This weekend's collapse of the Geneva Syria "peace" talks throws into stark relief the unenviable fact that the White House has run out of "Hail Mary" passes which passed as its Syria policy. So if the president truly desires a better Syria policy he must first fix the reasons why he has overseen a failed Syria policy, and then work up from there.
Why has it gone wrong so far? Choose your poison and I invite you to read my previous long list of articles on this site. But if there is one reason that encapsulates the endless missteps and miscues it is the battle for the president's foreign policy soul between the moderate-progressive foreign policy wing and the neo-isolationist wing of the Democratic Party.
Exhibit A: When the Syrian civil war was in its infancy, Secretary of State Clinton and her deputies at the State Department -- along with the Pentagon brass -- recommended a reasonably coherent "no boots on the ground" Syria policy. They urged the White House lead at the very least from the "second row" (not behind, mind you), but don't abandon the playing field. The State Department encouraged the president to exert leadership to galvanize a coherent anti-Assad coalition inside Syria and stand strongly behind Turkey, Jordan, and the Gulf States to rebuild a coherent Free Syrian Army. But on the eve of a critical Istanbul "Friends of Syria" in late March 2009 the White House staff pulled the rug out from Mrs. Clinton and visiting Turkish FM Davotuglu, denying Mrs. Clinton's offer to announce at this crucial gathering that the U.S. will begin providing military aid and massive humanitarian assistance to the so-called "good rebels" that Turkey was prepared to help arm.
Why did the president reject the advice of senior foreign policy executives?
It is the worst kept secret in Washington that the Obama White House political staff has trespassed like Trojan horses into foreign policy territory by interfering in NSC decision-making -- channeling the Democratic Party equivalent of the Tea Party isolationist wing of the Republic Party into the West Wing. Whether by default or design President Obama has found it all too convenient to enable such interference. White House officials such as Valerie Jarrett have consistently crossed swords with NSC staff to neutralize any foreign policy engagement policy that would derail the Holy Grail legacy that President Obama ended the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. To them, nothing else really matters except perhaps a nuclear accord with Iran. That's the trifecta at the expense of anything else.
According to several unnamed White House and State Department sources who decline to be identified, Ms. Jarrett, along with several other White House political operatives working under her direction have deputized themselves as the in-house vanguard to mitigate ultra-leftist criticism of President Obama's counter-terrorism policies by opposing any involvement in Syria, or for that matter, anywhere else. The mantra from the neo-isolationists and their in-house emissaries: stay out and stay home no matter how injurious to long-term U.S. foreign policy interests.
Fortunately, John Kerry came riding in like the cavalry to try to rebalance the ideological tilt.
If Syria were the only example where such neo-isolationism prevailed, then one could argue it represented an isolated incident. But such is not the case. Under their political duress President Obama has permitted himself to be swayed into too many false choices between balancing the admirable and relentless pursuit of terrorists (that has provoked the ire of ultra-liberals) against a foreign policy meant first and foremost to mollify the isolationists. Having leaned too far in one direction the president's advisers persuaded him to lean too far in the other direction. The result -- more empty words than coherent action.
Non-Syria cases in point:
- Iraq: Failing to back up rhetoric with concerted action to stop PM Maliki from funneling arms from Iran to Syria while receiving billions of dollars in aid from Washington (where was the sanctions against Maliki when it would have mattered?). Isolationists asserted if we closed the chapter on Iraq, don't look back.
- Egypt: Missteps managing the post Morsi coup relationship with Egypt's military (General al-Sisi -- the next president of Egypt, considers Washington his adversary). Ultra-leftists inside the Administration argued that the coup against Morsi demanded political abandonment of the generals.
- Libya: The ONE foreign policy victory this White House claims in the Middle East -- its role in overthrowing Gaddafi -- is daily decaying by its failure to stay the course and incubate nascent Libyan democracy in its crib. Gaddafi was toppled so it was not our job to clean up the mess we helped create.
- Iran: Engaging Iran on only one (albeit critical) legacy issue -- its illegal nuclear weapons program) and not incorporating into the negotiations in exchange for sanctions relief the panoply of other bad Iranian conduct: support for Hezbollah, its interference in Syria, its safe-haven support for al Qaeda operatives in Iran, its interference in the internal affairs of allied Gulf states, its persecution of Iranian exiles and abysmal human rights policies -- that would unduly complicate a "clean" agreement that would prevent a conflict with Iran.
- Russia: "Reset and Hope for the Best" with Putin. "Reset" to coin a phrase -- is now on the trash heap of history. While we must engage Russia where our interests intersect, isn't it time for the White House to face the fact that no matter how many times John Kerry sits with Mr. Lavrov -- his Russian counterpart, Russia is determined to knock the U.S. out of medal contention across the globe. Whether in Ukraine, Central Asia, with China, in the Middle East (not only in Syria but now with Egypt and with our Gulf state allies) Mr. Putin's Russia is resurrecting a new "cold war."
Fortunately, the president has had his share of lessons when it comes to dealing with Mr. Putin, but how does disenchantment with the Kremlin translate into a better U.S. foreign policy to circumvent the neo-isolationists? One answer: It is time to bring in some experienced Russian hands to construct a reasonable two-track policy toward Russia: engage Putin where we can and contain Putin where we must. A 21st-century version of post-World War II containment is worth exploring when it comes to an emboldened Russia that is determined to undermine American global interests. Neo-isolationists do not consider Putin a threat -- they believe Putin is justifiably engaged in his own long-overdue bipolar rebalancing act. Nyet!
Now, what to do about Syria?
1. Embrace the role as Humanitarian Aider in Chief: Whether Sunni or Shiite, the devastatingly horrific condition of the hapless Syrian population compels the U.S. to reboot our reputational and moral obligations to them. If we are wary about funneling arms to the rebels, than funnel humanitarian aid to the Syria people. As much as the U.S. has belatedly provided, the aid so far has not earned international approbation or the thanks of the Syrian people. Why are we not doing more to solicit support from the private sector to aid refugees and the hungry? Where is the airlift? Why should any Syrian refugee die from the freezing elements for lack of a blanket?
2. Assad has found a convenient substitute to chemical weapons -- the Barrel Bomb. His air force is raining death and destruction across vast swaths of Syria. The Gulf States and Turkey have formidable air power to enforce Arab League resolutions to protect civilians caught up in the war and as the first Gulf War U.S. leadership was decisive to encourage Arab states to take the front lines. As we did in Libya, U.S. AWACS can provide non-lethal air protection for surgical strikes by Saudi and Turkish jets against Assad's airfields? What is Russia going to do? Declare war on Turkey or Saudi Arabia for challenging Assad's genocide against his people? American leadership may be decisive, but has not been exerted. President Obama should take this idea with him to Riyadh next month. Diplomatic policy prior to the first Gulf War has many lessons for an improved Syria policy.
3. Since the Russians have consistently blocked action in the Security Council to alleviate Syrian suffering, why hasn't the Obama Administration gone to the UN General Assembly to bypass the Security Council? Publicly berating Putin is no substitute for a better policy. Generating a General Assembly resolution to support humanitarian relief and encouraging states to pursue humanitarian remedies at least isolates Putin and Assad from the will of the world and yields at least broad moral authority to act.
4. Attack al Qaeda strongholds in northern Syria and Iraq. The U.S. has no need to obtain United Nations Security Council approval to launch attacks on Al Qaeda and ISIS bases in Iraq and northern Syria -- they are a direct threat to the U.S. homeland as declared by virtually every one of the Administration's national security leaders. What is Putin going to do? Demand the U.S. stop killing the very al Qaeda terrorists that are aligned with their Islamic extremists in the Caucuses? What is Assad going to do against U.S. drone strikes? He has no recourse. Even neo-isolationists are on shaky ground asserting al Qaeda in Syria is no threat to the U.S.
Boots on the ground in Syria: absolutely not! Angels in the air for the sake of the Syrian people and to protect the homeland against another Al Qaeda threat: It's long overdue. Does that solve the Syrian mess? Absolutely not! Does it constitute a better U.S. policy than what we have going now? It can only be better than what we have going now.