The U.S. response to the escalating Syria crisis requires more thought than emotion, and it has to reach across the board—to Egypt, to Iran, to the friendly, repressive Saudis and the friendly, repressive emirates, to the antagonizing Russians. In a word, the Obama administration needs a policy. In a phrase, it does not have one.
The apparent attack on several Syrian suburbs with chemical weapons last week is an atrocity that will require a determined reply once it has been confirmed and those responsible are identified. Whoever proves the perpetrator—and we cannot be certain of this yet—there is no standing still in the face of the diabolic murder of hundreds of innocent civilians.
What kind of reply--and when--are among the questions the Obama administration must resolve. Alone? With others? Via the UN? Right away? They are all vital, all come with consequences, none is easy.
It is no good obsessing on the photographs and videos arriving from residential communities east of Damascus, gruesome as these are. For Washington, this is about more than a gas attack now. The Obama White House has managed nothing more than frantic improvisation since the Arab Spring two years ago.
It has no idea what it wants or how to get there in an awakening Middle East. This is another example—and the most consequential so far—of Washington’s continuing difficulty responding to post–Cold War crises. Anyone else in office would be caught in the same trap.
No surprise, then, that the rockets just sent into residential districts outside Damascus have pushed Obama and his policy advisors into a state of confusion rare even for this mixed-up administration. We can hope only that it is some kind of dark hour before the dawn.
In the best of outcomes, the Syrian tragedy Syria will force Washington to identify goals and strategies—the two components of any clear, consistent policy, neither of which has been articulated by the White House.
Those clamoring for interventionhttp://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2013/aug/25/mccain-graham-call-milit... in Syria by one or another military means, including Senator John McCain, were instantly and stridently on the air waves and in the video clips as word of the gas attacks arrived. They remain vociferous. But this is fools rushing in.
A cruise missile launched from the Mediterranean or fighter jets firing from outside Syrian air space do not constitute a policy. At this moment, a military strike against President Bashar al–Assad would be symbolic and no more, as many in Washington acknowledge. It would amount to another round of unconsidered ad lib—an admission that we do not know what to do.
Two important things occurred over the weekend. First, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel made it plain that the Pentagon is already assembling air and naval forces within striking distance of Damascus. This is symbolism enough for now. Vastly more important things need attention.
Second, Iran joined Russia in assuring the international community that Assad will allow U.N. weapons inspectors already in the country to examine the site of last week’s tragedy. These commitments are considerable.
They make plain that theatrical displays of power are recklessly inappropriate in a conflict that is complex and regional and could spin out of everyone’s control. Syria is not Grenada. It is not Panama. It is not a movie.
It is also plain these past few days that Assad cannot be proven guilty of the gas attacks simply because the U.S. needs him to be guilty so as to give added support to the insurgents waging war against him. Assad may be to blame—this may even be likely. But it is not implausible that the rebel factions could turn out to be the culprits.
Moscow and Tehran, Assad’s principal supporters, take this position. It is not encouraging that Washington declines even to consider the possibility—nor that it has been unmentioned in the U.S. media. The Russians and Iranians have just signaled clearly that they await the U.N. inspectors’ report, their own views notwithstanding. Over the weekend, Washington already began to discount its validity and pertinence. It is not a good place to start.
A LEGACY IN THE SAND
The Middle East will prove the making or undoing of the Obama presidency on the foreign relations side—this seems evident in view of recent events in Egypt and now Syria. And having come up with no new insights or policies since the Arab Spring, Obama’s only alternative to failure now is to do some thinking to make up for two wasted years.
The White House’s core challenge is to abandon inherited policies of democratic nation building that do not work across all cultures. Everyone wants to follow our example, and there are democrats opposing every despot (except the ones we like). This produces misreading. It plunges us into places where we do not belong.
In Egypt, the Obama administration just gave an imperial nod as the army, Washington’s longtime client, deposed an elected president. This was a terrible misreading.
As to Syria, the U.S. simply does not belong there—not alone, not under current circumstances. Assad is shoved into exile or arrested or killed in favor of what, whom? The next Taliban? The next clique of ayatollahs? Washington thought it saw democrats among Assad’s adversaries. There must be some, somewhere, but our own generals are now returning from reconnoiters to tell us to forget about any democratic regime in the waiting.
Syria has just brought the Obama administration face to face with its inadequacies and policy failures across the Middle East. But it is also where this president can begin to pilot the ship on a new course. Here are a few of the buoys marking the way:
• There are times when common humanity trumps sovereign borders, and this will be the Syrian case when (or if) the UN team is able to assess what happened in the Damascus suburbs and identify the guilty. (And never mind which side.) But the theme is multilateralism. Recognizing the UN report is an act of multilateralism. So must be any intervention to follow.
• Diplomacy is more effective than backing the latest strongman or factions and sects we do not know. In the Syrian case, intervention would be judged a success by way of a conference agreed upon beforehand, preferably an all-parties conference, through which Syrians would begin the national renovation they have long wanted and can go no longer do without.
• It is untenable to keep Iran out of the Middle East equation any longer. Given its accumulating influence (and now the rise of a reformist administration), it is counterproductive at this point. Syria is a case in point. Russia wants Iran at any Syrian conference that may materialize, and Washington should drop its objection.
• Power alone is yesterday’s technology. One of Washington’s recurring, self-created problems in the Middle East is that there is little reflection in U.S. policy of the values and ideals Americans profess to stand for. And values and ideals are, in case anyone has not noticed, what is finally at issue in the Middle East, even in Syria. If Washington wants credibility, this is how it can earn some.