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There's Something to Be Said for the Peacemaker

How Obama's instincts actually prevailed in the Syria deal.

"The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function," wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Crack-Up. When he first set these words to paper in 1936, it's pretty certain that he did not imagine they would one day become the core foreign-policy principle of a 21st-century president. Yet because they have, we have been reminded of another important lesson about first-rate minds, second-rate ones, and minds of every quality: Character trumps intellectual ambivalence every time.

It is no doubt simpler for leaders who see things plainly and without nuance. Indeed, doubt is perhaps the most dangerous and relentless enemy of those whose decisions carry great weight. But as we saw in the Iraq war, "slam-dunk" certainty is no guarantee of either success or good judgment. In the early years of George W. Bush's presidency, in my view, a lack of critical second-guessing among policymakers undermined what were the president's fundamentally good intentions.

Barack Obama has been afflicted by the ability to see multiple sides of any issue since he took office. His Afghanistan policy initiative was, until recently, the outstanding example of this characteristic. After a lengthy internal debate, he presented in one speech both the decision to escalate U.S. involvement in that country and the announcement that the United States would be leaving on a certain date. It was the first illustration of what I described at the time as the Groucho Marx approach to foreign policy, referring to the comic icon's signature song, "Hello, I Must Be Going." But we have since seen other examples of Obama's ambivalence -- opposing the Bush administration's abuses of international law, yet violating sovereignty countless times with expanded drone attacks; standing up for civil liberties, yet overseeing the greatest expansion of our intrusive surveillance state ever; pivoting to Asia, but still regularly being drawn back to the Middle East; going to Congress to get approval for action in Syria and then reserving the right to take action on his own.

You might see this kind of vacillation as a sign of confusion rather than a manifestation of a first-rate intelligence. Indeed, it's almost certainly a bit of both. But even when doubts persist, underlying instincts continue to drive policy toward its ultimate outcomes. When Bush saw the Iraq war was going badly, he developed questions and concerns about the policies and pushed aside his secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, and tuned out his vice president. Not only did he then begin to embrace (and actively manage) better on-the-ground policies, but he oversaw a second-term period in U.S. international relations marked by the Millennium Challenge initiative, improved relations with emerging powers, the introduction of the "light-footprint" tactics later embraced by the Obama administration, and ultimately his politically courageous and, in retrospect, largely masterful handling of the 2008 financial crisis. Gradually, and contrary to the deeply held views of partisans, the better Bush prevailed. Character triumphed over inexperience and wrongheaded views that were too strongly held.

In the case of Obama, he was elected by the American people to get the United States out of Iraq and Afghanistan and to end the country's reflexive impulse toward war. The voters saw in him the impulse of a peacemaker, and his first actions as president sent a message to the world that the voters' judgment had been correct. His Cairo speech was an olive branch to the Islamic world. His Prague speech on nuclear disarmament addressed the nightmare that has stalked humanity since the last days of World War II. Even the speech he delivered after being awarded his bizarrely premature Nobel Peace Prize captured well the true spirit of a peacemaker.

Of course, Obama saw that peacemaking also involved remaining strong and preserving the national security of the country. And he also knew that were he to appear to neglect these points he would also put himself at political risk. And so whether motivated by simple, sound judgment or some of that and a dollop of political self-interest as well, he also became the man to dial up drones, dial up Stuxnet and cyberattacks, get Osama bin Laden, go after Anwar al-Awlaki, oversee NSA mission creep, attack Libya, and threaten intervention in Syria. But even in these cases he revealed that his fundamental instinct is first to avoid or minimize armed conflict that puts U.S. troops at risk (whether by avoiding it or by choosing to narrow its possible scope).

On some issues, this signature instinct has promoted peaceful outcomes. On others, it has sent a message that may have emboldened our enemies. On some issues, as with his overly expansive drone programs and his decisions to actually promote the expansion of the NSA's intrusive, actually anti-constitutional programs, it seems clear he made the wrong decisions. But it's hard to deny that his overall intentions in these instances lay in the direction voters thought he would take them when he was first elected.

Of course, since we know what the road to hell is paved with, we may shrug that off. But before we do, we have the more immediate example to consider: the deal struck this weekend between the United States and Russia regarding Syria giving up its chemical weapons. In this case we see that instinct and character have the power to trump intellectual indecision. What Obama wanted in Syria, it is clear, is both to avoid another war and, admittedly reluctantly, to take action to stop the most heinous of war crimes being committed in that country via chemical weapons. He fumbled and hesitated and sent mixed messages and behaved in a way that was both politically weak and too illustrative of his inner torment. But when the opportunity to achieve his goal without war arose -- and even though it was an imperfect solution, one that leaves Bashar al-Assad's presidency intact and Russia strengthened at a moment when that must've been very hard for the president to swallow -- he acted with lightning speed.

Still, whether the deal struck this past weekend ultimately works remains to be seen. How Syria's greater tragedy is resolved also remains an open question. Almost certainly the president emerges from these last few weeks weakened both at home and abroad. But had his instincts not truly been to address the chemical weapons problem, had he really felt at heart he had to militarily intervene, or had he felt the core issue here was to deliver about American influence, he would have acted differently, acting instead as some of his predecessors might have. He could have attacked. He could have shrugged off the deal. But he didn't. He hesitated when he did for reasons that had to do with who he is -- and perhaps to some degree that had to do with his weaknesses, like his overly political nature and his unwillingness to listen to his best advisors. But in the end, this most rational of presidents acted for reasons of character rather than intellect and seized the one opportunity that presented itself to achieve at least a portion of what he had hoped for. As for the overall impact of this momentary "victory" on the course of war in Syria, on the pursuit of justice vis-à-vis Assad, and on America's standing in the region, it is too early to say, but some initial signs are worrisome. (See David Kenner's excellent FP piece on the first reaction of America's allies in the region to the U.S.-Russia deal.)

That said, as we look back on this small, fragile, positive step forward, one thing we must acknowledge is that one more good thing the president did was to trust and empower his secretary of state. Although John Kerry has yet to devote sufficient attention to managing his department, this weekend (as with the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks) his actions have again suggested that the life-long senator may have the makings of a first-rate chief diplomat: tenacity, energy, creativity, and a willingness to take risks. Kerry also gave the single best speech regarding the rationale to go to war in Syria, something that no doubt gave him traction in this weekend's talks, thus revealing the benefit of properly playing two contradictory ideas in a way that produces a good outcome. Again, the proof is in the pudding, but recent signs concerning Kerry are encouraging.

In Syria, in Egypt, across the Middle East, around the world, and at home, President Obama faces many challenges to come. His natural sense of ambivalence and consequent hesitation -- even if he comes by it for good reasons -- will almost certainly cause more problems than it resolves. He should trust Kerry, Susan Rice, and the rest of the team around him to temper those inclinations and address them within his policy processes rather than alongside them or in ways that contradict them. The failure to do so may not only weaken the president but create just the kind of likelihood of conflict he seeks to avoid. And none of this mitigates the big -- and to my mind worrisome -- shift in global affairs that will result from an American body politic that has overreacted to the errors and excesses of the past decade by a now too prevalent, too sweeping inclination to lean away from intervention and activism. But choosing to focus for a moment on what positive we can find in recent events, we can hope that with some luck, if allowed to express itself, the inner nature of this president will from time to time help him again to seize whatever opportunities that may present themselves to lead this country and the world more in the direction of peace than away from it. It may not make for a coherent or even a successful foreign policy, but when it works and even when it doesn't, there's something to be said for the impulse. After all, an author who has enjoyed even greater popular success than Fitzgerald once wrote, "Blessed are the peacemakers.…"

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David Rothkopf

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.

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