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.