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Obama's Head in the Sand in Syria
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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.

• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Syria, Ukraine 
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  1. quercus says:

    Our politicians learn anything? You must be joking. I would disagree Obama has his head in the sand. Rather, and it’s something the ‘lawmakers’ in Congress mostly share with him, he has his head so far up his nether regions, he’d need a tractor to pull it out.

  2. quercus says:

    A postscript. If an anti-western element (as you call it) has taken over young Muslim thought, so what? Are you truly suggesting the U.S. political system is to be emulated? Again, are joking? A nation whose politicians seem to have dropped double digits in their IQs, a nation whose media buffets its citizens about by jumping from one silly, scandal-of-the-week, to the next, the same media who thought it prudent to have Andrea Mitchell (what a putz) interrupt her discussion with Rep Jane Harman to announce the arrest of Justin Bieber? An economic system that discourages savings by its people, and looks at a house not as a place to live, perhaps raise a family, and make life, but as an engine of consumerism. A nation that is itself becoming more and more fractured as we slice ourselves into smaller and smaller identity groups.

    Do you need a tractor?

  3. dmaak112 says:

    Mac Deford’s call for US action in Syria covers a great deal, but not the underlying cause of the conflict–the contest for the Persian Gulf. Those advisors who gave us American intervention from Libya to Afghanistan would now involve us in this conflict. Mr. Deford is somewhat disingenuous when we writes that Washington did little to bring on this crisis, and only expected the immediate fall of Bashar al-Asad. The neocons who helped to shape former President Bush’s Middle East policies wrote a 1996 memo called Clean Break in which they called for the destruction of Asad’s Syria–the father then, not the son. Their influence remains prevalent still in Mr. Obama’s administration. In March of 2011, Paul Pillar, who was a National Intelligence Middle East Intelligence Officer, wrote on his blog, “Syria under Assad is probably the most secular place in the Middle East. The influence of Islamism, in whatever form, in Syria has nowhere to go but up if there is regime change. That would not be welcome to those in Israel and the United States who worry about any political role for Islamists.” Apparently, destroying Iran’s ally has taken precedence over our war on terrorism. Mr. Deford’s character assassination of those who call for a more conservative American foreign policy with the insult of isolationism should do a modicum of research into the successes we have had with interfering in those nations. Since the days of Woodrow Wilson to the present, US intrusion has not produced the anticipated results. Did Mexico benefit from our invasion? Would the world have better off if the Kaiser had remained head of Germany rather than invite the likes of Hitler to grab for power? How did Guatemala turn out when we support the fruit corporations over common citizen? Did the benefits of overthrowing Mosaddegh bring us long lasting control of Iran? From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli, our self-anointed missions have left the peoples of those areas worse off as well as produced unwelcome blowback. What is disturbing about Mr. Deford’s call to action is that we have not learned a single lesson. Just because we have differences with the lesser nations of the world, our security is not threaten by permitting each country’s future to unfold without our hands pulling strings. We cannot make the world into our own image.

  4. jmaie says:

    “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.”

    But of course there is a third way, full scale support for Assad. This would be teh quicket way to end the humanitarian crisis and put the various islamicist groups back under control.

  5. jeczaja says: • Website

    Are you insane? The U.S. is the instigator of the instability and carnage in Iraq and Syria. Are you not aware that US/Saudi funds and supplies “rebel” jihadis in Syria? Are you not aware that withdrawing that support will end the carnage? Or is regime change so important? Because after all, it has turned out so well in Iraq and Libya.

    Obama does not have his head in the sand. He has his head up his own arse, from which he can still, unfortunately, hear the sounds of the dangerously mentally Neo-Cons with which he has surrounded himself.

  6. Don Nash says:

    Obama has his head stuffed up his ass. There I said it and I meant it. I can say that as the fool is one bitter disappointment. First time in my life that I’ve ever regretted a vote cast. January of 2009 I did apologize to the American people. My bad, oh sorry was that ever my bad.

    • Replies: @Philip Giraldi
  7. @Don Nash

    I agree although I look forward to that loud sucking noise when he finally has to remove it…BTW am I the only one totally outraged by his performance at Normandy? The celebration was for D-Day and he felt compelled to introduce 9-11 and American resolve to preserve freedom worldwide, to include presentation of a genuine live US soldier hero just like he did using the same guy at his state of the union address. Asshole is too nice a word to describe him.

  8. quercus says:

    @Phil. I’m glad I didn’t see Obama make a fool of himself, but he’s become very good at it, hasn’t he?

    I wouldn’t hold my breath whilst awaiting the ‘sucking’ sound; I don’t think Obama will ever get his head out of his backside.

  9. Eric says:

    What a load of crap.
    On one hand, he claims to be oh so concerned about Syria becoming a haven for jihadis, but at the same time calls for the removal of the very regime that stands in the way of that (Assad’s).

    The only BS talking point left out of this mess is the fake distinction between “extremist” and “moderate” Sunni rebels.

  10. Markus says:

    Syria was always a target of the neoconservative push to fight islam,no ? Democracy had nothing to do with it, as far as I know.

    This was written in 2003 by Buchanan, the same game seems to be on.

    “A list of the Middle East regimes that Podhoretz, Bennett, Ledeen, Netanyahu, and the Wall Street Journal regard as targets for destruction thus includes Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, the Palestinian Authority, and “militant Islam….Cui Bono? For whose benefit these endless wars in a region that holds nothing vital to America save oil, which the Arabs must sell us to survive? Who would benefit from a war of civilizations between the West and Islam?

    Answer: one nation, one leader, one party.”

  11. I was about to write a very long comment excoriating this piece but everything I was going to say was covered already. Disingenuous crap. Maybe if we didn’t arm, fund, and train Islamic jihadis to use as proxy forces, maybe if we didn’t overthrow secular Arab governments in Iraq and Libya, destroying their infrastructure and institutions and creating the conditions for this fiasco, MAYBE if we weren’t intimately involved in this Syria operation from day one starting with Dubya and “The Redirection”- maybe then we wouldn’t be taking about what to do with this mess in the first place. Is this all we have to offer the world? Regime change operations and the chaos that follows? I only give points got correctly predicting the carnage spreading to Iraq, as this is post-Mosul as I write this. Also…

    WHAT economic “recovery”? Seriously. This is like a not funny parody of a NY Times or WaPo article.

  12. Those calling for death to Assad never understood that he had some positive things to offer: resistance to Sunni aggression and Al Quaeda. Some of us tried to say this without seeming to support Obama. Even when Obama is right he is right for the wrong reasons. And when he is wrong he is wrong for the right reasons. He is leading this country down the garden path to disaster, whatever he does, whatever he decides. He must be removed.

    He is now telling Iraqi politicians they must confer and agree. But the ISIS people are not politicians; they are terrorists who think they are doing Allah’s work. He may do some non boots on the ground things but they won’t matter at all.

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