It's Iran, Stupid

The real, unspoken reason America won't get involved in Syria.

There are many reasons that President Barack Obama doesn't want to get involved in Syria. And when I say involved, I'm not talking about providing humanitarian assistance or participating in the Geneva process. I mean significantly militarizing the U.S. role by either supporting the opposition with sophisticated military equipment or by directly applying U.S. military force -- or both.

It's also been clear for some time now that the president's eminently defensible policy of not getting involved in Syria cannot possibly work -- if working means pressuring President Bashar al-Assad to leave power and ending Syria's civil war. John Kerry's comments about the policy's limits, continued humanitarian horrors on the ground, the failing Geneva effort, and Damascus's foot-dragging on chemical weapons only offer new confirmation that, by doing nothing, the United States is changing nothing.

Yet it is more than likely that no real shift in America's limited, risk-averse strategy on Syria is in the offing. Obama has been stunningly clear on why. Indeed, reading David Remnick's interview with the president, it is refreshing to hear such honesty and clarity -- whether you agree with the policy or not.

"I am haunted by what's happened. I am not haunted by my decision not to engage in another Middle Eastern war. It is very difficult to imagine a scenario in which our involvement in Syria would have led to a better outcome, short of us being willing to undertake an effort in size and scope similar to what we did in Iraq. And when I hear people suggesting that somehow if we had just financed and armed the opposition earlier, that somehow Assad would be gone by now and we'd have a peaceful transition, it's magical thinking."

Yet there is one reason for the president's caution that he almost never mentions -- and it may be one of the most compelling. Not surprisingly, it is derivative of Obama's most important foreign-policy objective in the Middle East: a nuclear deal with Iran.

Aside from another al Qaeda attack on the homeland, Iran is the only foreign-policy issue that has the power to mess up the remaining years of Obama's presidency. If diplomacy fails and Iran moves to break out and weaponize, or even come close to being able to make a deliverable weapon, the risks of three very unpleasant things happening go up: first, Obama getting blamed for being the leader on whose watch the mullahs got the bomb; second, Israel striking Iran; and third, America having to do the same thing, or getting dragged into an Israeli-Iran fight. The first development would leave Obama looking poor in the legacy department, weak and outfoxed. The latter two events would open up a box of very bad juju -- and would risk things like plunging financial markets, rising oil prices, attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and proxy terror.

So, if at all possible, avoiding a confrontation with Iran is the president's core goal in the Middle East. (And, if I'm reading him correctly, he also believes it might have the fringe benefit of helping stabilize the region.)

Where does Syria fit into all of this? Simply put, to have any chance of getting things done with Iran, America needs to be talking with the Iranians -- not shooting at them in Syria or anywhere else. Indeed, the last thing Obama wants or can afford now is direct military intervention in Syria that would lead to a proxy war; kill Iranian Revolutionary Guard units assisting Assad‘s forces; or convince Tehran that U.S. policy is designed to encircle Syria's Shia regime with a U.S.-backed Sunni arc of pressure.

Critics of the president's Iran and Syria policy want him to pursue these objectives. Their argument holds that, if America brings Assad down, Iran will be more constrained and less of a threat, and that it will scale back its nuclear weapons ambitions.

This is an interesting take -- and essentially great game strategy. It is also rooted in the assumption that Syria isn't a vital Iranian interest and that backing Sunnis will make Iran nervous and more compliant. But while it is true that Syria isn't as vital to Iran as Iraq, it is still very important. Without a friendly regime in Damascus, the mullahs really don't have much access to Lebanon or Shia allies. The other assumption is much shakier. You could make an argument that a strategy of encirclement could actually accelerate Iranian nuclear ambitions as the Sunni-U.S. noose tightens.

Can I prove that Obama's Syria policy is held hostage to his Iran gambit? No. But Iran is unquestionably an important factor in his cautious approach to the ongoing civil war. Indeed, it stretches the bounds of credulity to suggest that, last September, when war clouds were gathering over Assad's use of chemical weapons, Obama's Iran calculus did not figure into his reluctance to use force in Syria. At the time, a secret U.S.-Iranian negotiating channel was already operating.

It's no surprise why the president wouldn't want to acknowledge Iran explicitly in his Syria policy. If he did, it would appear that he was sacrificing moral, humanitarian goals for a colder, strategic purpose and making nice with Iran while the mullahs help Assad perpetrate atrocities. This would only rile his critics even more. (The reality, of course, is that our Syria policy is amoral but not necessarily immoral. We are taking other considerations into account to make a decision -- what a surprise.)

The pressing question now is whether, having made his policy choices, Obama can actually achieve his two Middle East priorities: to get Assad to the negotiating table where he can be convinced to give up his rule, and to halt Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Based on my time in government and the world in which we live, I very much doubt Obama will succeed. These days, that kind of heroic diplomacy just doesn't seem possible. I can only hope that the Iranian thing actually works out. Otherwise, Obama's critics will be all over him for failing in two Middle Eastern countries -- and the world will be left with a bunch of mullahs with nukes and a Syrian regime that continues to perpetrate wrongs, defying both U.S. and international sanction.


National Security

Any Way the Wind Blows

From drone strikes to Syria, the indecisive Obama administration thinks it can conduct foreign policy by floating trial balloons.

Only in Washington can an acronym be perceived as an insult. For this reason apparently, the White House yesterday announced that the artists once known as the National Security Council (NSC) staff but rechristened in 2009 by President Barack Obama as the National Security Staff (NSS) would henceforth be referred to again as the National Security Council (NSC) staff. Apparently, in the eyes of NSC staffers, the NSS lacked the cache of the direct and clear association to the National Security Council itself. So, in a gesture of sensitivity to their needs, National Security Advisor Susan Rice (NSASR) prevailed on the president to change the name back. Mission accomplished.

Now, since I've written one book on the NSC and have another one due out in September (hint), you might expect that I would have a strong opinion about one or the other of these names, the Classic Coke and New Coke of the foreign-policy acronym bureaucracy. But I don't. Far too much time is spent by each administration christening and rechristening the names for memos and committees and reworking their org chart -- we hardly need to devote more to commenting on it.

Having said that, I do have a suggestion that the NSC may wish to consider using as its symbol (if it considers next going the way of the artist formerly known as "Prince"): the weathervane.

Take the recent reports that the White House is deliberating as to whether or not they should kill an American citizen who is allegedly collaborating with bad guys in Pakistan. Which -- behind closed doors -- is, of course, just the kind of thing they should be doing, especially given the recent debate over the morality and legality of such strikes. Further, such internal discussions on their own do not, of course, suggest that the Obama administration is flailing, or that its top policymakers are most comfortable pointing in the direction the political wind is blowing. But the fact that they chose to leak this story -- and given its distribution to top papers simultaneously, complete with off-the-record White House comments, it is absolutely clear that is what happened -- is another matter.

It's difficult not to conclude from this weird turn of events that the White House is not sure what it thinks and wants to test public reaction before it takes a decision, or -- as has happened in the past -- punts. That's how the Syria debacle unfolded in August. A deliberate, public call to action led to a decision which led to second guessing which led to leaks about the "very deliberate" process of second guessing, which led to the president punting the decision to Congress. And that, of course, led to the message being sent to the world that America had no clear idea what it wanted to do in that unfortunate, war-ravaged country. Or recall the way the candidacy of Larry Summers to be Fed chief was leaked to the press to test the waters before a decision was made. Or that in the days before the president made his remarks on the NSA scandal, elements of his response were leaked and tested with the media. Testing the waters isn't a sin, but that this has become something approaching standard operating procedure -- in instances when decisions were hard or might be controversial -- is.

The administration says that it takes these decisions (whether these enemy combatants are threats to the United States) seriously, and that it won't hesitate to act. Well, either this person is a threat to the United States or he isn't. And this certainly seems like hesitating to act.

Further, if the White House is planning a secret mission to violate the sovereignty of another country and blast someone who happened to be colluding with terrorists there are some pretty good conventional, operational, and diplomatic reasons why such a thing should remain secret. Once again, for an administration that has been selectively aggressive on targeting and prosecuting leakers (see the case just this past week of a State Department leaker sentenced to prison time for his misstep), it is amazing how often they violate basic operational security standards to achieve a political purpose. (Like rapidly declassifying info on the Osama bin Laden raid or secret back-channel negotiations with the Iranians to assure that the president got full credit for his successes.)

Leaders are supposed to have principles, standards, and processes by which critical security decisions are developed that enable them to protect U.S. interests by keeping those decisions on the down low. Most Americans not only expect this, it's one of the reasons they hired the leaders in the first place. The idea that each one is opened up to crude public polling and debate in the Washington echo chamber is grotesque, politically craven, and undermines the likelihood our missions will be successful. It is not how leaders or professional security organizations behave. It is the way of the pol.

For these reasons, acronyms be damned, as long as the NSC is using a weathervane to produce public policy decisions that should be its symbol ... and a caution to all who think values, reason, or suitable standards of professional judgment are dependably our means for determining America's security policies worldwide.

Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Cover photoillustration by FP, Photo by JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images