The Limits of Action

Let's face it: Obama has limited interest, limited options, and limited reasons to get involved in Syria.

By now, President Barack Obama has almost certainly decided what kind of military strike he intends to launch against Syria -- and he probably also has a pretty good idea of when it will happen.

Indeed, Obama is on the verge of doing something he's willfully tried to avoid for the last two and a half years: putting America in the middle of a nasty, brutal, and complex Syrian civil war.

And because the president is one very smart guy, a methodical intellect, and lawyer-in-chief, I expect he's rigorously grappled with every angle, dimension, and nuance of the Syrian problem.

But just in case he hasn't, here are three core questions that need answering about the military action the president is about to authorize.

1. Q: What are U.S. objectives in Syria?

A: Pretty limited.

You know the old adage: When you don't know where you're going, any road will get you there. After more than two years of civil war, what are the Obama administration's real objectives in Syria -- the ones it's truly prepared to invest in?

Is it to play the lead role in stopping the Syrian civil war and become the dominant architect in replacing the Bashar al-Assad regime with a democratic polity run by the pro-Western opposition? Keep in mind, the United States couldn't do that in Afghanistan and Iraq with hundreds of thousands of boots on the ground and trillions of dollars expended. And we can't even manage to bring significant influence to bear in Egypt, where we've had a close, 40-year relationship with a military that's now running the country.

If the United States is not building democracy, then is it or should it be immersed in the Levant's Great Game -- trying to turn the Syria crisis into a broad Manichean struggle with Hezbollah and Iran in order to weaken the latter, halt its nuclear program, and crush the so-called Shiite crescent that stretches from Tehran to Beirut?

I saw a version of this movie in Lebanon in the early 1980s, when the Reagan administration made the wrong-headed Cold War calculation that defeating Syria in Lebanon would be a blow to the Russians and tried to work with the Israelis and the Christian Phalange to bring that about. The entire Lebanon policy proved to be a failure in part because U.S. policymakers persisted in seeing Lebanon, Israel, and Syria as part of some great power game when in fact it was all about local politics and regional balance of power.

All this talk of grand strategies, threatening arcs, and hordes of Shiite and Sunni extremists reflects the view -- just like in Lebanon during the 1980s -- that the Syrian crisis is going to produce some clear winner in the end. But Syria is much more likely to morph into a decentralized polity where Alawites, Kurds, and Sunnis continue to struggle with each other and with al Qaeda-type extremists in semi-autonomous and dysfunctional enclaves for years to come.

So if there is no clear or definitive end game, what is the president's plan? I suspect it's to try to make a difference where the United States can -- commensurate with its other priorities and obligations -- on a variety of fronts: including the humanitarian side (as the largest aid contributor), the political side (as the most active Western power engaging with the Syrian opposition), the military side (by providing limited amounts of lethal assistance and facilitating more through other powers), and the diplomatic side (by continuing to pressure the Russians to leverage Assad into a political transition -- see Geneva 1.0 and maybe 2.0). Though with the cancellation of planned talks with the Russians this week, the Geneva approach seems to be all but over -- for now.

Indeed, at the end of the day, the president's bottom line is to restore some credibility when it comes to his own red lines on chemical weapons and keep on the right side of history in the face of the largest deployment of those weapons since Saddam Hussein used them against the Kurds and Iranians.

None of this is either emotionally or morally satisfying; nor has it been very effective against the backdrop of the carnage in Syria. But the president really does need to decide what he wants to -- and can -- accomplish, particularly as he considers a more direct military strike. Military action to punish Assad and possibly deter further use of chemical weapons will make Obama's point; the question is whether it will make a difference when it comes to changing the situation on the ground.

2. Q: Does a military strike serve U.S. interests?

A: Yes, but very imperfectly.

The context of the Syrian situation and the president's broader goals there should guide how he uses force. Military power is a means to an end. That correlation is never exact, precise, or certain. But the president needs to get as close as he can to identifying clear objectives and making sure he has the capacity to carry them out. It's that lesson -- not the cautionary tale about boots on the ground -- that's worth applying to Syria. What is it precisely that a military strike, campaign, or war is designed to accomplish? How will it shape the political endgame the United States is trying to achieve?

The major challenge in Syria involves chemical weapons. After all, that's why the president is reportedly close to authorizing a military strike. But the United States must also contend with a fragmenting state that's spewing sectarian violence, hemorrhaging refugees, offering up opportunities for Sunni and Shiite extremists, and spreading instability to its neighbors.

Which facet of the Syrian problem will Obama's military action address? On the one hand, a one-off strike to dissuade Assad from using chemical weapons again -- no matter how punishing -- won't impact the broader course of the war. On the other, the president has repeatedly indicated that he isn't ready to commit to a sustained and integrated military campaign -- arming the rebels, implementing a no-fly zone, and carrying out intensive strikes on Assad's forces and infrastructure -- that would tilt the balance decisively in the favor of the rebels.

Anthony Cordesman and others are already making the argument that using force is a necessary but not sufficient response to Assad's use of chemical weapons. By itself, military action does nothing to address the broader humanitarian, strategic, and moral disaster that Syria has become. Indeed, Obama's critics maintain that he's all tactics and guided by no real strategy. What happens after D-Day plus 1 may well reinforce that view.

Many outside government will argue that if the United States is going to use military force, it must go well beyond symbolic warnings. Assad has crossed Obama's "red line" and the United States must abandon its caution and launch a sustained military campaign. If more drastic action isn't taken now, they argue, Assad will commit another horror sooner or later -- whether it is with conventional or unconventional weapons. He is incorrigible and must go. The time for talking has passed and Obama needs to lead the way in taking him down. And so it goes.

Now isn't the time to identify all of the unknowns and risks inherent in such a calculation. Getting rid of Assad by no means guarantees stability, the end of civil war, or a victory for the pro-Western opposition in Syria. Even assuming the United States can marshal some international consensus -- perhaps in the form of a NATO- or Arab League-backed coalition-- to provide political and legal cover, there are no guarantees that a sustained air campaign would work quickly or at all. In Operation Desert Storm, for example, coalition air forces flew 38,000 sorties against the Iraqi Army and did tremendous damage. But Saddam Hussein's military still fought tenaciously and retained the capacity later to crush both Shiite and Kurdish revolts.

The Balkan precedent -- a favorite these days, invoked as a model for a Syrian intervention both in terms of mobilizing consensus outside of the U.N. Security Council and the effective use of air power -- also provides a cautionary tale.

In 78 days, NATO flew 3,400 sorties and yet failed to enable the Kosovo Liberation Army to make real headway against Serbian forces. Analysts Edward Joseph and Elizabeth O'Bagy point out that the Bosnia precedent is far from perfect. Three factors existed there that made success more likely: a far less fractious opposition, a sense of exhaustion among the sides, and a degree of ethnic separation that facilitated a political deal. None of these factors are present in Syria today. Moreover, Slobodan Milosevic was an opportunist who was ready and willing to save himself by sacrificing hardline Bosnian and Croatian Serbs. There is nothing to suggest that Assad would be willing to take a similar way out.

Where Joseph and O'Bagy do see commonality between the Balkans and Syria is in U.S. ownership -- or lack thereof. And this gets to the heart of any military option the president chooses. Having willfully avoided real ownership of the Syrian problem to date, is he really willing to own it now? Because direct military action -- whether alone or with allies -- is encumbering and filled with uncertainties no matter how controlled or deliberate. Is Obama ready to get stuck with the Syrian tar baby? Which brings us to question three. 

3. Q: How important is Syria to President Obama?

A: So far, not very.

There are a lot of very smart people who disagree. Former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell has actually asserted that Syria is the gravest threat to U.S. national security. But you don't need to go that far to see the crisis for what it is -- a breeding ground for extremism, sectarian violence, and proliferation and use of chemical weapons.

The Syrian civil war is a moral, strategic, and human disaster. About that there can be little doubt. Some are already saying "I told you so" -- that Syria is only getting worse and eventually Obama will have no choice but to act.

So why not draw up a real strategy and lead now? Why not organize the region and our European allies, pretend you're Bush 41 and Assad is Saddam Hussein, accept some risk, and where you lead others will follow?

I've argued repeatedly that Syria is a trap, and that given the president's priorities and legacy -- helping the middle class, not fixing the Middle East -- he's been right to be cautious. This isn't Iraq in 1990. It's a cruel and bloody civil war that America can't end, and it shouldn't be stuck with the enormous bill for cleaning up after the fact. Moreover, it's not as if the broader region is a poster child for stability. It's all a mess.

Whatever decision the president makes, he must lay out an honest rationale for why he's acting. He cannot circumscribe U.S. actions without undercutting American resolve in front of Assad and his supporters. But he also cannot leave open the possibility -- unless this is where he wants to go -- that the United States is on the verge of a new campaign to save Syria. He must talk about why it's in America's interest to respond to Assad's use of chemical weapons, but also make clear why Syria is beyond his capacity to save. This isn't just idle chatter; it's the explanation of his policy toward Syria that for too long he's failed to articulate.

Too often, American presidents have cast their policies in the idealized rhetoric of U.S. values. And while values and interests sometimes overlap, fixing Syria's broken house by assuming the lion's share of responsibility for getting rid of Assad and supporting whatever government replaces him is neither a vital American value nor a vital national interest. Obama knows it and so do the vast majority of the American people who are against military invention. The president is just having a hard time admitting it.


Reality Check

Obama's Egypt Policy Makes Perfect Sense

No, seriously.

The only thing that's really clear about U.S. Middle East policy these days is its stunning lack of clarity. Neocons and liberal interventionists alike protest the confusion loudly, and a great many others with less ideological baggage silently scratch their heads.

Anomalies, contradictions, confusion, and more than a little hypocrisy abound. The United States intervenes militarily in Libya to support the opposition, but not in Syria. It supports serious political reform and democratic transitions in Egypt and Tunisia, but not in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, where oil, bases, and friendly kings prevail. It will engage the Taliban and Iraqi insurgents who have killed American soldiers, but it steers clear of any dialogue with Hamas. And it rationalizes away a military coup and brutal crackdown in Egypt to maintain ties to the generals, undermining its own democratic values by continuing military aid.

Still, even while it seems confused and directionless, Barack Obama's Middle East policies have logic and coherence. Indeed, they follow strict directives that the president has imposed. I call them BHO's Five Commandments, and they tell you all you need to know about why the president does what he does from Cairo to Damascus.

Commandment No. 1: Care more about the middle class than the Middle East.

Obama may not be able to fix either one. But there's no doubt he'd rather be remembered as a president who tried to repair America's broken house than one who chased around the world on a quixotic quest to fix somebody else's. Immigration reform, the budget, making Obamacare work, continuing to focus on infrastructure, education -- these are things that are important to the American people and to the legacy of a president who is of one of only 17 elected to a second term. Time's running out. Why squander it on problems he cannot fix, like Syria?

Commandment No. 2: Pay attention to Afghanistan and Iraq.

Obama's critics argue he's already paid too much attention to the wars, drawn the wrong lessons from both, and as a result overcorrected and abdicated U.S. leadership. But you really can't pay too much attention to the two longest wars in U.S. history -- wars that cost more than 6,000 American lives, thousands of serious casualties, trillions of dollars, and a great deal of U.S. credibility.

Obama's current approach toward Syria and even Egypt has in fact drawn the right lessons from these wars: he's intuitively grasped the limit of U.S. influence in changing the nature of Middle Eastern societies caught up in internal conflict. If we couldn't reshape what happens in Kabul and Baghdad with hundreds of thousands of troops and trillions of dollars, how are we going to have an impact on what Egypt's generals do or don't do with a trifling $1 billion or so?

He's also understood the need to be careful about the use of American military power in these situations -- that power is a means to effect a political end. And when that relationship is dubious, out of whack, or just not achievable, risk aversion is more appropriate than risk readiness. In Syria, the danger isn't the false Afghanistan/Iraq analogy of boots on the ground; it's the more apt lesson about using U.S. military power in a situation where the political objectives are unclear and the costs truly unknown. This caution has also informed the president's view of how to deal with Iran's nuclear weapons program and the importance of trying diplomacy before war. Some believe this is the lack of leadership, but it may well be the sense of proportion and judgment that defines it.

Commandment No. 3: Kill America's enemies.

Where the president hasn't been shy and retiring or risk averse is on the national security side, particularly when it comes to counterterrorism. And despite the rhetorical shifts hinting a change in priorities -- an emphasis on diplomacy over war, a reduction in drone attacks -- this commandment will continue to dictate the broad outlines of the administration's approach.

Whatever doubts the president has on the wisdom and utility of drone strikes that have killed thousands, however thin the legal and moral arguments may be, this wartime President takes seriously his number one mission: keep America safe. That means preventing another 9/11-style attack. If the previous administration believed in preventive and preemptive war using invasion and regime change, this president has narrowed the prevention to counter-terrorism. The attacks on 9/11 were the second bloodiest day in the history of the continental United States, surpassed only by a single day in the battle of Antietam in September 1862. And Obama plans to keep it that way. The president's war on terror -- whatever his own rhetorical nuances -- won't be over until the day he leaves the White House. And as the risk he took in the operation to kill Osama bin Laden demonstrates, he's prepared to do much to prosecute it.

Commandment No. 4: Stay with the devil you know.

Obama may want to think of himself as a transformative leader, but he's really very transactional and status quo when it comes to foreign policy -- doubling down in Afghanistan, keeping Gitmo open, avoiding diplomacy with the mullahs, rationalizing away his own redlines on Syria's chemical weapons, and now trying to walk the fine line between changing and sustaining traditional U.S. policy on Egypt.

Obama wants to be on the right side of history and uphold U.S. values, but he's increasingly confused on what that actually means. It is the cruelest of ironies that America's relations with the status quo Arab kings are the best ties Washington has in the region. But maybe it shouldn't come as a surprise. We are a status quo power during a time of great upheaval. And instead of breaking with the past we're looking for a way to ride it safely into the future.

I think we're probably heading for a suspension of assistance to Egypt, but the president will try to avoid it, just as he's slow-walked military assistance to Syria and opposed an Israeli unilateral strike on Iran. From Obama's perspective, changing the status quo -- cutting ties with the generals and risking U.S. military overflight privileges, losing cooperation on counterterrorism, and unilaterally removing the United States from the Egyptian-Israeli Camp David process -- outweigh the risks of maintaining it. When it comes to what's left of the Arab Spring, the president seems pretty comfortable with the familiar and at ease with the notion that this region will need to be sorted out by those who live there. The United States should simply hunker down and ride out the storm, if possible.

Commandment No. 5: Protect our core interests.

For Barack Obama, the Middle East is divided into five core interests and two discretionary ones. What really counts is getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan; keeping the country safe from attack; weaning America off Arab hydro-carbons; carrying out the U.S. commitment to Israel's security; and trying to prevent Iran from acquiring nukes. From his vantage point, he's checked the box in at least four so far; and he's working on the fifth -- the success of which is far from assured.

The two interests of choice, if you will, are pursuing Arab-Israeli peace and making the Middle East safe for democracy. Those are desirable but really not critical, whatever John Kerry may think about the importance of an Israeli-Palestinian deal, and the president has shown very little inclination to risk much on either of them.

You may think the Middle East is a mess and Obama's approach a complete muddle. But I bet you, given his domestic priorities and where he thinks the American public is on these issues, he doesn't. Whatever the president is worrying about these days (and there's no shortage of troubles), I'd be surprised if he's tossing and turning at night over Egypt and Syria. Governing is about choosing, and for now the president has made his choices clear.

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