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The Syria Nightmare
Slaughter in the Cities, Ineffectual Mumbling in the White House

This is what a policy looks like when it dies and goes to hell. The FT reports that violence is ramping up in Syria, with Assad agents using devastating “barrel bombs” against rebel areas. More:

According to the opposition Syrian National Council, 20,000 people have been killed in barrel-bomb campaigns since the start of the conflict in 2011. A Turkish official said about 2,000 had been killed since peace talks began in Geneva last month. The Damascus reg­ime has failed to offer an explanation for the bombing, but insists in its official media and during the Geneva talks that it is fighting a war against terrorists […]

Residents say not a single building in rebel-controlled parts of Aleppo has been spared from damage in the bombing. Pictures from the city show entire districts reduced to ruins. One video shows people digging a toddler from the rubble. The little girl survived.

The President can only count his one remaining blessing: the press is still busy trying to shield itself from understanding the full damage this administration’s painfully inept Syria policy has done. Our Syria response has harmed America’s position, our alliances in the Middle East, and our relationships around the world — to say nothing of the humanitarian disaster we’ve implicated ourselves in.

To bluster heroically about how ‘Assad must go’, then do nothing as he stays; to epically proclaim grandiose red lines and make military threats that fall humiliatingly flat; to grasp with pathetic eagerness an obviously bogus Russian negotiating ploy; to sputter ineffectually as the talks collapse…it is rare that American diplomacy is conducted this poorly for so long a period of time.

To some degree we sympathize with those in the mainstream media who turn their eyes from the sight. It’s not just the decomposing corpse of Obama’s Syria/Russia policy that’s stinking up the joint. The comforting assumptions and diplomatic ideas of a whole generation of ambitious Washington foreign policy wonks are being discredited. They thought to build a new Democratic consensus foreign policy on the tomb of George W. Bush’s failures, but “smart diplomacy” turns out to be deeply flawed. The left is moving toward the kind of meltdown moment that many neocons had as the Bush foreign policy went off the rails.

President Obama is actually a much smarter man than his current foreign policy troubles would lead one to suppose. He remains, however, trapped between two sets of impulses.  On the one hand, he feels a  Wilsonian drive to make the world a better place. On the other, he has a Jeffersonian urge to keep America’s head down, reducing the scope and scale of our international commitments and ambitions. In his Wilsonian moments he dreams of nonproliferation, overthrows dictators in Libya, and ‘speaks out’ against human rights violations. But in his Jeffersonian moments, he backs down and works to build ‘realistic’ relationships with the same people his Wilsonian side periodically insults.

In truth, neither his Wilsonian nor Jeffersonian instincts provide a solid basis for American foreign policy. Moreover, the messy compromises and agonized public hesitations that result when he tries to balance his two sides make things even worse.  This is not just about the use of force.  An aggressive, boots-on-the-ground foreign policy wouldn’t be an improvement over the current mess. The Jeffersonian goals of safeguarding America’s core interests with as little risk and cost as possible are necessary, commendable and sound. But trying to coerce Iran to a nuclear deal while allowing it both to tighten its grip on Syria and to wage a regional sectarian war is about as unrealistic a policy as one can imagine. Begging Russia for help in Syria while spitting ineffectively at its Ukraine policy is a bewildering mix of provocation and appeasement. Both of these approaches betray an immense confusion at the heart of the Washington policy process.

President Obama’s political ascent was rapid and his opponents were ineffectual. He made it to the Oval Office and won a second term against a series of imploding candidates. For readers old enough to remember those halcyon days of 2008, he swept into office on a tide of unearned adulation that would have gone to anyone’s head He was then quickly greeted with an equally unearned rush of global adulation in the Nobel Peace Prize. Perhaps because of all of this, he doesn’t seem comfortable with the hard-nosed realities around international power.

He isn’t a coward or a weakling. He can kill people, and he can order people to fight in faraway wars well enough. But he doesn’t seem to know how to make choices that over time increase his power and prestige on the international scene. His strategic choices don’t get him closer to where he wants to be, and as time as gone by he doesn’t appear to be getting any better at international strategy.

Bureaucratic inexperience can’t explain this. The President’s foreign policy problems don’t come from his inability to manage a huge and restive bureaucracy. He is sometimes incapable in that way, as we learned when he publicly touted his health care website without knowing it was about to crash and burn. But that inexperience hasn’t been a factor when it comes to foreign policy. Here the president has managed to whip the State Department and the Pentagon into shape, imposing tight White House control over the process in a way that many of his predecessors would envy.

If he were making better strategic choices, he would be able to impose them on the bureaucracy pretty well. His defenders try to shout down criticism by labeling the president’s critics as reflexively hawkish neocons nostalgic for the Cheney days. Some of the critics do indeed fall into that category, and perhaps this kind of defense can delay the erosion of support for the president among Democrats. But it doesn’t do him any good in the long run. President Obama more than anything else needs to get to grips with the reality that his basic strategic choices aren’t working out. This is personal; the memoirs and reportage coming out of the administration make it perfectly clear that some of his most controversial decisions came when he overruled senior advisors and imposed his own stamp on important policy choices.

The President needs to get out of the bubble and take a long hard look at what is going wrong. Jimmy Carter (a man whose basic foreign policy instincts are very close to President Obama’s) had a sudden moment of clarity when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. As his defenders correctly point out, the decisions he made in the last 18 months of his presidency prepared the way for Ronald Reagan’s more confrontational approach. It’s a moment like this that President Obama needs. Perhaps at some point the accumulation of snubs, rebuffs, and failures coming out of his Syria policy will help him push the reset button on a foreign policy approach that’s increasingly corroding his and his country’s standing in the world.

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  • chrisn1234

    I appreciate your continued knowledge and contributions greatly, Mr. Mead, and your placement of Obama in the Wilsonian and Jeffersonian traditions on your thinking, but isn’t another sound theory that we have not only an inexperienced leader, with next to no foreign policy experience leaning on the liberal/liberal internationalist establishment, the military, and thousands more competent people, but one who keeps reverting back to further Left roots for political and ideological reasons?

    All the difference-splitting, droning, and at times willingness to make decisions ultimately have to answer to a guy who is beyond Jefferson and even Jimmy Carter is his associations with the pro-peace base, the activists, and Left of Center thinking. Are you really still waiting for him to wake-up, or is he waiting for the rest of us to wake-up to the fact that he’s already shown his ideological commitments within all that difference splitting?

    He may well be further Left and more incompetent than even your esteemed estimation of the liberal tradition suggests, which might require a more libertarian, conservative accounting of the liberal tradition if it so can devolve into positions that undermine our economy, our traditions, and our foreign policy as much this President may well be demonstrating in pursuit of his ideals.

    It’s a long way from the flush of revolution, to Wilsonian progressivism, to our current leadership, with many implications for our freedoms.

    • Corlyss

      When one has hit on a clever analytical device that gains currency among one’s peers, one is inclined to see occasions for its useful application everywhere. IOW when you invented the hammer, every situation looks like a nail.

    • Tom

      I think here we might have to distinguish between smart Jefferson/Wilson and dumb Jefferson/Wilson. Jefferson bought Louisiana and took on the Barbary pirates, setting us on a course that eventually led to the US becoming the first North Atlantic country to not have to pay the seagoing bandits. Wilson at least tried to back up his rhetoric with action.
      Obama has not even managed Woodrow Wilson levels of foreign policy success.

  • Mark1971

    I don’t think the man is capable of acknowledging that he is wrong and changing course. That is just not who he is.

  • Fat_Man

    “President Obama is actually a much smarter man than his current foreign policy troubles would lead one to suppose.”

    What makes you think that? Have you ever heard anything other than cliches come out of his mouth. Has he done anything that made you say: “how brilliant”.

    • Corlyss

      It’s the Harvard law degree. It confers on the holder a halo of assumed intelligence that seldom yields to contrary facts. In my book, smart is only as good as smart’s actions.

      • ThomasD

        Genuflection is genuflection.

  • Fat_Man

    When I read the headline, I thought this post would be about Chicago and Detroit.

    • Corlyss

      OMG! That was my first thought too.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    “as time has gone by he doesn’t appear to be getting any better at international strategy.”

    A wise man learns more from his mistakes than his successes. Obama is not a wise man.

    • Corlyss

      He doesn’t think he’s ever made any mistakes.

  • Gary Hemminger

    There is absolutely no chance that this administrations foreign or domestic policy is going to change one bit as long as the media is in the tank for him. Why change anything or make any hard decisions when the media isn’t questioning your decisions. Unfortunately WRM and Fox News are not enough and the MSM isn’t going to question this president now or when he leaves office. That is my opinion anyway.

    • Kavanna

      The media slumming for Obama has reached truly disgusting depths in the last few months, as more and more screws, wheels, and engine pieces come rattling out. In the 1970s, at least we had journalism. Now we have “journo-whorism.”

      • TommyTwo

        I’ve got a little Journo-list, of those who’d not be missed.

      • ThomasD

        Bill had Monica, Barack has the MSM…

  • Anthony

    On the issue of Syria, Obama is right. We need to stay out of Syria at all costs. All of our considerable power needs to be conserved for the purpose of containing China in the event that it becomes hostile, an outcome that seems to be likely. After the 2008 financial crisis, when China thought America was seriously weakened, they took a much more belligerent position vis a vis their Asian neighbors. This was our wake up call. We have seen their intentions, so we can no longer plead ignorance. Their intention is to dominate Asia, and a thousand so called free trade agreements, and scores of chamber of commerce shills, are not going to change that. If China’s behavior in Obama’s first term was a little disturbing, just wait and see how aggressive it will be when it’s economy is far and away the largest in the world. Indeed, America can’t contain China on it’s own over the long term. We will need to assemble a balancing coalition comprised of the USA, Japan, South Korea, India, and Russia to balance the colossus that China is expected to become. If this seems to be too formidable an undertaking, we also have the option of acquiescing to Chinese domination of East Asia. Maybe this is an acceptable outcome in that it is consistent with historical norms, but I doubt that either the american elite or the public at large will opt for this course of action. If the best case scenario comes to pass, and China gets very rich without seriously disrupting the strategic status quo in Asia, the twenty first century will be a peaceful one. But don’t count on it.

    Also, why is Mead always calling for more confrontation with Putin while simultaneously arguing that China’s rise is going to be peaceful? This is strange since no one predicts that Russia will be strong enough to seriously oppose the USA, whereas it is almost certain that China will have the ability to do so at some point in the future.

    • Corlyss

      The problem is, Anthony, Obama isn’t doing anything except speechifying against Republicans.

      • Kavanna

        Empty suit, narcissist, “progressive” gas bag.

    • Government Drone

      There are good reasons to stay out of Syria, & you touched on some of them. But the point is, if Obama agrees that we should stay out, he shouldn’t have talked about what awful consequences would ensue if some “red line” gets crossed.

      Or, if he felt that Assad should pay the consequences of crossing said red line, Obama should’ve spent the time between his first remarks & the unmistakable poison gas use (close to a year, if I’m not mistaken) in talking with people, in America & abroad, on what a good response should be. But, as best anyone can tell, he never did.

      Instead, we had to suffer the utter discrediting of our president & our country when Obama first tried to explain he never actually meant what we heard him say, then resort to having his new Secretary of State Kerry give us a new meaning of “gravitas” by assuring all & sundry that any military action would be “unbelievably small”, as if that is the essence of punishment or deterrence.

      In prior posts on this subject, WRM (or the minions) has marveled at Obama’s ability to get all the worst facets of diametrically opposed options. This is not being smart. It isn’t even some quixotic attempt at some ideally perfect policy. The whole affair sounds to me like Obama making decisions on the fly based on what sounds neat, & then thrashing about in wild improvisations to try to back out of anything he doesn’t like. It’s almost as if the interests & prestige of the country never come into Obama’s mind.

    • cas47

      And the “smart guy” just nominated Senator ” I am not an expert on China” Baucus as ambassador .

      • Corlyss

        He probably grew to like Chinese take-out over those long night sessions crafting the Health Care bill . . . .

  • Corlyss

    He don’t have much constructive to say about the rampant slaughter in his home city Chicago either. The guy has lived in a bubble all his life. It’s only gotten worse since the stupid gullible public elected him president.

    • avery12

      He comes complete with his own bubble, if one has read what former classmates and coaches have said of their interactions with him. He will be full of excuses and justifications to the bitter end. Presumably the media intends to go the distance, too.

  • Anthony

    “It is rare that American diplomacy is conducted this poorly for so long a period of time.” WRM, some time ago I was informed that mores constitute the playing field of power; and stepping out of bounds too often disrupts your diplomatic and power momentum. That appears to be gist of your Feed (President has disregarded power fundamentals not necessarily Wilsonian/Jeffersonian ambivalence).

  • TommyTwo

    “President Obama is actually a much smarter man than his current foreign policy troubles would lead one to suppose.”

    Faint praise indeed! I could say the same about my (hypothetical) guppy.

  • EPatrickMosman

    “President Obama is actually a much smarter man than his current foreign policy troubles would lead one to suppose.”

    Prove It !!!

    Any attempt to compare this man to Presidents Jefferson and Wilson in
    any way, shape or form is an insult to these former Presidents who were real Americans.

    Mr.
    Obama’s past was and still is written in invisible ink, no high school
    records, no college records, no SAT scores, no university records, no
    GPAs from any school, no written dissertations,no questioning of his
    drug use,smoking pot and cocaine, of his Pakistan trip, what passport
    was used , who was visited, who paid, the proverbial “pig in a poke”.
    Mr. Obama’s written record are two ‘memoirs’ one rather poorly written
    and the second more scholarly that some question the authorship.

    Had the media spent as much time investigating Barack H Obama’s
    background as a mini-me Al Sharpton community organizer, his
    relationships with Reverend Wright, Rezko, his communist
    grandparents,”Frank” the communist role model, and Ayers,the unrepentant
    terrorist,as they did on Governor Palin, they would have been found
    him to be only a glib, smooth talking operator on a par with Ponzi
    scheme promoters, boiler room stock salesman and the run-of-the mill
    grifters who pry on the both the greedy and the innocent.

    Rolling over for a favored political person is par for the course for
    the political media. America bought the ‘pig in a poke’ and found not a
    rock but a marxist/socialist wanna-be diktator. The American voters
    were deliberately kept in the dark then even now.

    His goals are clear and as Norman Thomas, the long time Socialist party Presidential candidate predicted:

    “The American people will never knowingly adopt Socialism. But under the
    name of ‘liberalism’ they will adopt every fragment of the Socialist
    program, until one day America will be a Socialist nation, without
    knowing how it happened.”

    • Kavanna

      Yes. And Wilson was a disaster, in spite of the professoriat’s best attempts to make him look like some world savior. He thought of himself that way, but he wasn’t.

      And Obama is no Wilson, not even close. He looks now like a parodic mix of Carter and Nixon.

  • Richard S

    Didn’t Jefferson see the French Revolution as a sister revolution of the American revolution, furthering the same larger (utopian) goal? He thought the U.S. should help the French Revolution succeed.
    Didn’t he use what was left of the Federalist Navy to attack Tripoli, as part of an effort to vindicate the principle that all nations are equally free to use the seas, against the old notion that there is a hierarchy among nations. (The Same principle was at work in the Marry affair, with Pel Mele. Another bit of idealism that failed, and was discarded).
    Didn’t Jefferson see frigates as provocative–extending power is liable to lead others to attack us, leading to war, an army and navy, taxes, and expansive federal power?
    Recall that Jefferson reduced the military budget from roughly $3.5 million to $1 million per year, in the midst of the Napoleonic wars, and that he thought that gun boats would be sufficient to defend the coast.
    For some reason I am reminded here of Henry Adams’ line about Jefferson, after the Chesapeake and Leopard affair (?) begging the British for mercy. His foreign policy idealism would crash if the Brits didn’t help him out.
    Jefferson and Madison believed that economic coercion could replace war in the world of nations. That led to the embargo experiment, and its predictable result.
    At the end of his administration, I was recently reading, his migraines kicked into gear and Madison’s epilepsy returned for the first time in years. Their idealism had made a mess of American foreign policy, and they were at a loss.
    It seems to me that the policy of not going abroad in search of monsters to destroy is the policy of Washington, Adams, and Adams.
    And are you so sure that President Obama is, in fact, comfortable with the notion that the U.S. is the world’s dominant power? It seems to be an open question to me.

  • cas47

    “President Obama is actually a much smarter man than his current foreign policy troubles would lead one to suppose. ” No professor. He’s is really not that smart. Time (long past time) to admit it.

  • rayward

    He is both a coward and a weakling. Sending men to die in a political gesture, knowing they will not succeed, knowing that he will prevent them from winning, is not courage but betrayal, incompetence, and amoral cynicism.

  • caaronbrown

    “President Obama is actually a much smarter man than his current foreign policy troubles would lead one to suppose.”

    This sentence or something like it appears in a remarkably high percentage of the articles I read that are critical of Obama. Not from his hard-core opponents, usually, but from those who write “more in sorrow than in anger.”

    Perhaps one way to encourage Obama to change his foreign policy would be to leave that sentence out. Stop flattering the man, for chrissake.

  • David Preston

    “President Obama is actually a much smarter man than his current foreign policy troubles would lead one to suppose”
    This statement alone causes me to doubt the seriousness of anything else the author might say. The “emporer” has no clothes!

    • roastytoasty

      I was about to say the same thing. Smart people don’t behave like Obama & his wife. If Obama is so smart, show us his transcript from his senior year at Harvard.

  • sukietawdry

    This is pretty thin gruel, Professor. You assume facts not in evidence and ascribe qualities not apparent. Perhaps if you had been less concerned with propping up a failed president, you could have put some real muscle in the piece.

  • Dustoff

    President Obama is actually a much smarter man than his current foreign policy troubles would lead one to suppose
    ***************************************************

    hahahahaha. What a laugh. If this fool is SO smart. Why has everything he has touched gone to pot.
    PS…. Remember O-dumber words not long ago about Assad. (He’s a reformer, we can work with him)

    • joachim

      Dustoff; I like to say everything he has touched has turned to S-word (humane waste).

    • joachim

      Hey, he raised the minimum wage for Federal Workers! Come on!

  • ThomasD

    Syria?

    The press has shown itself remarkably incurious about the unfolding disaster in Libya

    • judithbell

      Oh, no. Things are going great there. Just read it in the NYT!!

  • Tom Servo

    Ironic, for lack of a better word, that the man who wanted to help and reach out to Muslims more than any President before him, has engaged in a series of policies and actions that are reducing the entire Islamic world to a burned out husk of ruin, despair, and destruction. Just wait until the final war between Shiites and Sunnis gets going – Syria has just been a preamble to the “big one”, just like the Spanish Civil War was a preamble to WW2.

    It’s coming, and when millions scream out in agony and fear, President O’Bumbles can take the credit.

    • Diggsc

      Ragheads killing ragheads killing ragheads. Where do I go to send money to all sides so that they can keep buying 7.62x39mm rounds?

      • Tom Servo

        Make a donation to Unicef. They’ll see it gets to the “right place”, they always have.

  • catorenasci

    President Obama is actually a much smarter man than his current foreign policy troubles would lead one to suppose.

    I have yet to see any evidence that Obama has even average intelligence, let alone the truly superior intelligence you seem to ascribe to him. You’re still drinking the Kool-Aid.

  • Mahon1

    Whether Obama is “smart” or not is beside the point. He is a conventional faculty-lounge radical, imbued with contempt for his own society and romantic fascination with “the Other.” He has no idea how the world works, and where there should be policies he has only attitudes (as someone said. Bret Stephens?)

    Besides, Bush left office with a stable situation in Iraq, minimal levels of violence, and a considerable American ability to influence events in that part of the world. It was Obama’s withdrawal of American troops that made the carnage in Syria, Iran’s defiance, and the return of Russia to the Middle East all possible. The ultimate cost of this will far exceed that of the Iraq war.

  • Stick

    Cut to the chase – Obama was and is over his head. Nothings changed. Watching Obama stumble from one disaster to another reminds me of Lincoln.

  • John Richter

    Put McCain in charge of bombing them off the map. Today we are all Syrians….

  • Diggsc

    It doesn’t matter how effective or ineffective a leader/administrator Obama is. When you start with Socialism, you end with failure. It’s been that way since Socialism was thought up. Sometimes it takes years, sometimes it takes weeks, and sometimes the failure is here before the start (like in Obamacare). Obama is a firm socialist. And so is, by the way, Hillary.
    So what’s America to do?
    PUTIN-2016! Let’s make it official.

  • schizuki

    “President Obama is actually a much smarter man than his current foreign policy troubles would lead one to suppose.” – I was about to ask what evidence you have of anything more than middling intelligence on this unaccomplished dilettante’s part, but then I saw how low you set the bar. So I’m willing to accept he’s slightly more brainy than a bag of zinc washers.

  • joachim

    It becomes perfectly clear why he, Obama, will not release his college transcripts. He didn’t go.

  • BrendaK

    …President Obama is actually a much smarter man than his current foreign policy troubles would lead one to suppose…

    Really? Upon what evidence does the author base that statement? What achievement by this President has not turned out to be a costly, embarrassing, and on occasion deadly, failure?

  • ken_lov

    Another day, another tedious conservative complaint about Obama’s Syria policy … without, as usual, explaining what the author believes ought to be done instead. That way, no matter what the president does in future, the way will still be clear to complain about that too.

    Does he have some other strategy in mind whereby the USA can manage events in Syria (bearing in mind he’s rejected “an aggressive, boots-on-the-ground” approach). I mean we’ve been reading conservative laments about how Obama is letting Syria go to the dogs for years now, but the only positive alternatives I’ve seen from them are McCain’s ludicrous “support the ‘good’ rebels but stay well clear of al Qaeda” position and the Kristol mob’s enthusiastic endorsement of blowing things up. Is one of those Mead’s preferred approach? If not, what is?

  • lhfry

    Mead is being far too generous to Mr. Obama. Our President’s foreign policy failures are a direct result of the new left environment in which he marinated in his old Chicago neighborhood. He shares the anti-Americanism of his friend Bill Ayers and therefore cannot possibly use American power effectively. If you believe as the left does that American power has done only harm in the last century, you would fear using it because you might compound the errors. Sadly for us, this opens the door to our long-time enemies and leaves a mess for whomever follows him in 2016.

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