Getting Off the Embarrassment Carousel
Published on: September 11, 2013
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  • Micha

    “As others have suggested, the Administration is now in a position to propose a political end to the war as a precondition for neutering and eliminating Syria’s CW arsenal. – See more at:

    Would it be possible and wise for the President to leverage the current situation to push for a ceasefire in Syria?

    In this context, would it be wise (or possible) for the president to embrace some of the Syrian opposition, thus creating an image of being on their corner as Putin is on Assad’s corner?

    • Well, I said that the situation can be used now to push for a political solution, and that implies starting with a ceasefire……I’ve not revised the piece to make that explicit. As for signing up with the rebels, we’ve already done that–and we have facilitated a weapons flow to the FSA. What more are you suggesting?

      • Micha

        I’m not suggesting so much as wondering.

        Right now it seems that President Obama is dragged by events. Even when he decides to do something, it seems as if it’s just the minimum and in reaction to what somebody else did. And he ends up annoying everybody, most recently the rebels.

        The question is, can he re-frame the whole thing into a situation in which the US is the powerful world leader that is working opposite the Russians to bring Assad and the rebels to a ceasefire, thus stopping the massive killings, bypassing the Islamists, and gaining some footing in the region?

        Or will any action he takes right now, military or diplomatic, be perceived as the acts of a weak player trying to get out of a complete mess?

        And more specifically, is embracing a certain rebel leadership — not in the sense of giving them some weapons, but in the sense of having them at the Whitehouse and getting them to support a ceasefire as an equal side to Assad in this conflict — possible or beneficial to the president?

        Or would it just get him in a bigger mess in which the US again supports the wrong guy, ending up being resented by everybody and loosing credibility (Egypt)?

        • Ah, now that is clearer. Well, what you are proposing is major, difficult and likely to be unrewarding. It strikes me as disproportionate to our interests; we’d end up owning the problem. So could we do these things? Maybe. Should we? I’d rather not, especially with the current crew trying to run the show. I think we can stimulate a change for the better in the current situation; I don’t think it’d be wise to get control-freaky over it. Two different things.

          • John Burke

            Glad you said this. I think it would be a mistake for the US to own some sort of Syrian peace process.

        • Peter

          ‘Right now it seems that President Obama is dragged by events.’

          It seems?

          You win the award for the understatement of the year.

  • A fine and generous attempt by Mr. Garfinkle to salvage some hope from this Keystone Koppery, but it sure is hard to be optimistic with this bunch in charge. Only quibble I have is that there are still a few of us who call ourselves “liberal Democrats” but harken back to an earlier species in this genus (nearly extinct since the Vietnam War) that believed that upholding the national interests of the United States is also a worthy cause.

    • An earlier species, yes. I used to be one of them.

      • Frank Arden

        I was, too, but I have been confused by the lack of clarity.

  • Nathan

    I’m still not persuaded that the Russians could possibly have mistaken the chance of a US strike as anything more than minimal as things stood at the beginning of the week. You make your case well, though.

    Call me befuddled by the whole thing.

  • Kavanna

    Another excellent piece. Yes, it’s essential to grasp that there’s a conflict that needs to be ended. The CW are part of that context, not an isolated moral outrage floating in a vacuum.

    Small minds obsess about means. Large minds focus on ends, and motives and context.

    If the administration is stumbling toward dealing the conflict (which has gone largely unreported in the US, another US news media blackout), kol ha-kavod. Although I’ve lost what little optimism I had ….

    • thank you–and good point about the means/ends focus.

      • Adam,

        You’re welcome, any time!

  • Alex M.

    A fine and well-reasoned piece, but I wonder about one sentence: “If the Russians are not serious and/or the Syrians are not willing to proceed, we retain the military option.”

    What are the criteria of the Russians not being serious and/or the Syrians not willing to proceed? Is there any reason to think that they can’t organize meetings, come up with proposals, counter-proposals, compromises, stage conferences and so on ad infinitum without getting any closer to giving up their CW? How many years did it take to dismantle Iraq’s WMD programs in the 1990s? And what will the administration do if one delay follows another, month after month? So color me skeptical at best.

    To take a step back and examine the larger picture, I wonder if the embarrassing performance by the administration in this matter is merely indicative of the foreign policy team’s weakness/incompetence or if there are weightier issues underlying the mess. Is it possible that humanitarian interventions/R2P/etc inherently result in a weak position for the intervening party — lukewarm and shifting public support, lack of understanding of the complex realities on the ground, uncertain allies, etc — thus making the current mess if not inevitable, then at least more likely than it would be if there was a national interest at stake. It would be interesting to compare and contrast humanitarian interventions in Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Libya and Syria and see if we can draw any conclusions.

    • You are right to be skeptical that this Administration will ever use force in Syria, but don’t be so sure. As to R2P, you should by now have read the two articles–the leads–in the July-August issue of The American Interest. You must read the magazine to appreciate the online content–ALL OF YOU MUST SUBSCRIBE (or the whole thing may go away…..)–but you have it about right. A very astute comment–thank you.

      • Alex M.

        Heck, it’s hard to be sure about anything in this case. The only thing that I am reasonably confident about is that getting in bed with Putin is unlikely to be a net plus in the medium-to-long run. And even that may not be the case if Putin seriously messes up whatever nefarious plan he may be hatching. After all, this administration doesn’t have a monopoly on making messes.

        As far as subscribing goes, I’ll have to check it out — I only visit this site once every few months and I first commented a few days ago. (I suspect that the biggest problem that policy-oriented sites like this one have is that it’s easier to get all worked up about politics (Obama is the devil! Obama is the savior!) than about policy issues.)

  • K2K

    “…Second and more basically, the turn to Congress sharply curtained …”
    Assume Mr. Garfinkle meant “curtailed”, altho “curtained” does work to evoke an image of the Wizard of Oz being revealed as a huckster behind the curtain.

    I still believe Russia has a very big interest in being seen as opposed to chemical weapons, and in preventing an escalation of Syria’s civil war:
    October 6, 2013 is the lighting of the Olympic torch in Athens, Greece; followed by the Torch flying (on an airplane) to Moscow for a 40,700 mile extravaganza throughout the entire Russian Federation as the big prelude to Sochi2014.

    I also believe this whole mishegoss is as much about Russian hegemony over the Eastern Mediterranean offshore natural gas, maybe even about Israel’s oil shale.

    So far, Turkey is the bigger loser, even if it seems that America is being run by Harvard lawyers who forgot to study history and geography.

    Still think Obama should have tried to sell gun control and immigration reform to Syria, since he can not sell it to America 🙂

  • John Burke

    Great piece. I think you make two very important points: first, the CW aren’t that important; and second, “above all, the Administration needs to use the coming autumn not just to restore American credibility.”

    Obama and the Administration need to get out of the muddle of day-to-day obsession with the back and forth with Putin and domestic critics and media, as if this were a political campaign with the “war room” working to “win the cycle” and bolster Obama’s numbers. Obama will never face another election, so neither transitory public opinion nor Congressional sniping should be important. Act smartly in the national interest and three years from now, few will dwell on this very rough patch of ineptitude.

    Next, the President needs to shut up. Dean Acheson worried with reason about even private conversations between the President and foreign leaders — especially “summits” — except when everything had already been settled, not to mention unscripted speaking on foreign affairs because whatever the President says is policy written in stone, while everything, even supposed deals, leaves flexibility. To be sure, the horse left that barn decades ago, but Obama yaks every day about everything and anything. If he keeps this up, it will be doubly hard to get out of this hole. Someone has to tell him this.

    Third, forget about Congress, as indicated above. Obama has said he’s not asking them to vote now, so stop trying to convince members (or keep reacting to them). If he handles the issue well and in the end feels it necessary to go back to Congress, he’ll probably be going in a stronger position. Meanwhile, taking the focus away from Congress could make it easier for him to act on his own farther down the line (after all, most of them really don’t want to vote on this anyway and never did).

    Fourth, step back — for God’s sake, step back — and take some time — some, not an eternity — to review US global and regional interests and strategies and craft plans to work through the Syria affair that are, at least, consistent with what we want to achieve in the region and the world, especially with respect to our relations with Russia, Iran and other major players.

    Next, broaden the Syria issue from the CW. How? Perhaps by drawing up a persuasive public indictment of Assad and his regime for all of their war crimes. Maybe even propose that he should be tried in The Hague. That might queer any negotiations over CW but so what if nothing much can come of that and CW is not that important! Do this in the UNSC to put pressure on “the world” without specific commitments to US military action.

    Meanwhile, ramp up the military pressure and keep the threat to Assad real by, well, ramping up the military pressure. Send more US assets to the eastern Mediteranian and the Gulf and more weapons to the rebels (biggies like anti-tank guns that will be noticed, but not anti-aircraft systems) — not enough to tip any balances but enough to make life tougher for Assad. Don’t bother to annouce these moves (or “leak” them to your media friends). Just do it. Putin and Assad will know about it, and word will get around to the Saudis and other allies.

    While doing that policy-strategy review, identify a few places where US actions that are (importantly) otherwise good moves for us would push back against the developing US-as-weak-and-indecisive assessment. Perhaps a long-awaited incursion into Libya to knock off some part of the jihadist elements involved in last year’s Benghazi attack? Perhaps rescheduling those cancelled joint exercises with the Egyptian Army? Although I wouldn’t expect Obama to reverse major policies of his, perhaps putting a foot on the brakes in the gradual draw down in Afghanistan ( again, no announcements, just do it, Putin and others will notice)? Perhaps have Hagel or Dempsey float that we’re reconsidering that European anti-missile shield due to Iran’s continued intransigence on nukes? Perhaps other steps to get tough with Iran while showing the US is quite prepared to fight (how hard could it be to have some destroyers cruise really close to Iranian shores, search a few boats or “test” Iranian airspace with a few F-16s? Perhaps have the CIA cook up some ways for anti-Hizbollah groups in Lebanon to give Hizbollah a hot foot! Perhaps even break down and propose some increases in our Defense budget that would pointedly be pointed at Iran, or Syria, or even Russia?

    In short, there are ways, many ways, consistent with US interests and aims that are widely shared by Americans (I hope) to assert US power, steer attention away from the narrow CW issue, put pressure on Damascus, Tehran and Moscow — at least some of which are low-key (even covert) or indirect enough to avoid ratcheting up the current unintentional and pointless crisis.

    Obama has inexplicably gotten himself onto Putin’s puppet string. He can dance there or he can figure out how to get off. The dancing got sillier today as the NYT published an op-ed by Putin dissing Obama and our country! — prompting day long expressions of outrage and charges of hypocrisy from Obama fans and push back from the White House. What next? Obama writes a letter to the Times?

    • John Burke

      Oops, sorry, I truncated that quote from the post in my first paragraph. I meant to quote this whole sentence, not just one clause:

      “Above all, the Administration needs to use the coming autumn not just to restore American credibility, but even more fundamentally to rebuild its image as being capable of mature, professional and responsible foreign policy behavior.”

    • John Burke

      One more thought: might there be an “Obama doctrine” lurking somewhere that could be fleshed out coherently, the gist being that the US believes Iran, its regional allies and friends, and its potential nuclear development constitute the main challenge to peace and security in the region and the primary focus of US interest in the region. Consequently, the US will seek to work with all those with a stake in the region who share our goals. This is already more or less US policy but codifying it would be clarifying and even appear beneficially as belligerent. The “doctrine” might be enunciated without a lot a fanfare in a speech (let the press figure it out — maybe to a service academy or a foreign policy audience — BUT accompanied by some concrete moves, not necessarily acknowledged as related, such as those suggested in my comment above. Of course, if it’s a doctrine, Obama would have to stick with it.

      • Holy guacamole, JB: Ever consider starting your own blog?

        All pertinent and constructive comments; thanks again.

        • John Burke

          Today, not surprisingly, Kerry had a high-profile pow wow with Lavrov where they reportedly agreed on the need to discuss a general peace settlement process starting several weeks from now. And the US specifically renounced any intention to seek a UNSC resolution authorizing military action against Assad.

          OK, both are necessary in following through on Obama’s embrace if the Russian ootion. But why do they fall for, contribute to, or perhaps generate stories like this?

          Wherein there is all sorts of stuff about how Hagel and Dempsey really, really hate war and are sidelined anyway. And by the way, the US defense budget is down the toilet.

          It’s one thing to talk while keeping a hand on your knife and making sure your opponent knows you have one. It’s another to whisper in his ear that you left the knife home and feel all squishy about using it anyway.

    • Alex M.

      Well argued, especially about the need for the ME policy to be more clearly Iran-centric, but let me raise a couple of issues:

      1. “putting a foot on the brakes in the gradual draw down in Afghanistan”. Even if this could be done without messing up the logistics of the drawdown (which I have my doubts about), I am not sure who it would hurt more, the Russians or the US. There are political costs to continuing US involvement in a place where the routes in and out are controlled by less than friendly regimes. The disconcerting part, of course, is that the cost of extricating ourselves from this position may be The Fall of Saigon version 2.0.

      2. “ramp up the military pressure [on Assad]”. That can be done, but what would be the goal(s) of the ramp-up? I’d think we would first want to complete the previously mentioned “review [of] US global and regional interests and strategies and craft plans to work through the Syria affair”. I don’t think we would want to, e.g., give lots of weapons to the “rebels” and then discover that it wasn’t what we really wanted to do. Not to mention that the West doesn’t exactly have a sterling record of sorting out the combatants in complicated civil wars, going back to the Russian Civil War almost a hundred years ago.

      3. “US interests and aims that are widely shared by Americans (I hope)”. Another tricky one. I don’t know if there are any US aims in the region that are widely shared by Americans anymore. Some watch the atrocities on TV and say, “Gee, that’s just awful. Someone ought to do something about this!”, but that’s not exactly an aim, it’s just a sentiment. You’d think that the last 20 years of humanitarian interventionism might have given these people second thoughts about this approach, but I still see this sentiment even among those who are normally miles away from any kind of policy discussions. It certainly seems to be a significant factor in the current administration’s thinking.

    • Anthony

      In sum John Burke, isolate the signal from the noise and pursue United States interest, both domestically and internationally, with less “war room” impetus/emphasis.

  • Pingback: Adam Garfinkle At The American Interest: ‘Getting Off The Embarrassment Carousel’ | Chris Navin()

  • Our nationmusthave clarity of straggly and goals over a long time horizon. Iran is overwhelmingly the current and long range most serious threat to the nation’s security and to the security of the Mideast and to the world. Suria and CW are sideshowsamdsecondlevel proxies for Iran and its Russian backers. American foriegn policy should beginwith this reality and then derive a credible, muscular strategy to deny Iran’s route to regional hegemony and the extremely dangerous. Effects this would have on global security. he American. President must lead the people of the nation to understand and accept a muscular, credible commitment to preventing a nuclear world, which is the most likely outcome of a nuclear Iran. See Eisenhower 1956, Kennedy Cuban missile crisis, Reagan presidency. All prevented devastating global wars. Appeasement and idle threats start wars; Economic, military,and consistent moral strenth prevent wars. The goal of world peace. Syarts with a focus on stopping Iran, with whatever it takes, from aquiring nuclear weapons….HH

  • Matthew Brotchie

    What are your thoughts on Andrew Doran’s recent take on Syria? (By the way, I’ve been loving both
    your political writing guide and Tell-Tale Hearts)

    • Don’t know that stuff.

      • Matthew Brotchie

        In the sense that he is incorrect?

        • No, in that I do not read him. I do not go to National Review or The American Conservative for wisdom on Syria, unless the writer happens to be a specialist in the area–meaning having studied the languages, and/or having had professional experience in-country or in government dealing with those specific issues. I do not go anywhere for such wisdom absent those credentials. Why should I?

          As best I can tell, Andrew Doran isn’t and doesn’t. There is a different Doran–Michael Doran–who has a PhD in Near Eastern studies from Princeton, has been a deputy asst SectDef, and has worked on Syria professionally. That’s the Doran to pay attention to.

      • Alex M.

        Well, that piece has “special pleading” written all over it in big neon letters, but the larger issue, i.e. the civil war in Syria as part of a Sunni-Shia realignment, is an interesting one.

        If that’s the direction that the ME takes in the foreseeable future, with Russia and Iran supporting the Alawaite-Christian alliance, it could have all kinds of far-reaching consequences, including in Lebanon and Iraq. And if Iraq falls apart, what’s to stop an independent Kurdistan from taking shape? And then it can quickly turn into a big free-for-all leading to mass population displacements and massacres a la Hindustan in 1947, Greece-Turkey in the early 1920s, central Europe in the 1940s and so on.

        It may be a very different ME by the time the new equilibrium is reached.

        • Not sure which piece with “special pleading” you’re referring to.

          • Alex M.

            “Syria Demands Prudence” by Andrew Doran.

          • Ah, yes. Special pleading; that’s accurate.

  • denis fodor

    As usual, Mr. Garfinkle makes an excellent case. But though it`s superior to all the other folksthat are singlemindedly focusing on the “Putin Plan”, it doesn`t consider the possibility that the US has, mirabile dictu, somehow lucked out and has done so BIG.
    Fact sems to be that of a sudden everybody wants something from us. Putin wants to keep a foot in Mideast and keep the harbor of Tartus that his Southeern Fleet can use (the Brits have only to do themselves the favor of selling him Gibraltar and Russia will have attained its historic goal of reaching the Atllantic withe no straits to beat its two pairs it has held for so long). The Europeans want something, namely to to be saved from Obama`s fidgets. The Turks want something, the Iranians want something (and how!), the Egyptians want something (money), the Yemenis want something (like, not to be gassed again by the Egyptian with stuff probably supplied them by the Sovviets, along with the Aswan dam; the Somalis want something, the Israelis want something, the Libyans want something.Maybe it`s time for Mr. Kerry to arrange for a round of conferences so as to cash ikn.Oh, and why determine, simply on Christain principle to have the UN distrtibute, at our expense, a gas mask to every Syrian who wants one-?

  • Anthony

    In sum John Burke, isolate the signal from the noise and pursue United States interest, both domestically and internationally, with less “war room” impetus/emphasis.

  • Mark Falcoff

    This was bound to happen sooner or later. Decades of unconditional pacifism on the part of Democrats worked fine as long as Republican presidents had to make the decision. Let’s not forget that with few exceptions, most of the Democrats in the Senate (then a minority there) voted against the use of force in the first Gulf war. The possibility that a Democratic president might have to make such a difficult decision never occurred to them. Since it is unlikely that a Republican will occupy the White House in the next two decades or so, this dilemma–ideology versus strategy–is bound to come up again. And again.
    Let me add that I could not help relishing the sight of John Kerry suddenly morphing into a (gasp!) neo-con or at any rate, someone who regards the Syrian dictator as a thug and a criminal (this, after a lovely candlelight supper with said thug and Mrs. Thug not all that long ago…) How times have changed! I personally witnessed John Kerry, then a freshman senator, making a speech on the floor which amounted to saying that allocating $100 million to the Nicaraguan contras was virtually pushing us into another Vietnam war. Now, however, apparently “incredibly small strikes”are nothing of the sort. This is the kind of secretary of state Obama deserves.

    • Amen, Mark.

    • John Burke

      That 1st Gulf War authorization vote was a watershed in many ways because it was the first time since Vietnam that there was a serious proposal for the US to prosecute a significant war — and the Senate approved by a narrow five-vote margin. The narrowness was due entirely to the reluctance of Democrats to take military action even in the face if clear aggression, tangible US interests, UN support, and Bush 41’s remarkable coalition of participating countries.

      The Democrats were NOT in the minority, though. They controlled both Houses with Mitchell as Senate Majority Leader and Foley as Speaker. Republicans in both Houses supported authorization overwhelmingly but a meager 10 Democrats out of 45 in the Senate voted aye (among the ayes were Lieberman, Shelby, Breux and Robb — and Al Gore, almost certainly because he planned to run for President in 1992; among the neas, Kerry, Kennedy, Harkin, etc., and Biden, of course).I recall this well because I was livid that Pat Moynihan, my Senator, voted no).

      Ironically, the Dems failure to support what turned out to be a smashing success (to most) probably contributed a lot to the much larger margin of Dem votes to authorize the second Iraq war. Voted about war based in political calculations may not be terribly smart.

  • ned al

    Obama Not own the Syria “peace” process? Obama has been coordinating its Syria policy with Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia since the uprising has started right after Libyan operation. The original architect of US Syria policy was David Petreus and Hillary Clinton. It had a military component: transfer arms from Libya into Syria with via Turkey and support Syrian army defectors to form a credible military threat to Assad. Binghazi (which was the hub for Libyan arm tranfer) debacle forced Obama who was running an election campaign, to disown Petreus and the Syria plan. In the meanwhile, Russians and the Iranians doubled down on Assad give him everything even their own fighters to reverse the military momentum. CIA knows every thing that moves between Turkey and Syria. Saudis have been completely disingenous in their efforts to topple Assad. What they did was to do everything so that no credible Syrian political opposition emerges. Now Saudis got what they really want: forestall spread of popular dissent in Syria and reverse Egyptian revolution. Qatar’s emir is out. Turkey’s Erdogan is down. Obama and Bandar have turned to Russia’s Putin to do a Chechniya in Levant. This just in: Turkey has chosen Chinese air defense system over Patriots and S400s. I

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