In a recent panel discussion conducted under Chatham House rules, a United States Senator explained the essence of an absent US leadership role in bringing about political transition in Syria: “to pull together the resources and rationalize the response.” Those nine words summarized what critics of the administration’s Syria policy—in and out of government—have been urging for the better part of two years: not unilateralism, not Iraq-style invasion and occupation, but the playing of a leadership role the United States is uniquely qualified to play.
Why is this the role for the United States? Quite simply no one else can do it. Among the regional cast of characters seeking to terminate the Assad regime—most notably Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar—none is able to lead or coordinate the efforts of all three, and none is willing to see the Syrian opposition as more than a manpower pool of potential employees. Among the European countries willing to do real things to bring about political transition in Syria—France is in the lead—none is able to take charge and coordinate the efforts of key regional powers. No other country can do it: no one besides the United States can “pull together the resources and rationalize the response” to the palpable challenge to regional peace posed by a murderous, corrupt clan fully supported by Iran and Russia.
The Obama administration, while making the case for a multilateral response to the Syrian crisis, has dodged assuming the leadership role. It has concentrated instead on thoroughly shredding the straw man of unilateralism. It has pushed back vigorously against critics who do not exist.
No one has argued that the United States alone should remove and replace the crime family destroying Syria and imperiling the neighborhood. No one has called for the US invasion and occupation of Syria. Yet the president is content to debate with ghosts. “Why is it everybody is so eager to use military force,” he asked in Manila, “after we’ve just gone through a decade of war at enormous cost to our troops and to our budget?” Leaving aside his own professed willingness to use force last August, who is “everybody?” And is it fair to summarize advocacy of targeted, pragmatic humanitarian intervention aimed at killing instruments of mass terror simply as eagerness to use military force? Did his own brief advocacy last summer constitute unseemly eagerness? How about the full-throated advocacy of his secretary of state? His deputy national security advisor compounded matters with the following gem: “If we took all the actions that our critics have demanded, we’d lose count of the number of military conflicts that America would be engaged in.” Perhaps Mr. Rhodes will offer an itemization. Then again, perhaps not.
No doubt the president’s advisors think he can score easy political points. After all, the general public is leery of anything resembling foreign policy activism after a decade-plus of Iraq and Afghanistan. It is easy for President Barack Obama to tell that public that the only alternative to his Syria policy is another endless, useless Middle Eastern war—people want to believe him. The fact that Mr. Assad and others are also listening in seems not to deter the making of incautious statements.
Yet the basic question remains: why, in the case of Syria, does the United States shrink from the task of pulling together the resources and rationalizing the response? Those who allege that the administration sees value in Syria bleeding, or who predict that reconciliation with Assad is in the cards, are simply wrong: there are senior officials working for President Obama who would leave government if they suspected either of those hypotheses to be true. One wonders if the answer is entirely prosaic.
The Obama White House is one in which key foreign policy matters are discussed and decided within a very tight circle of trusted advisors. The reasons for this insularity may be several: habits developed during careers with little or no prior executive leadership experience in large organizations; a desire to control and dominate the dissemination of information to the news media; distrust of a broad bureaucracy not politically beholden to the president; and a president eager to focus his time and attention on issues of his choice—ideally yielding accomplishments he wishes to define his presidential legacy.
The key obstacle, therefore, to the proposition that the United States should pull together the resources and rationalize the response to the depredations of the Assad regime may be entirely internal. How, after all, would such a labor-intensive, complicated, contentious, and lengthy process be managed and controlled by the president and his staff? When the inevitable problems arise and reverses occur, who—with everything else going on—will massage and manage the media message? Who would have the requisite combination of leadership skills, area expertise, operational experience, and presidential trust to lead such a complex and difficult effort? Where would the White House inner circle find the time to review everything down to punctuation in planning documentation that would first be required to run a gauntlet of skeptical lawyers primed to find fault and eliminate risk? Is there, in short, anything about Syria worth the political risks and managerial burdens of doing something big?
Yes, all of this is terribly prosaic. But how else is one to understand the concerns of senior White House officials—voiced by name and on background—that the Middle East and now Ukraine threaten to take up too much of the president’s time? Is there a fear that this president and his inner circle would feel obligated to micromanage something as difficult and controversial as leading the international effort to stop the threat to peace posed by Syria?
Seventy years ago a dying man in the Oval Office oversaw a war effort of cosmic complexity, one involving armies operating on several of earth’s continents, navies fighting in the Atlantic and Pacific, industries and workers thoroughly mobilized at home, and key US military officers and civilian officials battling one another over ideas and resources in a messy, highly competitive process: one whose complex dynamic produced total victory. Was General Douglas MacArthur an on-message, inner circle, intimate of President Franklin Roosevelt? Was General George Marshall part of FDR’s political coterie?? Did close advisors like Harry Hopkins or Eleanor Roosevelt ever complain that the war—with its unending list of military and diplomatic components—was threatening to overwhelm Roosevelt’s time and dominate his foreign policy agenda?
Perhaps the workings of a 24/7 news cycle in an era of relentless information bombardment render irrelevant the kind of leadership Franklin Roosevelt displayed as a wartime commander-in-chief. Perhaps the Great Communicator himself—Ronald Reagan—would be totally at sea in today’s Washington. Yet if this is true, then United States might as well consciously abdicate its role as a force for peace and stability in the world.
If pulling together (mainly from others) the resources to replace a murderous regime with something decent—and if rationalizing the international response to the destabilizing actions of a corrupt clan trying to stay in business—are things just too hard and too time-consuming for the United States to contemplate, then we are in the wrong business as a nation. Fortunately we have an exceedingly intelligent and perceptive president. If he wants to get it done and is willing to take risk and delegate responsibility, he can oversee political transition in Syria and make good on his directive that Bashar Al Assad step aside. If he deems it important enough he can explain its importance to the American people and their representatives in Congress; he can restore the confidence of allies and friends; and he can help Tehran and Moscow understand that (in Syria at least) they simply will not have their way.
Frederic C. Hof is a resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.