge Obama very unkindly for his passivity. From where we sit today, it is easier to reach the conclusion that Syria is a trap for America. But once Obama's term concludes, there will be a different evaluation. People will forget the details and circumstances -- they will only see the dead and the wounded, the refugees and the physical devastation. They will want to know why America wouldn't or couldn't do more. And that's partly why the pressure to do something will grow. Obama knows that Syria is the key story line in the so-called Arab Spring and that his own legacy will suffer unless he moves to counteract the negative appraisals currently gathering force. So, does he want to share the legacy of the last Democratic president, who failed to intervene in Rwanda and almost in Bosnia, too?

No diplomatic track in sight

The arc of the Syrian civil war seems pretty well set. These kinds of conflicts end either when one side triumphs, or when a third party intercedes to impose its will.

From the beginning, the conventional wisdom has been that the regime could not survive. That logic was partly driven by the fact that no other autocrats survived the Arab Spring. But it was also driven by what seemed like simple arithmetic: The regime looked increasingly weakened (subtraction) and the opposition seemed to be gaining in strength (addition). At some point, situation would reach a tipping point, and Assad would be overthrown.

That hasn't happened. We have a military stalemate -- or perhaps even a situation where the regime is gaining strength, while the opposition is losing it. Still, it appears that there's no military solution, and that only a political deal can end the conflict. Last year, the United Nations gave the diplomatic track a name: the "Geneva process." It has now been reenergized by the active participation of the United States under the leadership of Secretary of State John Kerry.

Whether or not the United States thinks this can work is irrelevant. What's important is that its strategy, at this point, is to get the Russians to force the regime and the rebels to the negotiating table. If Washington and Moscow can accomplish that, they just may be able to convince the warring parties to negotiate a political transition that eases Assad out, while bringing a coherent group of opposition elements to power. Such an accomplishment would go a long way to stopping the killing and preempting the need for U.S. military intervention.

But the odds that Geneva will succeed are long indeed. To paraphrase poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, let me count the ways it could fail: Will the Russians really pressure Assad to leave? Will the Syrian dictator agree, particularly at a time when his regime is scoring military gains? Can anyone really speak authoritatively for the rebels inside and outside Syria? Will they risk a situation that leaves Assad in place -- at least for a time?

The paradox of Geneva 2.0 is that it could pave the way for the very situation the United States has tried to avoid. If (or when) diplomacy fails, it will be clear that there is only one remaining option to stop the bloodshed: military intervention. Pressure will grow on the Obama administration to shoot, not talk.

The tough ladies are back

Individuals do matter in forging the U.S. government's response to an international crisis. And the ascension of Susan Rice as Obama's national security advisor and Samantha Power as America's envoy at the United Nations increases the odds of intervention in Syria.

Those two appointments have raised public expectations for the administration's foreign policy. Even I was surprised to see last week's Washington Post headline following the announcements: "Obama signals new approach on national security: A bigger U.S. role abroad." The implication was clear: There's a new sheriff in town.

I wouldn't dismiss this line so quickly. Rice is smart, tough, disciplined, and reportedly risk-averse on Syria. But she has a new job, and expectations for new and bolder initiatives are mounting. Combined with her own determination to make a difference, one of the pieces of the puzzle for intervention may have just fallen into place: She is closer to the president than any other foreign policy adviser. Should she join the chorus of those in the last term who pressed for bolder action (Hillary Clinton, David Petraeus), Obama will now have counsel to act from someone he truly respects and trusts.  

It's lonely at the top. Sometimes you need close company to make tough decisions. Obama may now have it.

The other tough lady, Samantha Power, wrote a book about the Balkans (and other mass slaughters) called "A Problem From Hell." That of course describes Syria, too. This problem isn't going away. Indeed, it will likely get worse -- before it gets even worse.

Too much blood has flowed in Syria to imagine a quick, negotiated settlement. The longer the conflict continues, the greater the odds that some new kinetic element -- an Israeli-Syrian confrontation, massive use of chemical weapons, or some atrocity that surpasses previous horrors -- will occur.

The steady drumbeat of death in Syria will increase the pressure on the United States to do something, anything, to stop the violence -- even if it's out of good options for doing so. For better or worse, the Obama administration seems headed for military intervention in Syria, with all the risk and uncertainty that entails.

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Reality Check

Peace Offensive

Obama thinks he can solve the world’s most intractable conflicts. What if he’s wrong?

Now that President Barack Obama has decided that the war on terror has entered a new phase, he plans to devote a greater effort -- in the immortal words of John Lennon -- to giving peace a chance.

That shift is already underway. The indefatigable John Kerry seems to be engaged everywhere:  Syria, Israel/Palestine, and North Korea. Most of the time, talking is better than shooting -- and if America's efforts are focused and well-timed, the secretary of state could rack up a lot more than just frequent flier miles. 

Whether Susan Rice's arrival at the National Security Council will make Kerry more risk-averse or risk-ready is not at all clear. What's undeniable is the Rice appointment will reinforce the White House's tendency to dominate, not delegate. The new NSA, a highly skilled and knowledgeable foreign-policy professional close to the president, is about to become physically  proximate to Barack Obama as well.

That's even more reason to take a deep breath right now. Just as the pendulum may have swung too far to one side on counterterrorism, we need to avoid getting carried away on the diplomacy and engagement side too. With that in mind, here are seven highly questionable assumptions that often pass as Washington conventional wisdom about America's role in the world today.

"All Conflicts End"

Not necessarily. Historic conflicts usually don't have permanent solutions, they have temporary outcomes.

These struggles don't end neatly: After all, they are driven by deep-seated historic wounds, usually with religious convictions thrown in for greater complexity. Their time horizons usually transcend the four or eight-year bite size pieces in which American presidents measure their political lives. They are measured in generations, not administrations.

There are indeed times when the United States has proven instrumental in helping the locals achieve good outcomes (see: Jimmy Carter's work on the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, Richard Holbrooke's Dayton Accord, or George Mitchell's Good Friday Agreement). But these results have at least as much to do with luck, timing, and the calculations of the locals as they do with the schemes and dreams of Washington diplomats.

"Solutionists" hate the idea that United States can't want a deal more than the parties themselves.  And I can see why. It destroys the conceit that America has the power to impose things, even when the smaller powers don't want it. But that line isn't just a throwaway to avoid American responsibility. It's driven by the powerful logic of ownership.

Its not that U.S. influence is irrelevant -- it's that the agendas of the locals matter more. In every successful U.S.-brokered negotiation, certainly in the Middle East, the parties themselves, driven by both pain and gain, wanted a deal or at least were prepared to accept one, given the unattractive alternatives. And right now, that doesn't describe the Syrian rebels or the Syrian, or the Israelis and Palestinians.

"Trying (and failing) is always better than not trying"

No it's not.  Only in our "America the Indispensable" world could we believe that we should get credit for failing too.

It's akin to the "old college try" or the "you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs" school of diplomacy. But American foreign policy isn't the Harvard-Yale football game, and it's not about breakfast.

Whether on the battlefield or around the negotiating table, failure has its costs. The most compelling ideology in the world today isn't democracy, nationalism, or capitalism -- it's success. And that's because only success generates power and constituents; failure produces the opposite.

None of this is an excuse for not trying. Rather, it's a cri de coeur for thinking clearly before trying, and doing so with an unforgiving assessment of your prospects for success.  Action and inaction both carry risk. The issue is how to reduce it. Failure can produce unintended consequences that can be worse than the original problem you're trying to resolve -- and it can badly damage the street cred of those who stuck their neck out in the first place.

One of the unintended consequences of the poorly planned and ill-conceived July 2000 Camp David summit was the descent into violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories -- Yasir Arafat's doing -- from which the peace process has yet to recover. The lesson is this: The best of intentions combined with bad analysis and policy can produce disasters.

John Kerry is now involved in two high-risk and pretty low-return diplomatic efforts -- to end the Syrian civil war and to promote an Israeli-Palestinian peace. The former is based on a sound premise - that there's no military solution -- and also on a slim hope that a peace conference can start a process that will end a civil war. And let's not forget the American desire to look for any way to avoid militarizing its own role. 

More likely, Geneva 2.0 will end up weakening the rebels and strengthening the regime. That's because there's just not enough pain and gain to impel the rebels, regime, and Russians to accept a diplomatic outcome, and insufficient leverage on Kerry's part to force one. And paradoxically, if the political effort fails, it may well accelerate the very outcome the president wants to avoid -- militarizing the U.S. role. Indeed, the rebels have a stake in undermining a political solution precisely for this reason.

The United States will likely fare a little better on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, partly because nobody wants to be blamed for saying no to the secretary of state. By borrowing a page out of former Secretary of State Jim Baker's book -- the "dead cat" approach -- Kerry may be able to convince Israelis and Palestinians that neither wants Washington to leave this issue on their doorstep. But getting talks started isn't the same as sustaining them: Another collapse could well leave the peace process not just dead, but dead and buried.

"Foreign Policy Should Trump Everything Else" 

Really? Diplomats and foreign policy analysts and academics hate domestic politics. They think it is sordid, counterproductive, irrational, or all of the above.

According to this logic, the national interest is just too important to be left to the politicians, or the public for that matter. They also think it is far too pressing to allow other considerations -- like a president's domestic agenda -- to constrain the United States from acting abroad. Instead, foreign policy should be entrusted to the State Department, where domestic politics are at best an inconvenience and at worse a pain in the ass.

As a product of the U.S. Senate, this isn't John Kerry's view -- or it wasn't during his time as a senator. His first major speech as secretary of state could have been an ad for my colleague Richard Haass's new book, Foreign Policy Begins at Home.

And yet just the other day, in arguing the Syria issue with a State Department official and a prominent member of the commentariat, both made the case that the president must lead public opinion. Regardless of what the polls showed, they said, Obama needed to be bolder on Syria, providing military support regardless of what the public thought.

This notion that the national interest is a sacrosanct, quasi-religious object that can only be touched by the foreign policy high priests is not just silly -- it's simply not the way the system works.

Our political system was intentionally designed to be competitive. Powers are diffused, shared, and separated between the different branches of government. Lobbies, competing priorities, public opinion, and Congress all play a role. And on balance, it's neither good nor bad -- it's just the way things work. Neither the experts in Foggy Bottom nor those up on Capitol Hill run the show.

Our president sits at the top of the pile of foreign policy decision makers. But even he has competing interests that don't make it possible to consider the national interest without also taking domestic politics into account.

On Syria, the president's risk aversion is a driven partly by the absence of good options, partly by his own domestic priorities, partly by the polls that show the majority of Americans not eager to intervene -- and yes, by Iraq and Afghanistan, among the most pointless wars in U.S. history. And guess what? Americans have figured that out, and it plays a role in their opinions about getting entangled in Syria as well.

"It's Hearts and Minds"

Sorry, it's minds and hearts. I've always wondered how someone came up with the notion that the way to change peoples' minds about America is to appeal first to their emotions and only then to their sense of logic. Only Americans -- with their self-centered, solipsistic view of the world -- could have the blind self-confidence to think that.

Take the Middle East, where it's no secret we have significant problems with public opinion. And forget for a moment that Barack Obama came into office promising a new dawn in U.S. relations with the Arab and Muslim world, raising expectations to stratospheric levels that could only crash down to earth when confronted with reality.

People may or may or may not like who we are in that angry region -- but they clearly don't like what we do. They are angry about our liberal use of drones, our support for authoritarian kings and Israel, and our lack of support for the Palestinians. Why do we think that by changing the wrapping paper on the gift box, even as we keep the contents inside the same, that we are going to win hearts and minds?

If you change America's policies, then guess what -- you might have a chance to earn Middle Eastern citizens' respect and trust. It's minds first, then hearts. But as I've long said in this space and elsewhere, U.S. policy in the Middle East largely isn't going to change. We just have some fundamental conflicts and differing worldviews that aren't easily reconciled. But we should at least stop deluding ourselves that we're going to win a lot of friends this way.

"Obama Has Kerry's Back" 

That remains to be seen. I've argued for some time now that Obama is the United States' most controlling foreign-policy president since Richard Nixon. He dominates, not delegates, a trend likely to be reinforced by Susan Rice's arrival. A slew of political crises plus the press of business in a second term have forced Obama to give the secretary of state more running room. But how much isn't all that clear.

Right now, Kerry has invested pretty heavily in two issues: Syria and the peace process. On the first, there's little doubt that Kerry believes the United States must be bolder. What else could explain his improbable effort to cooperate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who sees Bashar al-Assad not just as part of the problem, but part of the solution too. The only explanation is that Kerry knows it's a long shot, but that when it fails his own argument for backing the rebels with arms and training or a no-fly zone will be strengthened -- and that even Obama will be forced to accept it.

But on the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, it's by no means certain that Kerry will get that far. Obama didn't reset his relationship with Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu only to go to war with him six months later. All kinds of issues will prevent that from happening -- the increasing need for close U.S.-Israeli cooperation on Iran and Syria and congressional midterms are two good ones.

Should Kerry set up a real chance to forge an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, the president's willingness to take risks and fight with Israel might change. But not until then.

"Second Term Presidents Have Freer Hands" 

No they don't. Where this urban legend came from is hard to say. It sounds great on paper: No reelection constraints, greater latitude to do what they want on foreign policy. This myth is most frequently applied to the Middle East -- but there's no precedent for a U.S. president taking a major leap on the peace process, let alone fighting with Israel, in his second term. It was Ehud Barak who pushed Bill Clinton to Camp David, and if Clinton got mad at anyone there, it was Arafat and the Palestinians -- not the Israelis. 

The fact is that it's the presence of opportunity that pushes a president to take risks, not the absence of political constraints. And in a second term, the pursuit of legacy competes with the reality of lame duck status. Presidents will take risks -- but only on things that are important to them, and where they believe they can succeed. Legacy works two ways: You can be the hero or the goat. Barack Obama will only risk the latter if there's good chance he can be the former.

"America Is the Indispensable Nation"

What does that even mean? Sure we're the greatest power on earth. Despite the rise of China, our military, economic, cultural and political power will remain the envy of the world for years to come.

But power is one thing -- the capacity to use it effectively is another. We never controlled the world, but we had moments when we could project our power wisely and effectively. But it's been a bumpy road since the Bush 41 years, and our successes in war making and peacemaking have been much less impressive than years past. The world is more complicated now, and so is our own domestic situation.

We remain the world's preeminent power. But how much success we'll have in protecting our interests, doing good, and shaping the international environment won't hinge on some "Indispensable Power." It depends on our will, skill, and of course on our luck.

America's ability to alter the course of world events is going to be more situational than ever before. But hey, you know what? Even back in the day, we were never the world's 911 call. And we are certainly in no position to play that role today.

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