President Obama’s key foreign policy focus remains the Ukraine, where the military confrontation between Ukrainian soldiers and pro-Russian activists is unlikely to disappear in the days ahead despite President Putin’s apparent ploy suggesting he was against the rebels’ planned autonomy referendum . Whether what Putin has in mind is creating a claimed need for Russian troops to move across Ukraine’s eastern border or just further devolution into civil war, the only certainty is that the crisis is not going away.
US and Russia on opposite sides of a civil war in a European country of nearly 50 million people? Russian troops marching into a sovereign nation in the center of Europe? Nightmares no one could have imagined in the early 1990s when more than four decades of a nuclear-rattling Cold War suddenly evaporated, or, for that matter, just a few months back when Russian President Putin rightly reveled in the Sochi glow, the only blot keeping President Obama away from the festivities being Russia’s homophobia, not its designs on its debt-ridden neighbor.
But the Ukraine is not the most dangerous place in today’s messy world. Nor, despite the McCain-Graham duo demanding a much more aggressive US response, is it the place where Obama most needs to be pro-active. That place is Syria, which Obama or someone must move to control before it drags its far bigger neighbor Iraq into the maelstrom. Dexter Filkins, a correspondent for the New Yorker, with long experience in the Middle East, just returned from a month in Iraq, where, he writes, “the sectarian violence has returned, with terrifying intensity.”
Iraq, he reports, is as embroiled in sectarian Sunni-Shia violence as it was at the height of its civil war in 2006. Of course, in 2006, the US had 150,000 troops in Iraq and was able, with some skill and much luck, to contain the civil war. With an essentially non-existent Syrian-Iraqi border, al-Qaeda and its allies have a safe-haven as they spread their rule through Sunni-dominated Anbar province where the two largest cities, Ramadi and Falluja — all too familiar names to those who remember the Iraq war — have been taken over by an al-Qaeda splinter group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
But as the Syrian civil war moves inexorably to undermine Iraq, Obama continues to create a false dichotomy in which the US has only two choices in Syria: stay out or go all in. In a recent interview with David Remnick, also of the New Yorker, Obama claimed that the only alternative to his do-nothing policy in Syria would be “an effort in size and scope similar to what we did in Iraq.”
This simplistic all-or-nothing approach to Syria has prevailed even as an increasingly large number of Sunni jihadists continue to radicalize much of the opposition to the Assad regime (the fact that even the extremists occasionally fight amongst themselves is no cause for celebration). Meanwhile, a million refugees are now destabilizing an already fragile Lebanon (that’s more than 20% of Lebanon’s population of 4.5 million, squeezed into a semi-mountainous country the size of Connecticut, the equivalent of over 70 million refugees swamping the US); at least that many are in Jordan, a more stable country (but for how much longer?).
Who cares, says the majority of Americans, be they Democratic neo-isolationists — who, understandably, with a clear memory of the failure of Bush’s Iraq invasion, side with Obama — or a Republican mixture of long-standing isolationists, like Pat Buchanan, invigorated by tea-party types who are more interested in a considerably less powerful central government keeping its nose out of both the international arena and their local one as well.
Even Republicans of the McCain-Graham ilk, as we see in the resurrection of the Benghazi file — a not-so-subtle pre-emptive shot at Hillary Clinton’s presidential ambitions — are more interested in making political points than actually trying to learn from past international fiascos. It’s worth understanding what went wrong in Libya, but not just in Benghazi, tragic as that was for the four Americans killed. The US was the leader in the NATO coalition that helped the Libyan rebels overthrow Qaddhafi, but then turned its back on the vacuum it had created. As the Washington Post suggests, “Congress might usefully probe why the administration allowed a country in which it initiated military operations to slide into chaos.” Again.
There are several severe threats to US national interests from the Syrian civil war merging with an Iraq one and engulfing its neighbors. It’s not the humanitarian crisis, despite President Obama’s irrelevant rhetorical question in one interview, “How do I weigh tens of thousands who have been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?”
It’s rather the further radicalization of the on-going Sunni-Shia split. An ex-State Department official with direct experience in the former states that made up Yugoslavia reports that the Muslims in independent Kosovo are becoming increasingly radical. Yugoslav Muslims were among the most secular and integrated Muslims any where. No longer. An anti-western element has captured younger Muslims worldwide. Pakistan’s growing radicalization is not an isolated case. And while we shake our heads at the Egyptian revolution — which once seemed so promising and now has led to a country more authoritarian than the one Mubarak ran — a military-led government may at least keep Egypt from civil war.
The failed state of Afghanistan, controlled by the Taliban, was itself no direct threat to the US in 2001. But by providing a safe-haven to al-Qaeda, they paved the way for 9/11. Failed states stretching from the Mediterranean to Iran’s border dwarf that threat; they will breed and conceal hundreds of jihadists groups and tens of thousands of al-Qaeda wannabes. If even a small fraction bent on taking the perverted step to martyrdom look westward to mimic Osama bin Laden and his original comrades, Europe would be more easily threatened, but the US would be directly in their sights too.
Beyond the threat of terrorism, an unending Syrian conflagration entangling its Arab neighbors would have economic implications for the west. As the sea of instability widens, Saudi Arabia would not be exempt. With the US recovery sufficiently fragile, and the European one almost non-existent, further disruption of energy resources could kick western economies back into severe recession.
Parenthetically, one can only hope none of the young Arab extremists have read the recently-published “Lawrence in Arabia,” by Scott Anderson, whose incredible research well documents his subtitle, “War, deceit, imperial folly and the making of the modern Middle East.” If the increasingly anti-western Arab man-in-the-street knew just how implicated the British, the French, and by extension, the leader of today’s western world, is in the chaos that is today’s Middle East, they would have an even stronger and more rational basis for their growing anti-western outlook.
Obama has ignored the Syrian civil war since it began three years ago, believing at first — and just hoping later — that Assad would be overthrown. 16 months ago, when John Kerry was appointed Secretary of State, I suggested that he focus on Syria: “Is now an appropriate time to initiate a no-fly zone? Could a successful effort to destroy Assad’s air force cause massive defections and bring down his regime? Could drone attacks against his palace and military headquarters in Damascus have the same effect?” Instead, against all advice — not, presumably from Obama, who has such little advice to give — he wasted his energies on the Palestinian issue.
When it was clear, after the Syrian red line fiasco, that Obama was not going to take any serious steps to reinforce those fighting against Assad, I proposed that Obama work with the Russians to move towards a coalition government in Syria that would even include Assad for a limited period of time.
That moment too has gone. The rhetorical question I asked 16 months ago — “One wonders if Obama has any strategic, long-term vision. Or, if as seems to be the case, our foreign policy is merely a tactical one of reacting to various events thrust upon us” — is as relevant as ever. It’s clear Obama has drifted into his muddle phase — self-inflicted lame-duckery — which presumably will extend for the rest of his presidency at which time he will pass a rejuvenated al-Qaeda in a collapsing Arab heartland to his successor. If some pundits are questioning whether Hillary really want to be president — well, who would, with that prospect awaiting the next president?
But such a jihadist haven spread across Syria and much of western Iraq is not in Russia’s national interest either. Their Muslim populations in Chechnya, and further east, are radicalizing. Putin’s support for Assad, like Obama’s passivity, has outlived its usefulness. Negotiations wiht Putin on Syria should be our top priority: work with us to find a solution in Syria before we all lose. And for playing a winning role there, we’ll minimize western reaction to a pro-Russian outcome in the Ukraine, something our western European allies would readily buy into.
Machiavellian? Of course. That’s what successful super powers do. What they don’t do is go blundering about in a naive effort to support democracy around the world. Nor do they avert their eyes when faced with difficult situations that have serious long-term ramifications for international stability. They try instead to confront international crises head-on in an effort to prevent a considerably more dangerous world down the road.
Graduating from Yale in 1964, Deford joined the Foreign Service the following year, spending three years in Vietnam. He studied Arabic in Beirut, after which he was assigned to the embassy in Jidda, Saudi Arabia. He was posted to Washington, New York, and Amman, Jordan before joining Merrill Lynch International in 1978. He spent much of a nearly two-decade career with Merrill in the Far East, retiring in 1997 to Maine. He has written a weekly foreign policy column for the local newspaper since 2001. He has served on a number of non-profit boards, including International College in Beirut, the newly-established graduate School for Policy and International Affairs at the the University of Maine and the Neiman Fellows for Journalism at Harvard.