The Blind Squirrel Gambit

Has Obama stumbled into a solution for Syria?

Every so often, a blind squirrel finds a nut. This is unquestionably good news for the squirrel, provided that what he has found is actually a nut and not some other less savory thing lying around on the forest floor. But the same blindness that afflicted the squirrel before his fortunate discovery will almost certainly make it impossible for him to see the potential consequences of his seeming good fortune. Which, if the squirrel is the president of the United States and the nut is the hint of an opportunity to find a diplomatic fix for the problem of chemical weapons in Syria, may not be a good thing for U.S. interests in the Middle East or around the world.

Even the most charitable of interpretations by the president's most loyal supporters (and I voted for him twice, so I count myself in that group) would have to rank the past couple of months as among the worst of his administration in terms of national security policy mismanagement. From the muddle of our Egypt policies to the ham-fisted and tone-deaf response to the NSA scandal and its international aftershocks; from the first contradictions around the president's improvised and then seemingly regretted "red line in Syria" to Tuesday night's "big speech," which was flat, familiar, and contradictory, and ended in a punt to an indefinite future, the otherwise often self-assured White House's recent handling of our international policies has been, well, a bit squirrely.

Now admittedly, many of these problems are not of the president's own making. But foreign policy is more often than not about how we react to global developments, all delusions about the degree to which we control our global destiny notwithstanding. And, in each of the cases cited above, we have reacted too slowly, too erratically, and too ineffectively. The litany of missteps in Syria is so long there's already a BuzzFeed list about it.

We failed to act early in the crisis when we could. Early recommendations of top officials to arm the opposition were ignored. A red line was set, then redefined, and then repeatedly sidestepped because, we argued, we weren't sure attacks had taken place (until this week, apparently, when we decided there had actually been nine of them). When the president finally decided to act, he pushed his ally British Prime Minister David Cameron to recall his parliament for quick action. He pushed so hard that Cameron couldn't get everyone briefed or back from vacation, and dozens missed the vote, including members of the prime minister's own cabinet. In the wake of Cameron's inability to cobble together the necessary votes, the president reversed his course, opting instead to take the time to go to Congress for authorization he later said he didn't need. (This triggered some real resentment from Cameron, who felt if he'd only had more time, he could have won the day or at least had a better chance to do so.)

Here at home, of course, prior to his last-minute decision to go to Congress, the president had led his national security team to believe he was on the brink of ordering a strike. His vice president and secretary of state made the case to go forward with military action. Only then did the commander in chief pull the rug out from under them and his national security team, deciding to defer to the fractious, do-nothing Congress. Ironically, the big volte-face to make his case to Congress has actually largely weakened the president's political support. In part, this is because the case has been so full of contradictions. The strike will be limited. But if Sen. John McCain wants it bigger, it will be "bigger." But if that's too big, the secretary of state then says the strike will be "unbelievably small." But then, the president retorts, "We don't do pinpricks."

So our plan of action now measures somewhere between a "pinprick" and "unbelievably small." It's vitally important, but it doesn't matter if it is indefinitely delayed. You can understand why voters, members of Congress, and the world are confused about our intent. (Hint: Because we are, too. The one thing the president made crystal clear in his speech to the nation was his own ambivalence.)

No wonder Secretary of State John Kerry's slip of the tongue about there being hope to stave off military strikes if Syria would give up all its chemical weapons quickly went from what the administration was calling a "goof" to being an initiative the president claimed he himself had proposed to Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 meeting (and just neglected to mention ever since). The White House claimed the opening to a possible diplomatic solution could only come as a result of its "credible threat" of military force. Setting aside what this assertion does to stretch the definition of "credible threat," it certainly wins an award for chutzpah of the first order. After all, if the White House knew such threats would work, why did we sit impotently by during the eight attacks prior to that on Aug. 21 that we now acknowledge took place? This was an accident, driven by the Russians, seized upon by the Syrians, and greeted by the president much as a drowning man greets a passing log.

That said, it just might work. Admittedly, the early to-ing and fro-ing at the United Nations reminded us that it's a heavy lift and it might not work. However, for a moment, let's think of the poor squirrel (and U.S. national interests) and not begrudge him his nut until and unless it proves to be something less digestible. The president deserves credit for seeing an opportunity and seizing it. Timing is as important in foreign policy as it is in other forms of comedy. And, even if the policy process that got us here was hapless and confused, who cares? Good outcomes trump good processes any day … at least they do outside the wonk dome that encloses Washington.

So for the sake of the squirrel: Hooray for the nut. Let's hope it turns out to be what it feels like it might.

But where do we go from here?

Assuming for a moment that the U.N. and the Russians and the Syrians and everyone else involved actually dispose of Syria's chemical weapons, this is a win for humanity and for the potential victims who will now be spared. But of course, the toll from chemical attacks in Syria is perhaps a couple of thousand of the more than 100,000 who have died in the civil war. And that war will go on. Moreover, it will go on with one of Bashar al-Assad's primary allies, Russia, significantly strengthened on the international stage. Indeed, Assad himself -- instead of being prosecuted and swept from power as he should be -- may well end up being seen as more reasonable, and indeed, by participating in the process with the U.N., he may actually be propped up or at least buy himself time. He'll thus have an opening to take advantage of the fact that one of the implied messages of this whole debate in the United States and the world is that, when you get right down to it, we may hate him and what he's doing, but we hate/fear al Qaeda and the extremists even more.

This, apparently, is Assad's real trump card, and it has never been more clearly in focus than when some members of Congress argued that hitting the Damascus regime was undesirable because it would strengthen Jabhat al-Nusra and other terrorist groups.

Also strengthened by staving off this attack and by giving Russia more traction on the international stage and possibly helping inadvertently to prop up Assad are Syria's other prime sponsors, the Iranians. In fact, they may be the biggest beneficiaries. First, Iran's key allies, the Russians and the Assad regime, come out of this somewhat stronger or, at least, not weaker as they might have been after a strike. Second, it is now clear that the United States is extremely unlikely to intervene anywhere in the Middle East without an exceptionally strong reason to do so and backed by very clear evidence (which is hard to come by with nuclear programs and the like). As detractors start to spin this narrative, Barack Obama will almost certainly reassert his resolve to stop the Iranian nuclear program by whatever means necessary. But it will be impossible to hear him the same way after this incident. His credibility has been deeply damaged, and the current attempt to avoid self-inflicted wounds in Congress won't help much on that front.

There are knock-on effects here, too. The Israelis are already starting to recalibrate their plans to account for this new reality. Other American allies in the Persian Gulf are doing likewise. It's not that they don't expect the United States to be of any help; it's just that, as one diplomat from the region said to me, "We have to expect in the future, America will act more slowly, be more limited, and that our enemies will know this and try to take advantage of it." If you don't think that very same message is being internalized in other corners of the planet -- like the home of the best friend Syria shares with Dennis Rodman, North Korea -- then you are as clueless as the Worm himself. (That's Rodman again for you non-basketball, non-narcissistic lunatic fans.)

Of course, if you believe it's only the extremely lucky blind squirrel who finds a nut, then perhaps the luck will hold. An alternative, extremely optimistic scenario would have a Russia and Syria that, energized by this small diplomatic victory, would embrace a move toward a diplomatic resolution of Syria's civil war. Slightly less optimistic would be to hope that, even if they didn't achieve total success, they might be able to work out a power-sharing arrangement with some elements of the opposition that could at least tamp down the hostilities. Further, in this most upbeat of story lines, the Russians, gaining diplomatic traction, might then work to play a more constructive role brokering a deal with Iran on its nuclear program. After all, the new regime in Iran seemed for a moment to be sending slightly more encouraging messages regarding its openness on that front -- though, just this week, President Hassan Rouhani said Iran would not give up "one iota" of its program. Reducing the threat of conflict with Iran would be a game-changer in the region and would certainly have global markets perking up a bit.

Even in this Prozac-infused optimistic scenario, the result is a still-somewhat-weakened U.S. president and a strengthened and consolidated position for countries with historically hostile views toward the United States or at least toward U.S. influence in the region and toward many of America's closest allies. Which may be the best we can hope for at this point. After all, Iran does remain the place where the region's next major military confrontation seems most likely to take place. And the clear message that the president and the American people are sending at the moment is that we prefer even unlikely, long-shot, and temporary solutions that may to some degree strengthen our rivals and our enemies over more war, more chaos, and possibly more Americans being put at risk.

If all this happens, it would be stretching matters hugely to suggest, as the White House might be tempted to do, that it be seen as part of a long-standing strategy once discussed over a glass of tea with Putin. But we may all be able to think of it as the realization of the Blind Squirrel Gambit -- the foreign-policy approach where we stumble around in the dark, shit happens, and in the end, we all get lucky. It's a great approach … if it works. There's only one problem with it: It seldom does.

Evan Vucci-Pool/Getty Images

David Rothkopf

How the Loneliest Job in the World Got Even Lonelier

With his missteps on Syria, Obama has alienated just about everyone -- friends and frenemies alike.

It's not easy to get yourself into the kind of predicament that the president of the United States finds himself in today.

To one substantial group of Americans, he is too hawkish, recklessly pushing America into another Middle East war. To another group, he is too dovish, committing to such limitations on intervention that any military action to come will almost certainly be nothing more than an empty gesture, advancing no vital U.S. interest. 

To some, he is acting too rashly, not allowing enough time for international inspectors to make their case, for international partners to align behind the United States, or for diplomacy to work. And still to others, Obama is the Ditherer-in-Chief, having fecklessly wrung his hands while Syria burned, while 100,000 died, while chemical weapons were used repeatedly, and while extremists congregated on the burning battlefields turning that country into the training ground for a new generation of bad guys.

Though some see Obama's turn to Congress as supporting the spirit of the Constitution, others see his subsequent assertions that he could still act without legislative approval as invalidating, a move that instead reveals the entire gambit to be little more than a political ploy, a feint to win more cover.  

At home, the president is even facing strong opposition from the liberal Democrats who once supported him, believing that he would undo the unintended consequences of what they saw as the reckless interventionism of his Republican predecessor and from isolationist right-wing Republicans. Internationally, it is perhaps no surprise that Syria's supporters, like Russia's Vladimir Putin, would oppose Obama's proposed strikes, as would countries like China that regularly seek to check the application of American power, but it must also be chastening for the president that some of America's strongest allies, like the United Kingdom, are saying, "You're on your own on this one, old boy." 

But the political, national security, and diplomatic no man's land in which the president now finds himself does not offer the consolation of the past compromises and the difference-splitting approaches he has embraced. His current track doesn't offer a Goldilocks solution that can be seen as "just right" because it is neither too much nor too little, too fast or too slow. It doesn't win the centrist seal of approval just because it is discomfiting to those on the far right and the far left. (For a great take on this, see FP's own Rosa Brooks' powerful piece "Obama Can't Win.")

In fact, centrists, moderates, and the world's other middle-of-the-roaders are also deeply unhappy with the president's position. Moderate Arab states feel the signals he's sent are so confusing that he has done damage to what common causes we do share. Other friends in the Middle East now wonder if, with his new approach to consult with Congress on such measures, he hasn't boxed himself in to the point that enemies like Iran will be emboldened.

Even those closest to the president (including many of those out there on the hustings now defending his position and arguing powerfully that Congress should support him) are furious with the way this decision was handled. Even as they correctly acknowledge the complexities posed by the situation on the ground in Syria, they observe with palpable concern and disapproval that the president blind-sided his national security team -- essentially hanging his own secretary of state and vice president out to dry after asking them to make strong statements supporting immediate action and then privately, without consultation, reversing his position. I've heard the complaints from insiders; as one recent alumnus of a top post ruefully pointed out, "You can tell how many people were unhappy by how quickly stories came out about the way the president shocked them in the Oval Office meeting last Friday night, about how the secretary of state wasn't even there and had to be informed by telephone afterwards."

The internal Democratic critiques run deeper still. One former senior Obama administration official spoke to me of the "shocking breakdown of the process." Another former top Democratic national security official called the president's assertion that his military leaders said that a delay of several weeks in the timing of the attack would not reduce its effectiveness "the most disingenuous statement I have ever heard." Whether that insupportable and patently ridiculous statement reflected disingenuousness on the part of the president or his top military advisors is unclear. (We do know from its behind-the-scenes grumbling that the military does not much like the idea of the currently planned intervention in Syria either.) On the Hill, the leadership has said to the president, "You're going to have to do the heavy lifting on this yourself." 

Heck, even the president seems to oppose himself on this one. On matters of principle, he is at once reversing past stands against this kind of intervention in the Middle East (see the quote in Rosa's piece on Iraq) and those for humanitarian activism to avoid problems like the ones we faced in Rwanda. He set the red line on chemical weapons and his team bruited it as policy before he ignored it and then asserted this week that he had not actually set the red line but rather "the world" had.

He is for consulting Congress but reserves the right to ignore it. He is against regime change but is for winning political support for "degradation" of Assad's capabilities and arming the opposition forces that most certainly have deposing Assad as their goal. He seeks international support and justification under international law, but then suggests that getting the approval of the U.S. Congress would be enough to legitimize acting alone. 

The presidency is a famously lonely job. But it takes hard work and some really bad decision-making to alienate nearly everyone along the entire political spectrum worldwide. (Syria's a very tough problem but earlier action or more thoughtful framing of the "red line" in conjunction with international partners or just a more buttoned-down policy process could have helped avoid this mess.) It would be a mistake to think the president put himself in this predicament thanks to one walk around the South Lawn with Chief of Staff Denis McDonough. Indeed, the events of the past week do not alone threaten to compromise the president's credibility -- there were plenty of red lines crossed, plenty of other signs of hesitation to take decisive and timely action, not just in Syria but in Egypt, in Libya, during the Iranian Green revolution and, as it may yet be seen, Iran's development of nuclear weapons. Indeed, while it's absolutely true that a congressional vote against the president's planned action to strike Syria would be absolutely devastating to America's international standing, no one is more responsible for that standing being on the line than the president. This move was akin to him holding a gun to the head of Uncle Sam in full view of the world and saying, "Support me or I will shoot."

Do the missteps associated with Obama's Syria policy amount to a mistake as damaging as Bush's in Iraq or Clinton's inaction in Rwanda? No, not yet. Indeed, we may someday look back at the Obama years and say this particular string of errors was dwarfed by the decision to double down in Afghanistan or what might someday be viewed as the failure to stop Iran's nuclear weapons program or the failure to put together a coherent policy in the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring or the failure to actually follow through on the pivot to Asia that was required to counterbalance the growth of Chinese influence in the region. Even now it's clear any mistakes we make in Syria are unlikely to be as damaging as some of the blows to America's strength that will surely result from of our failure to address our economic challenges at home. (A failure for which, it can be fairly argued, the GOP on the Hill hold the lion's share of the blame.) The jury on such judgments is clearly out and will be for a while. And, of course, we can hope that this experience of dealing with this crisis, perhaps in conjunction with others he has faced, will offer the president an epiphany -- and it will lead him to clarity, decisiveness, and the strategic vision that is necessary for him to do his job better going forward.

But for now, it is worth seeing the past week's events for what they have been: one of the really stunning self-inflicted wounds the U.S. presidency has experienced in a couple of decades in which there have been some doozies.