What Obama Should Say at West Point, But Won't

The president's biggest foreign-policy speech in a year will be showy and ambitious but can't paper over his administration's lack of focus.

President Obama will give the commencement address at West Point tomorrow morning. I don't know what he is going to say, of course, but I'm sure he'll say it well. The New York Times says the speech will be part of a broader administration effort to explain its handling of foreign policy, and that Obama will use this opportunity to defend his measured approach to overseas intervention and his preference for a "middle course between isolationism and military intervention." 

No doubt the speech will offer up the usual list of "achievements" (Osama bin Laden is dead, we're out of Iraq, etc.), and rumor has it that he's going to announce a new program of assistance for the Syrian opposition. Given the setting, it is bound to strike a patriotic tone and contain some typically soaring Obamian rhetoric. But what the president really needs to do is provide the strategic coherence that has been lacking ever since he took office in 2009. Although he seems to have recognized from the start that the United States had to reduce its global burdens in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan, neither Obama nor his advisors ever managed to articulate and stick to a set of core strategic principles. The result has been an overly ambitious foreign-policy agenda that kept top officials busy but failed to produce significant positive results.

The first thing I'd like to hear in tomorrow's speech is a clear articulation of Obama's foreign-policy priorities. What does he regard as the most pressing threats to U.S. security? Where are the most promising opportunities that, if seized, would make ordinary Americans safer or more prosperous? What issues or problems should the United States focus on, and what issues or problems can be downgraded or deferred? 

To be specific: Is nuclear security the big issue to which others should be subordinated? The lingering threat from al Qaeda? The emergence of a more powerful and assertive China? Instability and Islamic radicalism in Central Africa? The looming specter of climate change? Empowering women in the developing world? The carnage in Syria? The Israeli-Palestinian peace process? And so forth.

I ask these questions because I have no idea what U.S. priorities are at this stage (and I've been paying attention). At one point I thought Obama's core aim was to reduce U.S. involvement in the Middle East and "pivot" to Asia, but then came the Arab spring and the United States was busy easing Hosni Mubarak out, backing repression in Bahrain, creating a failed state in Libya, and then welcoming a military coup in Cairo. Next, Secretary of State John Kerry came in and spent months in a futile and inept attempt to broker a Middle East peace deal.

The lack of consistent strategic priorities has been even more apparent in the U.S. response to Russia in general and the situation in Ukraine in particular. Vladimir Putin may not be our best buddy, but the United States has much to gain from a solid working relationship with Russia. We want Moscow to cooperate on Iran and Syria, and on broader issues of nuclear security and counterterrorism. We still rely on Russian facilities to supply our troops in Afghanistan, and we have a long-term interest in keeping Moscow and Beijing apart. Given these realities, did it make any sense whatsoever to keep expanding missile defenses in Eastern Europe, to take advantage of Russian cooperation in the Security Council to do "regime change" in Libya, and then to back an ill-conceived effort to pull Ukraine into an economic and strategic partnership with the West? The answer is no, because Russia cares a lot more about Ukraine's fate than we do -- with good reason -- and Putin had many ways to thwart our efforts (as indeed he has). And make no mistake, he's been the big winner here: Crimea is now part of Russia, NATO membership for Ukraine is off the table for good, and Ukraine's new president clearly understands that good relations with Moscow are essential, just as Putin wanted.

The second thing I'd like to hear is how Obama intends to elicit more effective cooperation from U.S. partners around the world. Passing the buck to others is often a smart strategy, especially for a country that is a safe as the United States actually is, and U.S. leaders used to be pretty good at it. But after 50 years of Cold War and 20 years of erstwhile hegemony, many U.S. allies have become disarmed dependencies and the U.S. foreign-policy establishment has become accustomed to running the show. Our allies know this, of course, so they continue to free-ride, occasionally whining about America's eroding "credibility." These complaints invariably find a receptive audience back in official Washington, and the usual U.S. response is to immediately reassure our allies we will continue to defend them no matter what. But if uncooperative allies can always count on American protection, why expect them to do what we want or to make a greater contribution to common objectives?

My fantasy, of course, is that Obama will seize the opportunity of tomorrow's speech to explain some core realities to the cadets, the American people, and to the rest of the world. I wish he'd begin by reminding his audience that the United States is in fact very secure, and that many of the dangers we've been inflating over the past two decades are in fact minor problems that deserve some attention but not nearly as much as we've been giving them. He could also extol the positive role that American military power has played in the past. In particular, the U.S. military is very good at deterring conventional aggression in areas we regard as vital interests, and very good at reversing it when it does occur. The United States military also plays a valuable role in protecting the global commons, and especially the world's sea lanes of communication and trade (in this sense, it's too bad he won't be at Annapolis). 

But I wish Obama would also acknowledge that the United States is not very good at running other countries, or engaging in social engineering in societies that are undergoing radical upheavals and that we do not understand very well. This isn't a unique American failing; nobody is really good at doing that sort of thing. As we have learned in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, and many other places, even well-intentioned efforts to guide and shape the internal politics of other countries are as likely to backfire as they are to succeed. Sometimes we pick the wrong local allies, and end up empowering corrupt, unpopular, or incompetent leaders. Or sometimes our interference fuels anti-American conspiracy theories, so that Washington gets blamed not only for the things we do, but also for things for which the United States is not responsible (see under: Pakistan). Unfortunately, this discouraging track record has not dampened enthusiasm for these efforts; it's just made U.S. foreign-policy elites eager to find ways to do them on the cheap.

If Obama wanted to be really bold (which is clearly not his style), he could also remind his listeners that American power and influence are greatest when the United States is strong and prosperous, yet slow to anger. Our leverage over other states will be greatest when we are powerful, but when our willingness to use that power is conditional on what others are willing and able to do for us. It's bad strategy to go abroad in search of monsters to destroy, and to hail it as some great foreign-policy victory when we get saddled with solving some intractable conflict in some weak and distant country. Freedom of action is the great luxury that America's position in the Western hemisphere affords, and underscoring that bedrock strategic principle could give the last two years of Obama's presidency a coherence it has lacked until now.

That's what I'd like to hear tomorrow. But I'm not holding my breath.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images


A Tidal Wave of Trauma

From PTSD to depression, the war in Syria has spawned a massive mental health crisis -- and there are neither the doctors nor the money to stem its crushing effects.

There are as many guises of trauma as there are Syrians who have experienced the war still ravaging their country. The dead-eyed mask is common, often in children. I saw it in a refugee house in Amman, Jordan, where, seated on scratchy nylon mats that said "UNHCR," seven or so boys and girls stared at me stonily. Their mother cried until her whole face and neck turned red as she told stories of massacres and family members who had disappeared. The father sat quietly in a nearby room, praying.

There is another gaze, one full of grief, which I saw in a hospital in Kilis, a town inside Turkey near the Syrian border. A woman, 38, was bedridden with a spinal injury she incurred on the outskirts of Aleppo. Explosives had fallen on her house, crushing not only her back, but also her daughter, Ayah. A blond, 9-year-old child with plastic glasses, Ayah died that day. The pain of her death pulsed in her mother's eyes.

There is also the drawn face of exhaustion, a wounded look I witnessed on a woman I met in a park in Kilis. The park housed 4,000 Syrians in makeshift tents. The woman tried to hand me her young son. He had scabies up and down his legs. "When will all of this end?" she begged.

The question of when the fighting will end is ever present in the minds of those hurting. So, too, are memories of torture, killing, rape, and deprivation. A loss of home and country plagues refugees, as do the difficulties of trying to incorporate themselves into communities that are sometimes hostile to their presence. Many have physical problems from injuries in the war. Even more have internal, emotional damage. Suffering for Syrians has a cascade effect, one with no tangible end in sight.

The World Health Organization estimates that 3 to 4 percent of people affected by an emergency (like the war in Syria) will develop severe mental health disorders, such as psychosis or severe depression. (That's compared to 2 to 3 percent before an emergency). The organization also says that 15 to 20 percent of people in an emergency will develop mild or moderate anxiety or depression disorders or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) -- as compared to 10 percent beforehand -- and that a "large percentage" of people will experience "normal distress" during an emergency.

Right now, there are about 9 million Syrians who have fled their homes, 2.7 million of whom have taken refuge in neighboring Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, and Iraq. And, of course, there are millions of Syrians still suffering inside their country. Do the math, and it's easy to see the enormity of the mental health crisis this war has created.

But amid a litany of humanitarian needs that aren't even remotely being met, can this crisis possibly be addressed? Can its long-term effects -- illnesses that could tear apart families and reduce quality of life -- be mitigated in a meaningful way? While there are international and local groups attempting to do just that, the need is still heartbreaking and huge.

On May 15, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) released a map with comprehensive information on attacks on medical facilities and personnel inside Syria. It did not, however, include information about people who provide mental health care specifically. Erin Gallagher, PHR's director of emergency investigations and response, said the organization is well aware of the mental health crisis at hand, but that it lacks statistics for psychologists and other providers. This seems to be a trend: In reporting, I could not find an organization with a good sense of where or how many mental health practitioners are working inside or around Syria right now. Gallagher says what's clearly known, however, is that "so many adults and children are suffering from trauma and are not getting help."

"There is a big, big gap in accessing care for mental health for all Syrian refugees," echoes Ana Maria Tijerino, a mental health advisor for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Suisse (that is, the Swiss branch of Doctors Without Borders). "We need to do more, definitely."

"We need," she adds emphatically, "to do more."


During a conversation one evening in Reyhanli, on the Turkish side of the Syrian border, a psychologist named Mohamed Suleiman from Idlib, Syria, pulled out a large tripod topped by a horizontal metal bar with little green lights running across it. He handed headphones to a colleague of mine, and we watched as the lights started blinking, one by one.

This was an EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) machine, a method used to treat PTSD that has people recall difficult memories while receiving different kinds of sensory input; the idea is to help the brain reprocess traumatic information to make it less upsetting. Many Western specialists consider it to be cutting edge. But it is unusual to find one in a place as bereft as the Syrian border. Suleiman, who said that he and his wife are basically the only therapists in the area, described toting the machine from tent to tent in refugee camps. They can help only one person at a time.

On various trips to the region in which Syrian refugees are scattered, I have met with many psychologists who similarly say they are the only ones for miles around -- in some cases, perhaps the one medical practitioner licensed to treat mental health problems in a refugee camp of thousands of people. And all of these professionals have said the number of people experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety is staggering.

In addition to MSF, other international groups, such as the International Rescue Committee and UNICEF, offer help in various places, and so do local ones. The Kirkuk Center for Torture Victims, recently renamed the Jiyan Foundation for Human Rights, runs seven rehabilitation centers in northern Iraq, including inside the Domiz refugee camp. The number of people seeking help has been extraordinarily high. Salah Ahmad, a psychotherapist and the organization's director-general, says that in the Domiz camp, which is estimated to house more than 70,000 Syrians, the center saw more than 9,000 patients in its first 11 months. His team has had to introduce a waiting list.

"Ninety percent of families have trauma," estimates a social worker named Muna in Amman, at the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS). The organization, which includes psychologists and social workers, carries out home visits to assess and help hundreds of new families on arrival each month. "When a plane is passing by, kids hide under chairs. 'I wish I could go back to Syria,' they say."

Another social worker in the office says, "They're scared, but they don't say why. They can't adapt to their new surroundings, and they're desperate."

The psychologists and social workers at SAMS say they do four or five visits with a family, bringing food and clothing, through which they hope to alleviate some of the isolation and ongoing need for basic items. It can take that many visits before, for example, a woman may finally open up and say she was raped. Getting to the heart of trauma, in other words, can take time and the right conditions.

"We tell them that we're here for them. We give them the safety net," says Yassar Kanawati, a psychiatrist who supervises the psychosocial team in SAMS's Amman office. (She is based in Atlanta but travels often to Jordan.)

Most caregivers I spoke to view children as a population of special concern. Many cannot attend school due to a lack of facilities, and some of those who do go cannot concentrate and learn. They absorb their parents' pain (if their parents are still alive). "Many of those who come to us cannot sleep anymore, they have nightmares, are oversensitive, many cry a lot; children are aggressive or stop talking," says Ahmad.

Kanawati describes situations in which a mother's trauma affects children, in turn potentially making them more aggressive and less able to learn. She does group therapy sessions with refugees, mainly children, who she says "are either in a daze because of the trauma or aggressive or depressed or anxious. Just thinking about their losses, thinking about their father who just died or their mother who was raped in front of them. It's very serious stuff." Kanawati explains that while medical treatment for physical issues is certainly important, giving greater support for refugees' emotional and mental health "would prevent further decline in function of the whole society."

Yet organizations like SAMS are understaffed and underfunded. Kanawati says the group has trouble finding the $100,000 a year it takes to do its work. "Resources" -- that's the word she and others repeated to me as what they need but do not always have.

Adding to the overall predicament is that individual problems usually just get worse with time. The anti-poverty organization CARE said in an April report on refugees that it "clearly identified an increase in psychosocial needs the longer the displacement lasted." Syrian families "typically identified a deterioration in their psychological state as a major change over the previous year," CARE said, "alongside and exacerbated by preoccupations about financial resources to cover basic needs and closely related to a deterioration in health."

Tijerino of MSF, who oversees the group's mental health care in the Domiz camp, agrees. "Some refugees have been inside a camp for two years, and it's not likely to change soon," she says. The lack of knowing about their future, the uncertainty, "is affecting their mental health."


Making the situation all the more difficult is a long-standing taboo surrounding mental health in the region. Kanawati knows about this issue all too well. When she got her medical degree in the 1980s in Syria and told people she was going into psychiatry, "everyone laughed."

"Thanks to Freud," she says, "they thought that therapy is about sex and sexuality. In our culture sex and sexuality is very private. You don't go to someone to talk about it."

Similarly, Ahmad in Iraq says that "psychological treatment is still widely unknown in the Middle East."

The taboo lingers, Kanawati explains, although perceptions are slowly changing. But in the midst of war, any new desire for assistance has run up against a lack of trained professionals. "We've been depending on paraprofessionals -- social workers who didn't go to school -- but we provide them with training to do this kind of work," Kanawati says.

Between the need to educate people about mental health treatment and figuring out how to reach so many sufferers with so few professionals, the challenges of this crisis are extraordinary. But in addition to the dedicated people I spoke to, there are people out there mulling creative solutions. For instance, there are trauma specialists in Northern Ireland working on a web platform that would crowdsource mental health symptoms of Syrian refugees, in an attempt to assess needs and pass the information along to practitioners and NGOs, who can in turn then provide treatment. Still, such efforts are only in development -- and in the meantime, Syria's war rages on, sending more and more refugees over the border every day.

With the EMDR machine blinking away, Suleiman reflects on what lies ahead, and turns dark.

"I'm more anxious about the future," he says, "than the present."

His sentiment, it seems, unfortunately speaks for millions.

Fadi al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images