Too Little, Too Late

What Assad's chemical attack and the failure of Obama's Syria policy really mean.

The reason it is now commonly assumed that it's only a matter of time before the United States and its allies launch an attack against the Syrian regime is that President Bashar al-Assad has left President Barack Obama with no other choice. He must either attack or lose what little remaining influence he might have both in the Middle East and with potential enemies and friends worldwide.

While the rhetoric around the attack has been -- and will continue to be -- about the intolerability of chemical weapons, that is hardly the only reason the United States will finally take action. Given that, according to reports like those in today's Washington Post, the U.S. and allied military initiative is almost certainly to be both brief and narrow in scope -- and therefore of limited effect as a deterrent against future WMD use -- one can only conclude that the effort must also serve another purpose.

The pending action is as much intended to protect the president's credibility as it is the people of Syria.

Months ago, Obama declared the existence of a "red line" with respect to the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons. Then, despite repeated evidence that such weapons had been used, Obama failed to act as he had implied that he would. As the red line faded, so too did his standing.

Now, with the evidence surrounding the most recent attack, in Damascus, as strong as it is and the death toll significantly higher than in past attacks, were he not to act, the president might as well publicly acknowledge that the United States is accepting a role in the balcony of the theater of global affairs, as a spectator and no longer a player.

If you doubt this and feel that the U.S. and allied action is based on the principle of humanitarian relief, you need only note that while the estimated toll from this recent attack, according to Doctors Without Borders, is 355, the total death toll from Syria's civil war has now likely exceeded 100,000. Principle has nothing to do with this. Surely it makes no difference to the families and friends of the Syrian dead whether their loved ones die from chemical weapons, bullets, bombs, or disease. The idea that somehow chemical weapons are a special prohibited category of ways by which a government can murder its own people rings as hollow as a crypt. 

We have clearly waited too long to act in Syria. The international community bears at least some responsibility for the losses associated with this most recent gas attack, because in failing to respond to prior attacks it sent a message to Assad that such abuses would be tolerated. (Russia's role as enabler and protector of Assad has earned it a much greater share of culpability.) And while our guilt over the massive death toll and the suffering caused by the broader humanitarian crisis in Syria is clear, we've done precious little to effectively abate it. It is remarkable how little shame there is among U.S. officials, such that even the paltry commitments we made to assist those fighting the criminal regime in Damascus -- including providing light weapons and equipment support -- have yet to make their way to the conflict zone.

There is a chorus of criticism over the pending action from those who argue that it will not resolve the conflict in Syria and fear that any action taken will lead to the kind of protracted on-the-ground involvement that has proved so costly and fruitless in Iraq and Afghanistan. These critiques are misguided. There is no reason why targeted and carefully proscribed, but nonetheless potent, air attacks could not effectively deliver a message to Assad that these abuses must stop. His air defenses can be targeted. His weapons stores can be targeted. Economic assets associated with his closest associates, upon which his regime depends, can be targeted. This last approach -- targeting the financial backers and cutting off money stream -- is what ultimately proved to tip the scales most effectively in the former Yugoslavia during the 1999 bombings known within NATO as Operation Allied Force. This was an example of successful but limited use of air power without ground support that advanced a specific goal -- in that case, the withdrawal of Yugoslav forces from Kosovo. (Ironically, tellingly, the rationale President Bill Clinton's administration gave for the bombing included the fear that failing to undertake it could be a disaster in Kosovo that could claim some 100,000 lives -- the same total lost to date in Syria.)

Such massive attacks as those that took place during the two and a half months of the 1999 campaign are impossible to imagine in the current situation given the will of the United States and its allies. Based on current reports, it seems that when it comes to planning for the limited use of force in this instance, more emphasis has been placed on "limits" than on "use of force." This will be a problem if the message to Assad is not clearly that the cost of using WMDs is so high that it must be avoided in future.

But at this late date, regardless of the exact details of the mission we undertake, the message to Assad is: "We don't care so much if you kill your people. We primarily care how you kill your people." (This argument will be made doubly uncomfortable for Americans who take the time to read Shane Harris and Matthew Aid's recent piece for Foreign Policy about how the United States supported Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's ability to launch gas attacks on the Iranians in the late 1980s.)  That is not to say that the United States should have invaded Syria in a replay of our folly in Iraq. Rather, it is to underscore that, just as we should have responded to the chemical weapons use much sooner, we could have, through international intervention, sent a much stronger message to Assad much earlier. After all, part of what brought down Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia was naming him as a war criminal, something that should have been undertaken re: Assad long ago.

One clear lesson of this whole sorry episode is that it's essential for the international community to set clear standards for the early identification of and response to atrocities. While it is impossible to set a threshold number of casualties that should trigger action, suffice it to say that 100,000 is too many to die before effective action is taken. Leaders or insurgents who wantonly slaughter civilians need to know that they will instantly and assuredly become international pariahs, be prosecuted for their crimes, not be acknowledged as leaders, and, should they claim or seek to retain high office, see their governments suffer severe sanctions. Military protocols can be just as clear: The systems and military or paramilitary units that carry out such crimes are legitimate targets, as are the assets that protect them and the economic entities that support them. Responses also must be severe enough that any would-be war criminal realizes that the cost of such behavior is far too high to undertake. Empty gestures that do more to create the illusion of action than they do to truly deter future wrongdoing -- like brief fusillades of cruise missiles -- must be avoided.

The current initiative and any undertaking in the foreseeable future in Syria certainly will not have regime change as a goal. Not only is enforcing regime change considered too messy, but the alternatives to Assad are either too unclear or equally as odious. Still, we need to be honest with ourselves: If humanitarian relief is the goal and the regime is a repeated mass abuser of its people, it must go. We will have to come to terms with the possibility of a successor regime we don't much like sooner or later. Given the lessons of Syria to date, we should be thinking ahead and crafting what we want a strong international message to that new regime to look like, especially if we want to ensure that it doesn't pose the same kind of destabilizing threat as Assad or this war. 

If we knew such a strong message were in place, if we knew successor governments would have to conform to basic international norms of behavior, we would almost certainly not fear the transition away from indisputably evil governments such as this one quite as much. In cases like Syria (or, for example, Congo or the sites of other horrors), the absence of international will and clarity is as responsible for festering crimes, like the ones in Syria, as the actions of bad actors. Any society without the will to create laws and a police force to protect against crimes they know are coming must be seen as an enabler of those crimes.

But if the message we send is too little, too late -- as may well be the case with the upcoming attack -- we are right to fear transition, because any successor government could also become a threat. In such a case, we may well have to accept the current horrors of Syria indefinitely. This is the cost of having an international system that, despite the lessons of history, lacks the will or the foresight to have created clear, dependable, potent mechanisms for identifying evolving atrocities and then immediately and assuredly penalizing those who undertake them. Any system of law that protects state actors -- or those who cloak themselves in the protections of acting on behalf of a nation state, to the degree ours still does -- is fundamentally and profoundly flawed.

Finally, in the case of Syria, we must also consider what the "too little, too late" message sends to others in the region who might consider violating the most important norms of international behavior -- like the Iranians with regard to their nuclear weapons development program -- if they assume they can act with impunity with very few real limitations. Alternatively, if we recognize that early, effective, coordinated, targeted, tough international responses can be a worthwhile investment and a more humane approach to managing global affairs, perhaps there's still time to make a useful lesson out of the carnage of Syria. In any event, it must make us hope that our efforts going forward in Syria are not limited to what seems likely to amount to little more than a military gesture, made via cruise missile.

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David Rothkopf

America, Limited

How the U.S. went from the world's CEO to just another shareholder.

My dad was an old artillery officer. Having escaped Hitler as a teenager, he was fighting for America in Europe five years later. You would think this would have had a profound impact on him. You would think it would produce great lessons he could pass on to his kids. It probably did. But he didn't pass them on. Rather, he said that the most important lesson he learned in the field artillery was, "If you can sit down, sit down. If you can lie down, lie down. And if you can sleep, sleep."

It's a lesson I took to heart. Interestingly, the spirit of this lesson now infuses all American foreign policy. With regard to America's approach to the world today, the version of my father's maxim would be: "If you can do little, do little. If you can do nothing, do nothing. And if you can get the heck out, get the heck out."

It used to be that America distinguished itself from every other nation because we were the only country in the world that when almost anything happened, our response would be "What should we do?" While for most other countries, the responding question would be "Should we do something?" Today, however, the idea of taking action is so anathema or difficult or risk-laden or all of the above, that when something happens, the question America seems to grapple with is "What should we say about this?" 

The United States has gone from being a hyperpower to becoming the equivalent of a mere commentator on world affairs. Too often, it seems we practice foreign policy by Twitter. In our hugely president-centric system it looks like the president and his views are our primary foreign policy deliverables. He disapproves. He approves. He imposes a red line in Syria. He moves the line, and then he moves it again. He seems to forget about the line even as evidence of repeated use of chemical weapons by the Syrians seems to mount. This is how America throws its weight around these days.   

How do we deal with a problem like Egypt? Lay on the adjectives. Russia got you down? Throw in a crack about Vladimir Putin's posture. Oh sure, we can take modest action. In Russia, for instance, we cancelled a meeting with our president. In Egypt, we pull the plug on joint military exercises that seemed likely to be cancelled anyway. I've seen more meaningful gestures in a conversation between two old Jewish guys on a bench in Miami Beach. And within days even what actions we did take with regard to Egypt were obscured in a bizarre set of conflicting messages -- first aid to Egypt was under review, then possibly suspended, but secretly, but maybe not, but... Well, none of it mattered anyway because the Saudis said they would provide whatever financial support we withheld. So in the end, our meager influence was negated and virtually all our real allies in the region alienated, left to doubt our resolve.

What we are doing in Egypt is the opposite of policy. It is confusion wrapped in chaos shrouded in incoherence. It doesn't demonstrate influence, it undercuts it. Many of the president's most stalwart supporters are starting to worry that -- following the departures of strong voices like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and former CIA Director and SecDef Leon Panetta -- America's standing is deteriorating. One former top Democratic National Security official said to me, "The result of repeated ineffective incrementalism is impotence. I'm afraid Ben Rhodes may have been half right when he called what we were doing ‘leading from behind.' Because in many instances now, we're not leading at all."

Now, given that in our very recent past we have paid a high price for over-reaction and over-reach, more measured, thoughtful, and nuanced responses are certainly welcome in principle. Furthermore, in some cases -- despite public outcry and justifiable indignation (as in Egypt and in Russia) -- it is important to remember that nothing is as simple as the talk show moralizing makes it out to be. For example, while murdering protestors in the street is deplorable, it is important to remember that the Muslim Brotherhood abused power and committed human rights violations on such a widespread scale that it's hard for any fair-minded observer not to welcome their removal from office. And while Putin may be a relentless provocateur, issues like nuclear disarmament still require open dialogue between our countries and shutting down relations now would be extremely foolhardy. 

That said earlier examples of our "less is more" foreign policy helped create the dilemmas we have with both Egypt and Russia. Both instances illustrate how strong action was called for and its absence exacerbated serious problems that dog us today. In the case of ousted president Mohamed Morsy, we were comparatively quiet as he ran roughshod over the Egyptian constitution. Had we had a serious conversation about revoking aid or had we, in concert with our allies, applied greater pressure on him, perhaps we could have influenced events so they wouldn't have deteriorated to the point that a military overthrow of his government was not only inevitable but welcomed by so many Egyptians. That we failed to take action against Putin as he enabled Bashar al-Assad's slaughter of his own people in Syria, but instead felt compelled to punish him for granting asylum to Edward Snowden, speaks volumes about our priorities. (We could make the same argument for earlier, more decisive action in Syria, the benefits of which could have included more support for the anti-Assad opposition. And given today's fresh allegations coming from Damascus of chemical attacks, this early action should have included targeted, limited but potent use of air power once it was clear Obama's erstwhile "red line" had been crossed months and months ago.)

As Joe Biden predicted during the 2008 campaign, Obama has been tested by foreign leaders. And, after each challenge, the resulting message -- sent again and again -- has been clear: you may get a stern talking to but these days the United States doesn't really have the appetite for bold foreign policy moves. 

(One notable exception to this has been the U.S. effort to negotiate peace between Israel and the Palestinians -- a worthy endeavor to be sure. Though the United States stands to lose as much for not doing it as for doing it and the outcome in either case is very likely to be the same. Indeed, it could be construed as a way of sidestepping the region's more difficult and important problems. My friend David Sanger of the New York Times has observed that important as Kerry's efforts are, these recent negotiations echo a previous era -- when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was at the center of Washington and the world's agenda. But today, Sanger notes, it is at best the fourth priority in the second most important region of the world. First priority and the top region is Asia -- the land of economic opportunity, innovation, and the rise of a huge middle class on which American growth depends. Then, back in the region of old problems, the No. 1 priority is a nuclear Iran, the No. 2 and No. 3 priorities are the arc of instability created by Egypt's upheaval and Syria's potential explosion. According to Sanger, this means that the secretary of state is devoting a huge amount of political capital and diplomatic bandwidth to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- a problem that, even if miraculously solved, will not help America manage China's rise, halt proliferation, or bring stability to the region. There may have been a time, he suggests, when Israeli-Palestinian peace promised at least some of that, but this is not that time.)

While I was in Asia last week, a point that was repeatedly emphasized to me was that America's lack of engagement (or apparent strategy) in the region was raising concerns from Canberra to New Delhi, from Seoul to Manila. The problem was compounded by the fact that while America leans back, others are stepping up. Geopolitics abhors a vacuum. China is already reaching out to its neighbors in Southeast Asia offering to build ports and roads and other big projects that will knit economies together and breed interdependency. China has a plan to consolidate influence even as ours fades from lack of effective use. What our partners in the region would like is for us to have a plan for a regional architecture that offers more balance. President Obama will have two chances to explore such options during trips to Asia later this year ... but how can he given the lack of groundwork and thinking that's been done in this area to date?

But if some of the administration's overall caution is directly traceable to characteristics of the president and his team, there is a host of other contributing factors turning us inward -- the aftermath of catastrophic involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan, our financial problems at home, and the polarization of American politics. And despite howls to the contrary, left and right wingers -- as evidenced by policy visions offered by the president and Senator Rand Paul -- share some striking similarities. Both men and the political parties they represent seem more comfortable with America lite, both men would effectively rebrand the country America, Ltd., with the emphasis on the limitations.

While the modern Middle East contains several case studies in the folly of American over-involvement, we are perhaps predictably now swinging in the other direction. And as a result, we are creating a new set of case studies that reveal the consequences of America's reluctance to work hard, with friends where possible, to take real action or maintain a presence when necessary.

Currently, America is very nearly immobilized by guilt, risk aversions, the president's naturally cautious nature, lessons learned (and some mislearned), financial distress, and political dysfunction. And though we are still the most powerful nation on earth, power is nothing without the will or the know-how to use it. That doesn't mean we should engage in a new wave of military adventures. As one Middle Eastern leader said in a meeting I attended, "We don't need America to be on the playing field. But we would welcome them as a coach with a clear plan and position." First and foremost the answer lies in reasserted presidential leadership. In addition, it requires an adjustment in attitude and a level of administration-wide effort as well as the discipline and high-level commitment to develop and implement strategies, delegate authority appropriately, listen to and work more effectively with our allies, and all the other elements required by actively managing a multidimensional foreign policy. 

In the near term, many of our closest allies are concluding they can no longer expect this of us. Just like our president who made a quick statement on Egypt and immediately returned to the golf course last week, this is one superpower that is on vacation. How long the break will last will go a long way toward determining whether the decade ahead will be seen as a period of protracted U.S. decline or a time of rebound, one that so many of our allies (and even some of our rivals) recognize the world needs if it is to be a safer, more stable, more prosperous place.

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