Restraining Order

Obama's been wise to not get involved in Syria. But now comes the tricky part.

It now seems virtually inevitable that the United States will be launching a military strike against the Syrian regime in response to its alleged use of chemical weapons. The contours of this planned strike seem increasingly clear, as well: several days of bombing of military targets and perhaps chemical weapons facilities. That means it should look a lot like Operation Desert Fox, the December 1998 airstrikes against alleged Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD) sites, and not like the actions against Kosovo or Libya.

The rumored air strikes would drag the United States across a major threshold of direct military involvement, without any serious prospect of ending the conflict or protecting Syrian civilians (at least from non-chemical attacks). They likely would not accomplish more than momentarily appeasing the whimsical gods of credibility. The attack would almost certainly lack a Security Council mandate. Meanwhile, the response from Arab public opinion to another U.S. military intervention has been predictably hostile; even the very Arab leaders who have been aggressively pushing for such military action are refraining from openly supporting it. And nobody really believes that such strikes will actually work.

But it could be worse. The real test of the U.S. air strikes in Syria will be whether they preempt or accelerate moves toward an intervention aimed at regime change, which would drag the United States inexorably into a quagmire. U.S. President Barack Obama's manifest determination not to get pulled down that slippery slope and his understanding of the implausibility of a successful limited intervention suggest that he believes that he can resist allowing the air strikes to trap America in the Syrian civil war. Let's hope he's right.

The debate about Obama's Syria policy has too often been framed around the supposed existence of plausible options for ending the war through a limited military intervention -- if only the president showed more backbone. Nonsense. If there were easy options for ending Syria's bloodbath and delivering on the president's public aspiration to see President Bashar al-Assad gone, the administration would have taken them long ago. There are not.

Gen. Martin Dempsey's authoritative analysis of military options in response to Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Carl Levin (D-MI) made painfully clear the Pentagon's understanding of the likely costs and risks of limited military intervention. None of those have changed in the last month. Indeed, this is one of the greatest differences from the run-up to Iraq: Instead of politicized intelligence minimizing the likely costs and risks of a war already decided on, Dempsey and the White House are honestly assessing and communicating the costs of a Syrian war. No wonder McCain is outraged.

Washington suffers no shortage of suggestions for getting more deeply involved in Syria's civil war. Over the last year and a half, I've read dozens of think tank reports and thousands of op-eds urging U.S. military intervention in some form, from no-fly zones to arming the opposition to air campaigns. Not one has made a remotely plausible case that these limited means will resolve the war in ways favorable to Syrians, the region, or America. The honest ones admit that limited intervention is a wedge toward mission creep (as if Iraq had not proven that full-scale intervention is bound to fail). The rest rely on an alarming series of best-case assumptions that fall apart on close inspection. Seriously, when was the last time any best case scenario actually materialized in the Middle East?

From what I've seen and heard in countless public and private settings over the last two years, Obama and his team have thoroughly examined all of these ideas and more. Their hesitation is based on a well-founded recognition of the implausibility of these proposals for limited intervention. And it's not like they haven't tried. The administration has spent many long months trying to engineer a viable Syrian opposition, pushing for a diplomatic process, jawboning erstwhile allies to stop working at cross-purposes by competitively funding local proxies, assessing the prospects of military options, and trying to plan for what comes next. Assad's presumed use of chemical weapons has transformed the demand for action, but not the strategic analysis underlying America's painful policy choices.

Obama is routinely lambasted for a failure to lead on Syria. In fact, he has been leading ... just not in the direction his critics would like to go. Washington remains wired for war, always eager to talk itself into another battle in the same basic ways: invocations of leadership, warnings of lost credibility, stark sketches based on worst-case scenarios of inaction and the best case scenarios for low-cost, high-reward action. Most presidents -- including a John McCain, Hillary Clinton, or Mitt Romney -- would likely have long ago leapt to play the assigned role; the United States would already be hip deep in the Syrian civil war. But Obama has actually learned the real lessons of Iraq, the risks and costs, to America and to the world, of poorly conceived interventions abroad that never go quite as promised.

It came as a bit of shock, then, when the administration suddenly began moving toward military action this week, especially when pundits quickly grabbed onto Kosovo as a likely model for the impending campaign. Fortunately, the administration rushed to clarify that they did not in fact envision such plans. It has been reassuring to see their war plan aggressively communicated in terms of punitive strikes (which will presumably also take out the SCUD launchers and attack aircraft which have wreaked such bloody havoc on Syria's people) and explicit rejection of the goal of regime change. Every message coming out of the administration screams limited goals and warnings against mission creep.

But the administration's loud protestations of limited aims and actions are only partially reassuring. Much the same language was used at the outset of the Libya campaign. Everybody knows that it will be excruciatingly difficult for Obama to hold the line at punitive bombing after those strikes inevitably fail to end the war, Assad remains publicly defiant, the Geneva 2 diplomatic process officially dies, and U.S. allies and Syrian insurgents grumble loudly about the strike's inadequacy. Once the psychological and political barrier to intervention has been shattered, the demands for escalation and victory will become that much harder to resist. And what happens when Assad launches his next deadly sarin attack -- or just massacres a lot of Syrians by non-chemical means? This too Obama clearly knows. But that knowledge may still not be enough to save him.


Marc Lynch

Enough Is Enough

It’s time for Washington to cut Egypt loose.

With blood in Egypt's streets and a return to a state of emergency, it's time for Washington to stop pretending. Its efforts to maintain its lines of communication with the Egyptian military, quietly mediate the crisis, and help lay the groundwork for some new, democratic political process have utterly failed. Egypt's new military regime, and a sizable and vocal portion of the Egyptian population, have made it very clear that they just want the United States to leave it alone. For once, Washington should give them their wish. As long as Egypt remains on its current path, the Obama administration should suspend all aid, keep the embassy in Cairo closed, and refrain from treating the military regime as a legitimate government.

These steps won't matter very much in the short term. Cairo has made it very clear that it doesn't care what Washington thinks and the Gulf states will happily replace whatever cash stops flowing from U.S. coffers. Anti-American incitement will continue, along with the state of emergency, violence and polarization, the stripping away of the fig leaf of civilian government, and the disaster brewing in the Sinai. It won't affect Secretary of State John Kerry's Israel-Palestine peace talks and the Camp David accords will be fine, too; Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi can't manage his own streets, and it's unlikely he wants to mess with Israel right now.

The hard truth is that the United States has no real influence to lose right now anyway, and immediate impact isn't the point. Taking a (much belated) stand is the only way for the United States to regain any credibility -- with Cairo, with the region, and with its own tattered democratic rhetoric.

It's easy to understand Washington's ambivalence in the immediate aftermath of the July 3 coup. Nobody ever had any illusions that the military seizing power, suspending the constitution, and imprisoning President Mohamed Morsy quacked, as John McCain rather regrettably put it, like a duck. At the same time, the seemingly robust public support for the coup, longstanding uneasiness about the Muslim Brotherhood, the appointment of well-regarded technocrats to high-level government positions, and strong Gulf Cooperation Coucil support for the new regime stayed the Obama administration's hand. It seemed prudent to many in Washington to wait and see how things would play out, especially given the intense arguments of those defending what they considered popular revolution. It didn't help that neither the United States nor other outside actors knew quite what they wanted. Few particularly wanted to go to the mat for the Muslim Brotherhood or a Morsy restoration, and Washington quickly understood that this was not in the cards. But they also didn't want a return to military rule.

Washington's ambivalent position on the "coup" question also had the tactical purpose of keeping lines of diplomatic communication with both the new government and the Muslim Brotherhood. Washington tried to use its remaining leverage to encourage restraint and to broker some sort of acceptable compromise. Its low public profile made good sense given the torrent of irrational anti-American incitement sweeping Egypt's media. The Pentagon maintained constant quiet communications with General Sisi, but had little evident impact on his decisions.

Deputy Secretary of State William Burns spent nearly a week trying to bring the two sides together, including a very well-crafted effort backed by both the United Arab Emirates and Qatar to push imprisoned Muslim Brotherhood leader Khairat el-Shater towards compromise. These attempts at quiet diplomacy under extremely difficult conditions were worthwhile and well-intentioned at the time, even if undermined by conflicting signals from Kerry and self-appointed interlocuters such as Sens. McCain and Lindsey Graham.

But those justifications hold less weight now after the failure of mediation, the assault on the Brotherhood's sit-in, and the declaration of a state of emergency.

These efforts to broker a political deal were never likely to succeed at a time when local forces are fighting what they see as an existential battle for political survival. Neither the military nor the Brotherhood wanted a deal -- and no outside actor had the enough cards to play to encourage either side to make one. But the diplomacy was still worth trying. Even if Washington could not force a deal, its mediation efforts seemed to offer some alternative to violence and something to which the dwindling band of moderates on both sides could cling.

At a minimum, Washington hoped that its role would help to restrain the new Egyptian government from actions which would cause major bloodshed or efforts to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood. Clearly, with corpses now piling up in Cairo's streets, this half-hearted presence has failed, horribly.

U.S. policy towards Egypt over the last two and a half years tried to quietly support a transition to democracy. This was the correct strategic vision. It's difficult to see any way to return to that path at this point, though. The bloody assault on the protester camps -- after repeated American opposition to such a move -- leaves President Obama little choice but to step away from the Egyptian regime. Washington should, and probably will, call for a return to an elected civilian government, a rapid end to the state of emergency, and restraint in the use of force. When that doesn't happen, it needs to suspend aid and relations until Cairo begins to take it seriously.  

Ed Giles/Getty Images