In my last entry I discussed the basics of a grand strategy for Obama administration (a Lame Duck President). Let’s continue to this topic a little bit further. On the surface, in terms of Obama’s foreign policy, the greatest challenges come from two hot spots: (i) crisis in the Middle East including Iranian nuclear issue and Syrian crisis even though he desperately tries to avoid from those crisis; and (ii) Ukraine-Russia axis. His Asia pivot strategy and handling relations with China seem working out pretty much well. This is because he has a real strategy and appropriate crafting and tools for the Asian affairs.
However, as Obama’s former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel rightfully stated, “[t]he challenges to U.S. leadership and security will come not from rival global powers, but from weak states. Terrorism finds sanctuary in failed or failing states, in unresolved regional conflicts, and in the misery of endemic poverty and despair.” Thus, Obama has to make an immediate decision about the way of supporting existing state or state-building efforts whether or not they are democracy or like minded. This is not, of course, an extension of democracy-stability paradox. It is a well-known story to everyone that Bush stated that America supported dictators in the Middle East and wider Asia in favor of stability at the expense of democracy and freedom, and maintained neither. And he decided to impulse a forceful democratization in the region, and end result is again neither, even it turns to be pure chaos everywhere. However against this fault line, learning the right lessons form these mistakes, the right strategy is not disengagement but engagement with existing states, without forcing democratization from outside, yet supporting democracy through partnership and civilian initiatives. States are the only available tool for peaceful human empowerment. Where states are weak, there are numbers of human tragedy and there is no other way to cure them. (On this issue, Fukuyama’s latest book, the Origin of Political Order, is a must-read). Therefore, Obama has to support state structures and states building efforts to secure peace and stability, which is dare to all as a common public good that can only be produced by the USA. Does this mean the US should support repressive regimes such as Asad regimes in Syria in favor of stability? For that particular matter, my answer is no, it does not. Whether it is in Syrian or in another place, neither the US nor any kind of collective mechanisms can solve the question of repressive regimes by using force without causing larger disruptions and tragedies. This is the lesson, first and foremost, everyone has to learn from the last decade interventions from Iraq to Libya. (Libya is the most striking example of this point I think since before the NATO intervention, Libya was much better. Even for some account an African Switzerland, as Libya moved from a wealthy state where electricity, healthcare, education, etc. was all free to a failed state where there is no electricity, no oil, no healthcare, no education, no security etc.)
Let me open a parenthesis here for the Syrian case for a while since I see the issue as the only issue that will eventually affect Obama’s prestige and legacy in the long run even after his presidency end. And let me make a long quotation from Anne Marie Slaughter’s article on Kissinger latest book, World Order, even though I am fully aware of that such long quotation is something scholars stay away. As she reviewing the book at one point she wittingly points out that:
“President Clinton carried out a very successful foreign policy with respect to the global balance of power. But as he has acknowledged, the failure to intervene in Rwanda will be a lasting stain on his presidency—not because the United States should intervene wherever people are dying in large numbers, but because the benefit of our action in Rwanda would have been enormous at a very small cost. So little on our part would have done so much. The British, by contrast, sent just two hundred Marines to Sierra Leone and managed to stop the fighting; our air campaigns in Bosnia and Kosovo did succeed in stopping the killing and the ethnic cleansing, no matter how imperfect the resulting peace. Just last year, the French sent five thousand troops to Mali and reclaimed large portions of the country from Al Qaeda forces together with other Islamist groups who were laying waste to cities and terrifying the population. …In the years to come, when the carnage in Syria is finally over and reporters are allowed back in to count the true numbers of civilians starved, shot, tortured, mutilated, gassed, and bombed with barrels of nails, and to witness the destruction of one of the world’s oldest civilizations, we will hang our heads in shame at the betrayal of everything we say we stand for. We could have stopped it. Could we have constructed a viable Syrian state? Probably not. But could we have protected millions of Syrians? Turkey first called for the creation of safe zones in November 2011, long before isil or Jabhat Al Nusra even existed. Today, when we have decided that our own necks are at stake, we have quickly found it possible to use drones and aircraft to bomb isil installations. We could have used them years ago, and could still today, to create and to police a large safe zone on the Turkish border—if our aim is indeed to protect the people, as Obama says over and over, because of “our common security and common humanity.”
Obama’s current Syrian strategy (if there is one at all) has some notable backgrounds. First of all, there are great fatigues that drive American attitude. The most important one is America’s war fatigues after decades-long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Moreover, America’s financial fatigues stemming from imperial overstretch is another important one. Second is the Obama presidential legacy. Obama has promised to end all American wars, and he sees his legacies depends on war exists rather than new wars. Third, Obama has no strategy because when he got elected, he did not see any strategically important national interest in the Middle East in general and in Syrian conflict in particular. Fourth, Obama is kind of a person who risk averse (remember not making stupid stuff) and he over-assesses to identify and understand the implications of potential primary, secondary and even tertiary effects of his actions (2nd and 3rd order effects). Last, even after ISIS pop-up, Obama did not care Syria, his primary target was/and still is Iraq, which at the end of the day, is not going to end radicalization or ISIS threat in the region.
These backgrounds could be perfect for a reluctant strategy of engagement when Obama elected in 2009. But for the time being, a lot of water has already flown under the bridge. The regional stability and continuation of peace and stability in the US created world order heavily depend on what will happen there. The Obama presidential legacy does not lie anymore on war-exits but lies in war-ending diplomacy (forceful diplomacy included).
Let us now turn back the issue of appropriate strategy once again. From the above narrative, we have only one option with two traits: i) immediate intervention (not necessarily a military one); ii) keeping and even strengthening existing state institutions in Syria. Thus, it is now clear that the only logical way to get the end result in Syrian case that possibly satisfies majority of parties, not all of them of course (whether from outside or inside Syria) is a political solution. Obama has to push everyone for a political solution without insisting on Assad immediate departure but insisting on eventual transfer of power. Assad is the leader of one of the bloodiest regime in human history, that is for sure. But the stuck in his political future led to the death of more innocent people, more problems popping up, radicalization and extension of terrorism etc. So, let us be honest, the only way out from this mess is a political solution and Obama has to look for that actively. This active involvement can and should start with imposing a no fly zone (NFZ) in the north of Syria to push Assad make the eventual deal, which is already belated decision.
For the record, the US is the only power that can make a difference. Letting the bloodshed continue in Syria is a historical mistake.
Image Source: NRD