10/22/2012 06:55 pm ET Updated Dec 22, 2012

With a Growing Conflict in Syria, We Need a Good Debate on Foreign Policy

According to recent polling data, barely 2 percent of Americans list foreign policy or matters beyond our shores as material to their vote, so one could reasonably ask why we have presidential debates on foreign policy at all. If presidential debates elevate style over substance as a rule, foreign policy debates elevate the form to kabuki theater. Unlike the domestic policy arena, where there is some expectation that candidates will adhere to the positions they espouse, not only are candidates not expected to tell us what they would necessarily do in international negotiations, we do not really want them to. International relations and strategy are themselves built on deception -- the last thing we want in our leaders is for them to show their cards in public, much less tell us how they would play them. Instead, we judge the candidates on toughness, clarity of purpose, and other such ephemeral notions of what it takes to be commander in chief.

In the final presidential debate, on foreign policy, one can expect Mitt Romney to come down hard on the Obama administration for its failure to project American power in the Middle East. This has been an encapsulating critique, particularly with respect to the president's failure to rein in the Iranian nuclear program. Pressing for tougher action on Iran -- without actually suggesting what that action would be -- has been a trifecta of sorts for Romney. First and foremost, Iran's continued enrichment of uranium in the face of American opposition had provided the prima facie case of the fecklessness of administration policy. Second, tough rhetoric on the Iranian threat to the survival of Israel ties in to Romney's courting of Jewish and evangelical support. And finally, Iranian aggressiveness within the region frames Romney's perspective on the Syrian conflict, wherein we not only have failed to arm the rebels, but we have done nothing to impede Iranian material support to the Assad government.

The challenge for Romney is that even as he advocates for a more muscular projection of American power in the world, he cannot beat the drums too loudly. Iran, in particular, has always held risks for Romney, lest his aggressive rhetoric leave the electorate with the sense that his team -- populated as it is by former W. neocon hands -- would lead us once again down the path to war. There is little appetite for a new war across the American electorate, as Republicans and Democrats alike have come to doubt the effectiveness of our war policies of the past decade. Romney's attack must parse the question of what he would do differently, even as he avoids rhetoric that might imply moving down the slippery slope toward putting American boots once again on the ground in a hostile Muslim land.

The civil war in Syria presents a far more complex situation, and one that will also be a front-burner issue for the next president. But unlike Iran, the Syrian conflict is one in which the strategic American interest remains unclear, even as the calls for more substantive American action grows. It is a conflict of multiple dimensions, with myriad parties, each with their own strategic interests. At this point, at least four distinct dimensions to the conflict have emerged.

First, there is the Syrian civil war, where a coalition of secular and Islamist groups have embraced their own version of the Arab Spring, seeking to wrest control of their country from Bashar al-Assad and his regime. The Obama administration has stepped very gingerly into that conflict -- much to the chagrin of some administration opponents. We have put down our marker by demanding that Assad go, but we have stopped short of providing arms to the rebels. The rebel coalition has no defined political agenda upon which they agree, and accordingly we have declined to arm the collective rebel movement, concerned that the Sunni insurgency we arm today may well become the adversary we fight tomorrow.

At the next level, the Syrian conflict has morphed into a regional Shia-Sunni conflict. Our Arab allies, primarily the Sunni regimes in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are arming the rebels in our stead. But those arms are largely flowing to Sunni Islamist groups within the rebel coalition. Other support for the rebel coalition is coming from Turkey -- long a dominant Sunni power -- as well as al Qaeda and Iraqi Sunni militant groups. On the other side, support for the Syrian Alawite regime is coming from Shia state and non-state actors including Iran, Lebanon's Hezbollah and elements of the Iraqi Shia-led government.

On the regional level, the Syrian conflict has become the first context for the re-emergence of the three-way battle for regional power among the historically dominant countries within the region: Turkey, Iran and Egypt. Those three countries have each had their historical millenia of regional dominance, and each take great pride in their rightful roles as regional powers. With the new emergence of Egypt under Muhammed Morsi, and Turkey's turn away from Europe back to the Middle East, we are beginning to see those three countries asserting themselves in the region -- and against each other.

And finally there is the level of super-power politics. Russia -- long sidelined as a global power -- has made clear that it is not prepared to give up on its historical ally in Damascus. A decade ago, Vladimir Putin sought western recognition of Russia's role as a regional hegemon over the states of the old Soviet Union. But we rebuffed Putin's overture, and instead pushed the expansion of NATO to Russia's doorstep. And now, if for nothing other than pride and a bit of payback, Russia is going to make every effort not to be subsumed to America's dictates in the region.

So far, while Mitt Romney has criticized the Obama administration for "leading from behind" in Syria, neither he nor the president have articulated what strategic interest is at stake for the United States in that conflict -- beyond our interest in avoiding a regional conflagration. Arguably, it is our lack of expressed strategic interest that has allowed all of the other parties to step into the conflict, believing that they can pursue their own interests there without provoking a response from us. Yet it is exactly that escalation, and the ensuing chaos, that could well trigger American involvement on the ground.

After a decade of wars in the region, with thousands dead and a trillion dollars spent, we need a good debate on foreign policy. As the dynamics in Syria indicated, foreign policy is becoming increasingly complex, and the projection of power alone may no longer suffice to bend nations to our will. The candidates may not have clear answers to the challenges we face, but at least we need to understand how they think about the questions. And if we are doomed to become more deeply involved in the conflict in Syria, we need to hear from the candidates how they define our strategic interest in the region, and what they imagine a successful outcome might be that would warrant our involvement on the ground. We have seen this movie before, and need to know why we should expect a different ending next time.