Changing the Subject

09/13/2013 05:08 pm ET | Updated Nov 13, 2013

Russian President Vladimir Putin's surprise intervention into the Syrian imbroglio could just be a ploy to prevent U.S. military action, support a client state, and increase his influence in the Middle East. The new round of diplomacy could come crashing down, and President Obama will need to honor his pledge to attack.

But perhaps Russia will play a constructive role and Syria will rapidly place its chemical weapons under international control. Even so, that would just put the U.S. back at Square One. He would still face the question that for two years has gone unanswered: "What does the U.S. really want in Syria, and what will we do to get there?"

At no point has the United States actively supported an effort to achieve a decisive outcome to the Syrian civil war. Two years ago, Obama said that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad must go, but did nothing to bring it about. Assad thus lost any incentive to negotiate. The U.S. also opposes a successor regime controlled by forces inimical to U.S. interests, which is highly likely given the makeup of the rebel groups, but without a plan to keep that from happening.

Perhaps Obama has been wise just to temporize, avoiding yet another Middle East war that the American people oppose. But unlike Libya two years ago, Syria is not on the back of the moon. The Syrian conflict is likely to spill over even more than now onto countries that matter to us, Turkey, Israel, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon. The Syrian civil war is a lodestone for just about every Islamist terrorist group, as both inspiration and weapons from the worst of them have been flooding in.

Following a violent change of regime, all these risks would be multiplied.

Further, this is a sectarian conflict, pitting Assad's minority Alawite community against other elements, including the majority Sunnis. Syria's civil war is also only one part of the age-old Sunni-Shia struggle that was given a major push by the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which toppled a Sunni-minority government in a Shia-majority country. Sunni states -- notably Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan -- are trying to "right the balance" by overthrowing Syria's Alawite-dominated regime. Syria is also surrogate for a many-cornered geopolitical struggle engaging the Sunni states plus Iraq, Iran, and Israel.

Thus if and when the U.S. can get back to the pre-chemical-weapons Square One, it will still have to decide what outcome in Syria is most in U.S. interests and what, in reality, can be achieved.

At heart, the U.S. has not created an overall framework for Syria's future or the broader Middle East. In his Tuesday address to the nation, President Obama gave us a list of "I will nots" -- viz., "put American boots on the ground," "pursue an open-ended action like Iraq or Afghanistan," and "pursue a prolonged air campaign like Libya or Kosovo." But he said little about what we will do, other than to "redouble our efforts to achieve a political solution that strengthens those who reject the forces of tyranny and extremism -- but that, ironically, "after any military action," not right now.

There is little indication that the U.S. government has answers for Syria or for the broader need to promote peace and stability across the region. The Middle East has bedeviled every U.S. president since Harry Truman. But in recent years, U.S. policy has lacked coherence. It does not recognize that each aspect must be seen in connection with every other, from North Africa and Egypt through Israel-Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and into Pakistan.

With at least a temporary break in war fever, President Obama needs to take a step back and think about U.S. interests in the entire Middle East and the best means of dealing with the region as a whole. He needs a bold and long-range strategy for working toward peace and stability, including political, economic, and security structures that can benefit all regional countries and discomfit terrorism. He also needs to add practical steps to his inspiring 2009 Cairo speech that did so much to enhance America's standing with the peoples of the region.

In his speech this week, the president reported: "As several people wrote to me, 'We should not be the world's policeman.'" That means greater European engagement, especially in diplomacy and economics. It also means some greater engagement by the Russians. Given that the U.S. will continue to be the closest thing to an 800-pound gorilla in the Middle East, the U.S. should explore whether there are some compatible interests with Russia, including a search for a deal to help end the Syrian war, rather than continuing to demonize it and its president.

President Ronald Reagan often dealt with seemingly-impossible troubles abroad by "changing the subject." When he met at Reykjavik in October 1986 with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, he proposed a radical change in the U.S.-Soviet nuclear standoff that helped end the Cold War. Obama needs to take a leaf out of the Reagan book, by a promulgating a bold and serious plan for peace, proposals for broader security in the region, and diplomacy that gets off tactics -- unlike his speech Tuesday night -- and onto strategy. He needs to reassert U.S. leadership.