Saturday, October 22, 2016

Obama's Greatest Error

Syria can be laid at his doorstep.

I have generally given Barack Obama very good marks. He has been a steady hand in the middle of political crazy the defies historical comparison. A compassionate and intelligent leader at home and abroad, while faced with endless vitriol whose source lies uncomfortably deep in the body politic, somewhere. His method has been the classic boxer's rope-a-dope, feinting when the Republicans punch, letting them hang themselves with fatuous House bills and hateful rhetoric from organs like FOX news and the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal.

The idea is that the more the Republicans show their true colors, the more the real players in the game, the observant American people, will wake up and recognize who is serving their true interests. But it hasn't worked out that way, really. The right wing-o-sphere has been so hermetic, so well-funded and so well-gerrymandered that it has not had to face the music of its own madness. Not until now. The advent of Donald Trump has brought the full mariachi out of the basement and into plain view, and it hasn't been pretty, on either the policy or the personal levels. Yet Trump will still carry some states, which, after all we have seen and heard, is unfathomable and disgusting.

But Obama's policy is tinged with weakness. He is playing a long game, dependent on his own imperviousness to scandal and superior sanity. He is not attacking his opponents directly. This is laudible and perhaps effective in domestic policy, but has its limits in international policy. Waiting for international opinion to catch up with bad actors like ISIS or Russia is waiting for Godot, especially when that opinion often sways to strength rather than to goodness.

This has all come to a head in the case of Syria. While Obama has been pursuing low-level campaigns on many military fronts, against Al Qaeda, the Taliban, ISIS, Libya, Pakistan, Iran, etc., he is unwilling to go to greater lengths where it seems most pressing: Syria.

Syria has been a multi-dimensional cataclysm, brought on by a collision between hope and entrenched, ruthless power, sectarianism, millenarian Islam, and other currents. Obama originally spoke eloquently about freedom for the next generation in the Islamic world, about the horror of the Syrian reaction, and his wish for the reign of Assad to end. But what of it? He has had plenty of reasons to not get involved. The example of Iraq, for one. The example of Libya, for another. Our interventions seem to always go wrong, especially in the Islamic world where our intellectual understanding and moral capital is so low. Iraq has been especially disastrous, going from abhorrent stability to US-sponsored anarchy, and now to Shia-led sectarianism, incompetence and corruption. What's a decent and powerful country to do?

The lesson is, as usual, that every case is different, and while being cognizant of our weaknesses and of the bitter lessons of history, we should also not lose hope of influencing world events for the better. In Syria, there was, and remains, a compelling case for a no-fly zone to prevent the bad actors who have air power- Assad and Russia- from maintaining their bombing campaigns on civilians and rebels. Doing so now would be extremely difficult, with Russia already in the air. But doing so at the start, when Assad was alone and dumping chemical weapons of various sorts on rebel areas, would have been far more possible, in practical and political respects.

We could have directly forestalled tens of thousands of casualties, swung the balance of the war significantly, and most importantly, kept Russia out of it, all while maintaining our campaign against ISIS to whatever extent we wished. I think there was at the time a clear humanitarian as well as strategic rationale that should have swayed Obama to take such action. The drawback, as we saw in Libya, is that even if successful against Assad and/or ISIS, we had little or no influence over the ultimate outcome, which could just as well have empowered some other ISIS variant or Iranian client as well as whatever democratic opposition might exist. That would have been an opportunity to shape events politically, making the case internationally for some reasonable coalition of Syrian parties. But we haven't wanted to do that work either.

The Arab spring was a gift. Like the Ukrainian, Russian, and most other color revolutions, it ended in tears mostly due to overwhelming cultural inertia and the entrenched power, both military and cultural, of the traditional autocrats. But we didn't help much either, with our mixed signals and dithering. The tragedy of Bengazi was not that we lost an ambassador and other personnel in horrific circumstances, but that we had so few resources there in the first place for the nation-building effort. For that is what Libya so clearly needed. Such things as a model for governance, disarmament of the various militias, basic bureaucracy, technology and utility management, etc. There is a long list where we and the Europeans could have been far more involved and helpful in the transition from anarchy to organization. granted, our credentials based on our occupation of Iraq were not sterling. But have we learned absolutely nothing, either?

The Egyptian case is likewise very painful, and shows Obama in a particularly poor light. Here, as later with Assad, he pronounced Mubarak to be illigitimate, but unlike the case of Assad, someone believed him, and the Egyptians took it as a green light to remove Mubarak from power. So far so good. But did we follow up to help broker relations between the military, which has long been far too strong in Egyptian society, and the new Muslim Brotherhood government? Did we help guide the new Morsi government in its constitutional predicaments? No. Cultural inertia, particularly of the military and bureaucracy, was the main problem here, as well as a total political disconnect between Morsi and the rest of the country. The US kept its hands off, listened to the nay-sayers from the Israeli right, and the result was that Egypt under its new military regime is in even worse shape than it was under Mubarak- more repressive and in greater economic distress ... even if it is now more pro-Israel than ever.

These cases are hard to second-guess, because our influence was truly small, partly due to our principled stand of non-interference, and partly due to our political capital in the Muslim world being so low. The Obama administration's continued, if grudging, support for Israel and its military occupation of Palestine is perhaps the leading reason for this, and another failure to lead the world to a better future. We should be cutting aid, not increasing it. And this lack of leadership had a direct connection to our bad relations Egypt in general and Egypt in the period of the revolution in particular.

So there is a pattern of doing just enough to keep the status quo going, attempting modest positive change, and not entangling ourselves in new quagmires. Which has its good points, certainly. But look at Russia. Russia is not in a quagmire in Syria. Quite the opposite. They are in it to win, and have brought the Assad regime back from the dead with a relentless and ruthless military compaign. Russia is gaining international power by applying its power strategically, supporting its friends in an effective fashion. And now the Phillippines wants to be their friend too. Power gains more power, if it is intelligently used, while leading from behind eventually turns into not leading at all.