international analysis and commentary

Syria and Obama, the closet realist


Despite the many naysayers who claim the President does not do strategic thinking, upon close inspection there is no doubt an overall foreign policy plan can be discovered. It goes something like this. Like a bad bank, America must wind down the foreign policy excesses of George W. Bush, exiting Iraq and Afghanistan, and striving to avoid at all costs any new foreign policy adventures that can come back to haunt us. That practically means “Leading From Behind” in Libya (doing as little militarily as possible and eschewing nation-building) and avoiding the Syrian civil war like the plague. As the President has ruefully commented over the past few weeks of crisis, “I was elected to end wars, not to start them.”

Instead, America should pivot to Asia, spending more time, effort and resources on the fastest growing region in the world, and the only one capable of providing a new long-term motor for future economic growth. The sub-text of the Asia Pivot was clear as well: Do as little as possible in the sinkhole of the Middle East. With the Arab Spring turning abruptly to Winter, Damascus on fire, Israeli-Palestinian Final Status talks going nowhere, and Iran seemingly intent on acquiring a nuclear capability, the region was one that could easily derail Obama’s overall foreign policy, but could do precious little to advance it. Problems there need to be managed, but little was likely to be solved; better that the emphasis shift to Asia, a continent where creative American diplomacy might well make a positive difference and which was economically the future.

Two salient and incontrovertible facts underlie this coherent strategy. First, it acknowledges the relative decline in American power, while reaffirming the paradoxical reality that even a declining America by a long ways remains the greatest single power in a world of many of them. America could no longer do everything and certainly not on its own; Iraq will historically be seen as the high-water mark of feckless unilateralism. Nevertheless, if America makes rational strategic choices about what really matters, it can still largely set the terms for the new multipolar era, and do so in a creative way that makes a profound difference.

Secondly, the Obama White House is acutely aware that its mission – the reason it won two presidential elections – is to concentrate on what the President rightly calls “nation-building at home.” Americans have helplessly watched as over a trillion dollars have gone down the plughole over faraway Iraq, all the while American schools, roads and bridges deteriorated, and with the global economic system set to explode. Barack Obama’s election signified the determination of the country to right its own ills, rather than serving as democracy policeman for a confusing and ungrateful world.

Looking at this summary, it is hard to refute that at its core – astonishingly – the supposedly ultra-left-wing (by American standards, at least) President has been nothing more than a closet realist, reconfiguring American foreign policy to more accurately reflect its real power position in a rapidly changing world and re-defining its core interests to make sense of that world. All this is admirable and makes much sense, but begs answering a confounding question: Why in the world did the realist Obama administration almost sleepwalk to war in Syria?

The answer is as simple as it has been overlooked. Obama and his first-term foreign policy staff (Secretaries of Defense Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, and yes, even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) were all committed to his “Closet Realist Strategy”; the same cannot be said for the mainstream of the Democratic Party foreign policy elite. As such, the President has spent the last few years both obscuring his realist strategy and throwing bones to his Wilsonian base, foreign policy maximalists who have been perpetually annoyed by his decidedly more minimalist stance.

Syria is merely the latest example of this overall trend. Almost exactly a year ago, the President came to the entirely correct conclusion that American military intervention in the gruesome Syrian civil war was emphatically not in American interests. America has no primary stake in the Syrian outcome, not having a long-term ally ensconced there nor possessing significant economic interests. A war with Assad, Hezbollah, and Iran on one side and a large percentage of Al-Qaeda elements on the other sounds like strategic manna from heaven; the longer such committed American foes are killing each other, the better. Syria is a devilishly complex mosaic of ethnic and religious groups, one that makes putting Iraq back together again look like child’s play in comparison. So no interests, no clear mission, no in-country allies, no real chance of success.

Finally and tellingly, jumping into the Syrian fire had the potential to entirely undo the “Closet Realist” foreign policy strategy of the past five years, embroiling America in yet another war of choice, focusing on the Middle East instead of Asia, and imperiling the White House’s strongly domestic focus. On the realist merits, staying out of Syria is a no-brainer.

But fatefully, Obama again felt the need to give a consolation prize to his Wilsonian base. When pressed if his decision was final, Obama added a lawyerly caveat. If Assad were to prove even more ghastly to his people and say, gas them (as though killing tens of thousands of his countryman were somehow more gentlemanly) he would reconsider. The whole point of the “promise” is that it was made in the certainty that it would never have to be acted upon; it wasn’t about policy but about the politics of tending to his disappointed “humanitarian intervention” base.

Imagine the White House’s astonishment when a year on – like Frankenstein’s monster – the straw man came to life, with Assad barbarically gassing hundreds of people in a suburb of Damascus. This tactical political ploy at the heart of Obama’s Closet Realist strategy is the undoubted context to all that has happened over these past tumultuous days, with the White House just avoiding war over a promise they never believed they would have to honor.

Speaking here as a Jeffersonian, what all this really points out is the absolute moral and practical imperative to level with people as a policy. It may seem clever to hedge, obfuscate, and confuse. But in the end, the hostage to fortune such a secretive policy demands you make causes more harm than good. As the dust from Syria begins to settle, now, above all, would be the time for the President to openly announce why realism fits the times we live in.