The Damascene Sword

Assessing the regional security implications of events in Syria is as difficult as understanding how its internal dynamics will resolve themselves. The revolutionary wave sweeping the Middle East has torn apart the old political order. Consequently, the strategic plans of the main parties are in disarray. That is certainly true of the United States. Washington is evidently unable to think beyond the reconstitution of some semblance of its pre-reform diplomatic assemblage.

In this intellectual vacuum, it is inescapable that the United States' attitude toward Syria should be inchoate. The administration from President Obama on down are at sea. They have experienced all the change that they can handle -- or, more accurately, mishandle. Syria may not be the last straw, but it is adding to the unbearable overload of Washington's intellectual and diplomatic systems. Every party in the region is on the horns of a dilemma. Continuation of the discredited Assad regime in place is intolerable and probably impossible. Its disintegration, though, promises sectarian repercussions that likely will ripple beyond its borders with unpredictable effects.

Washington's public reactions to the downward spiral of civil strife in Syria are symptomatic of its general disorientation. When in doubt, revert to hackneyed slogans. So now we are being treated to the line that Iran is to blame. Not for fomenting the revolt against its ally, but for encouraging and enabling the crackdown. Does Iran want Assad to hold onto power? Of course. Does it urge truculent resistance to the forces that besiege the government? Of course. Might it provide some material aid if needed? Of course. Sophisticated instruments for monitoring electronic communications? Perhaps. Is material or moral support crucial to what is happening there? Of course not.

Official Washington is trumpeting the claim that Tehran is going so far as to provide "helmets and batons." As if a regime whose leaders literally are fighting for their lives and has forty years experience in cracking heads (and doing far worse) is short of these primitive tools or lacks the willpower to use them. If for some unimaginable reason it were in need of resupply, it could have them delivered faster by buying on E-bay. Statements like that just make Washington look ridiculous. That is not something that the reputation of a wobbly great power can afford.

At the strategic level, the Obama administration's unbounded anti-Iranian campaign is fanning the flames of Sunni-Shiite passions, and aggravating already embittered relations between Iran and the Gulf states. I have yet to see an analysis of how Washington's cavalier attitude toward this mounting antagonism serves American national interests.

So what should Washington be doing? Here are four suggestions. One, cease discrediting yourself by making unjustified or irrelevant accusations. Two, recognize that American ability to influence the path of change is minimal. Not everything is within the power of the United States to inflect. Accept that reality is a prerequisite for avoiding missteps. Three, come down strongly and unequivocally on the side of reform. The United States has damaged its standing enough over the past five months by temporizing and discriminating in affirming the values it claims to exemplify without adding to disillusionment by hedging on a clear-cut case like Syria. Four, engage in serious contingency planning. That should anticipate a range of outcomes with an equally wide range of possible repercussions. If we are politically, intellectually and/or temperamentally incapable of coping with uncertainty in a disciplined fashion, then it is imperative to scale back our commitments, our engagements and our expectations.