international analysis and commentary

Why Syria is the moment of truth for Obama’s foreign policy

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It is a story that has rightly entered Washington lore. Around ten years ago, Samantha Power, a journalist and analyst appalled by America’s failure to act in Rwanda, confronted Clinton-era decision-makers for the book she was writing on genocide, soon to win the Pulitzer Prize. How could these confirmed Wilsonians – believers in international law and the responsibility of the international community to right wrongs – have failed to act in the face one of the greatest acts of barbarity in the modern age?

A particularly evocative portion of her book about genocide, A Problem From Hell, concerns her intense discussion with Susan Rice, a rising Democratic Party foreign policy operative then serving as a National Security Council (NSC) staffer. Rice admitted that in the face of the Clinton administration’s failure to act in Rwanda, she had made a private vow that if ever faced with such a choice again, she would “come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required.”

Of course this is a far from academic vignette. For we now live in a world where Power is President Obama’s new Ambassador-designate to the UN, and where Rice (long the foreign policy hand the President is personally closest to) has ascended to head the NSC, what could well be the second most important job in terms of foreign policy power in the country. When new Secretary of State John Kerry is added to the mix, we see a real sea change in terms of foreign policy orientation: muscular Wilsonians are rising, realists and pragmatists are out of favor. The caution and pragmatism of former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, former NSC Director Tom Donilon (and when it came to it former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) is yesterday’s news.

And yet the new team’s desire to go abroad in search of sea monsters to destroy (to quote John Quincy Adams) flies in the face of the President’s first term foreign policy legacy, which had three planks. First, the closet realist Obama ran foreign policy like a bad bank, shutting down the excesses of Iraq and (soon) Afghanistan he inherited from the Bush administration, all the while studiously refusing to be drawn into any further foreign policy misadventures.

Second, the White House (an effort spearheaded by then NSC Director Donilon) began its pivot to Asia, seeing in that region both the world’s hopes for a new central source of economic dynamism, as well as an area surrounded by untold perils. Third, and a corollary of this second point, any further conflict in the endless black hole of the Middle East was to be avoided at all costs, both to preserve the primacy of the Asia pivot as well as to safeguard Obama’s domestic agenda, which was by far the administration’s highest priority.

And then, right on schedule, came along the next problem from hell (Ms. Power must learn that in foreign policy they are never-ending and not unique), the civil war in Syria. For all kinds of practical and ideological reasons this is where the rubber hits the road, and what will largely determine the President’s foreign policy legacy. A quick look at both the first-term and the muscular Wilsonian check lists illustrates the dilemma for the Obama team, and highlights the tension that has characterized his foreign policy from the start: the White House has a Wilsonian heart and a realist head.

The first-term check list leads directly to this argument: While we are winding down in Afghanistan (having done so in Iraq, all the while limiting exposure in Libya) the last thing we need is to take on yet another unwinnable war in the Middle East, being fought by the murderous Assad government and rebels increasingly under the sway of radical Islam in general and al-Qaeda in particular (the powerful Jabhat al-Nusra rebel force is merely the most important example). Who do we root for here?

What does success (in the President’s supposed skeptical words over Syria) look like? Are we really going to endanger all that we have done in the first term, recalibrating American foreign policy to fit our post-Lehman Brothers means, are we going to take our eye off the Asia pivot, are we really going to put in peril our domestic initiatives (which is why we came to Washington in the first place), all to help rebels, many of whom hate us and want to establish a caliphate, dominated by al-Qaeda? This is the height of madness!

The Rice/Power/Kerry argument back is equally unequivocal: Once again America (and only America) has the power to act to lessen humanitarian calamity, with around 100,000 already dead in the Syrian conflict, with the refugee numbers stretching into the millions. To not do something would be an act of moral cowardice, especially as the tyrant Assad has begun to win the war, due to his strong support from Hezbollah and Iran, our regional enemies, while we have dithered.

Non-action will be merely another sign that America is no longer the global ordering power, a massive blow to our international credibility. As no other country is remotely in a position to take America’s place, non-action would signal to both friends and enemies in the world that America’s leadership abdication means we now all live in the jungle, in a very coarsened international community, a state of play that will harm the whole of the world, especially America, across the board. There are still non-Islamist rebels to support; we should throw in our lot with them, revive the Syrian opposition, and take a stand for what we believe in. By the way, the Asia pivot was always overrated; as John Kerry’s travel schedule makes clear, the crisis-tossed Middle East is still the world’s most important region.

The administration’s quiet realist past and muscular Wilsonian present are on a collision course over Syria, one where the differences simply cannot be split.

There is of course one major player whose stance on Syria remains less than clear: President Obama himself. In recent testimony before the Senate, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey, a known critic of further involvement in Syria, owned up to the fact that has provided President Obama with options for military strikes in Syria. He also made it clear that the administration (rightly in my view) now sees that Assad is winning the civil war, and is likely to still be in power in a year’s time. In other words, the President’s recent feeble effort to supply small arms to the rebels will do absolutely nothing to change the military balance in Syria. The only way to change the strategic calculation would be for America to intervene with boots on the ground, or possibly to establish a no-fly zone, and hope against hope Washington is not dragged further into the conflict.

Mimicking his new hero Dwight D. Eisenhower, Obama has prevaricated, ordering Dempsey to determine whether the US could (not should, which is of course a decision for the President alone) stage a military intervention in Syria, a matter currently under intense inter-agency deliberation. My guess is that the President (as was so often the case for Ike) is hoping that the real-world practical difficulties the inter-agency process will dredge up will make his decision far easier than it appears now. For if the US simply cannot effectively intervene in Syria, this gargantuan ideational struggle will melt away.

The President better hope that this is the case, because wrong-headed as they are, both Rice and Power are formidable bureaucratic players, having lead the charge pushing the US into military intervention in Libya in the first term. But in Syria the stakes are so much higher. If push comes to shove, the President would do well to remember Churchill’s falsely-attributed admonition, “if you are not a liberal when you are 20 you have no heart, and if you are not a conservative when you are 40 you have no brain.” Use that realist head, Mr. President, for the good of the country.