George Shultz, a man once famously described as having the charisma of a drowsy clam, is known for having quipped that life in official Washington is not “one damned thing after another” but rather “the same damned thing over and over again.” This was Shultz’s way of reprising Ecclesiastes, who even more famously asserted that “there is nothing new under the sun”, and that “all is in vain.” Or it’s another way of invoking perhaps the best-known of French witticisms: “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”, introduced by Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr in the January 1849 issue of his journal Les Guêpes.
No doubt there are many other ways that clever folk have said more or less the same thing, the gist of which in this context is that it can get tedious to write regularly about the Middle East because nothing really new ever happens. For all the froth, fanfare and confabulations many observers go on about for fun or profit, what actually does go on amounts to mostly insignificant variations on well-known and by now (for me, literally) unremarkable themes. Alas, the past three months have witnessed events so depressingly predictable that one has to yank them into the foreground through some kind of artifice just to justify a writing exercise. At times like these I sometimes resort to motivating myself by remembering something George Orwell said in 1939: “We have now sunk to such a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.”
Things are not 1939-scale bad, but they’re bad enough at least in the classical sense that they’re hopeless but not serious. So, then, here we go with the same damned things over and over again. I have a few words to say about Egypt, Iraq, Israel/Palestine matters, and Syria, followed by a summation of how U.S. foreign policy principals are coping with all this. Yes, I know that the Iran negotiations are approaching a tipping point, and this is the most important thing going on right now—but the subject is therefore deserving of separate full-length treatments, a few of which will be coming your way soon via TAI Online.
On the surface, not all that much has happened in Egypt lately. The army has intensified its crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, handing down mass-death sentences via its judicial puppets. This led one woman, a relative of one of the condemned, to remark that “we are living amid absurdity”—which sums up the Egyptian situation quite nicely, I think.
But it’s hardly surprising. After all, aside from losing wars against Israel before the March 1979 peace treaty, fighting the Muslim Brotherhood is what the Egyptian army and associated police auxiliaries have been best practiced at doing. It always works for a while, until it doesn’t anymore; each successive cycle of dawa and mukhabarat, as Ibn Khaldun used to put it, gets more vicious. You can see signs of this escalation already in what’s been brewing in Sinai, where salafi cells have grown strong and bold enough to stage murderous attacks all the way to Cairo.
Amid this absurdity and mayhem, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has decided to take off his uniform to run for President. Anyone who thinks that “taking off his uniform” actually means anything, anymore than it did when Nasser or Sadat or Mubarak did so in times past, is a prime candidate to purchase bridges in Brooklyn. Anyone who thinks there is any chance he’ll lose after the polling begins on May 25-26 arguably needs professional psychiatric care. But anyone who thinks that the current trajectory constitutes a lasting solution for Egypt’s problems unarguably needs such care.
That is because, below the surface, everything in the country keeps deteriorating. The population continues to grow beyond the capacity of the state or the society to provide food, education, housing, employment, basic sanitation and medical care. The mean population age continues to drop, meaning an ever-upward expansion of the number of young males without prospects of meaningful work and hence, for a great many, of marriage. You don’t have to be an anthropologist to know what this points to (but it helps).
Meanwhile, the army continues to tighten its grip on every viable economic activity in the country, which it sometimes euphemistically refers to as its pension fund. The situation is the same as it’s been for half a century: The economy cannot be seriously reformed unless the military-bureaucratic political patronage machine that defines the country’s politics is reformed first, and it cannot be reformed—it can only collapse or be swept away by revolution. The situation is in a sense of Biblical proportions: “And Pharoah’s servants said unto him: ‘. . . knowest thou not that Egypt is destroyed?’” (Exodus 10:7).
One day the Egyptian military-bureaucratic regime will collapse, but what will follow it might not be any better, either for most Egyptians or for U.S. interests in the region. In the meantime, the sense of utter hopelessness that is so richly fertilized by Egypt’s swoon is slowly but surely driving Egyptian society insane. When virtually an entire society is wracked by anti-Semitic conspiracy theories as the operational modality of its victimization complex, no good can come of it. Egypt today is suffused by various forms of lurid magical thinking, to the point where a normal grasp of causality has become rare to vanishing in many sectors of society.
A lot of people in the West, particularly in the United States, are deeply disappointed with an outcome that leaves an army general again in charge of Egypt, but they have only themselves to blame for their disappointments. When protests in Midan al-Tahrir seemed to force Hosni Mubarak from power in February 2011 (actually, Mubarak’s own military colleagues are the ones who threw him over the side—the protests were catalyst and pretext, but not cause), most Americans jumped to three confusions: a democracy movement was afoot; there had been a regime change; and therefore things would never again be the same in Egypt. As I have pointed out many times in recent years, the protests were not primarily motivated by yearnings for democracy; going from Mubarak to Field-Marshall Tantawi short-circuited a would-be dynasty but it did not change the regime; and therefore things were always more than likely to end up pretty much the same as they were than to produce anything resembling a democracy.
The brief period of Mohammed Morsi’s presidency did represent temporary and partial regime change—temporary because the Brotherhood cadres could not run Egypt and partial because Morsi and the Brotherhood never consolidated control over Egypt’s “deep state.” But none of this ever had anything to do with democracy as we or anyone else understands it. The idea that a Brotherhood-controlled regime was ever going to midwife a genuine democracy in Egypt relied on abject ignorance of what kind of organization the Brotherhood was and is, and of what its leaders believe. The idea that General al-Sisi will do so in the fullness of time is about as forlorn a hope.
Hence, making democracy in Egypt a centerpiece not just of rhetorical U.S. policy but a centerpiece of actual policy is less stupid (although it is also that) than it is beside the point. It ain’t gonna happen, and there’s nothing we can do to make it happen. We’re not above forms of magical thinking, too. The United States has several very important interests in Egypt (all spelled out in my Autumn 2013 TAI essay “Missionary Creep in Egypt”), and advancing these interests requires a grip on reality, not a headlong dive into fantasy.
The Obama Administration’s policy record on Egypt has been spotty at best. It somehow managed to persuade the military (and not only the military) that it was pro-Brotherhood, and then to persuade the Brotherhood that it was pro-military. It was neither; it was just trying to avoid being denuded of all influence once the dust settled, which was the right instinct under the circumstances. The United States neither threw itself on the tracks on behalf of a phantom prospect of democracy nor tried to manhandle the Egyptian military via its military aid relationship. In the end (if you define the end as right now), the Administration landed more or less on its feet, albeit with less influence over all in Egypt than the United States had enjoyed since about 1979.
That diminished influence, in turn, is a function of three factors: the collapse of American reputation in the region as a whole in the face of a near-universal view that the Obama Administration has become passive, confused and irresolute, particularly as regards Iran; the fact that Saudi Arabia has outbid the United States for influence on the financial front; and the unavoidable fact that it’s hard to exert influence over fluid situations in which one’s would-be in-country allies are themselves weak and error-prone. The American position in Egypt is scrawny, but it is at least still on its feet.
Iraq held parliamentary elections on April 30. They were fairly clean; participation levels were not so bad. If you didn’t know better, you might think that the March 2003 invasion and the subsequent years of bloodletting and terror were worth it. Unfortunately, the parliamentary elections could not disguise the fact that significant sectors of the Sunni community were in revolt, open and violent in many cases, against the Maliki government, which has become over its tenure more authoritarian in tone, more sectarian in its choices, and as incapable now as it was years ago of reconciling Iraq’s Shi’a, Sunni and Kurdish communities in some workable institutional form.
Thanks in large part to the spillover of the Syrian civil war, Iraq is disintegrating as a state. Fallujah and other towns nearby are controlled by al-Qaeda forces. The Kurdish Regional Government in the north is an independent state in all but formal name. Violence is rampant, and it’s difficult even for insiders sometimes to distinguish sectarian from ideological from clan-based from criminal activities.
The violence got a lot worse before the election because Iraqis by and large see political power in communal terms, not individual ones. When democratic forms are imposed on top of a social history for which those forms are not organic, this is often what happens. It happens, for example, in Kenya from time to time for more or less the same reason. You have to wonder not whether various societies are capable of democracy—under extreme or staged conditions all societies are theoretically capable—but whether it’s appropriate. What kind of deal is it, anyway, when every time a national election approaches hundreds of mostly innocent people get slaughtered?
Iraq doesn’t have to collapse, especially if it should come to privilege good and inclusive government over democratic government. It needs the former a lot more than it needs the latter right now. Enlightened leadership could go a long way toward developing good or good enough government, and toward creating a renewed center of national gravity that could muster enough verve to keep predatory neighbors at bay. But such leadership is not in the offing, and the United States is not in a position to provide it or otherwise conjure it into being.
What it seemed we were in a position to do was to make up somewhat for the Administration’s failure to secure a SOFA agreement with Iraq. When the Baghdad government lost Fallujah to al-Qaeda et al., Maliki begged Washington for military assistance, and this looked like a way for us to recoup some lost ground by insinuating ourselves into being the long-term supplier of Iraq’s order of battle. But the President hesitated. He did not like the political optic of a U.S. military return to Iraq, and it’s easy to see why.
What has been the upshot of this opportunity? It looks like the Administration has settled on another half-measure. We responded to the request, but only partially, reluctantly and slowly. Fallujah has not been subdued. This discussion continues. If we were to read a comparable account of a 19th-century British Colonial Office decision concerning, say, trouble in Rhodesia or Nyasaland, we’d say ho-hum and go get another beer.
When about a week ago Martin Indyk went public with a speech that placed blame on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides for the collapse of the most recent set of negotiations, he signaled that this iteration of talks was really and truly done for. Call it a hiatus, a time-out, an adjournment or a reassessment, call it anything you like; but when a negotiation whose one great merit is that its deliberations didn’t leak gets debriefed publicly by the Secretary of State’s handpicked guy, you can bet your booties that, after around nine months of futility and several weeks of desperate fourth-down scrambling, we’ve pulled the plug on the operation.
Anyone who is surprised by this failure, one predicted by just about every seasoned expert in the field, must be very, well, special. Indyk put it exactly right: Neither side felt sufficient urgency, or felt it had the political strength, to make the concessions required to get to a deal. But this was obvious before the whole affair began. The Palestinians are divided spatially, ideologically and politically; they have yet to experience their Altalena incident. The current Israeli coalition is too fractious to agree on much of anything besides budget-share gobbling, and building new West Bank settlements.
When Israeli-Palestinian or Israeli-Arab state agreements have been reached in the past, two conditions enabled them: first, leaders on both sides were both strong enough to lead their respective sides and both preferred the risks of the future to the unpleasantness of the status quo; and U.S. mediation was able to provide a bridge, and offer a safety net below composed of parallel bilateral pledges, to make the up the distance the parties could not traverse themselves. In the end, it always took presidential engagement to seal a deal. This time neither condition obtained: The sides couldn’t make it to their respective shores, and the credibility of U.S. pledges, such as they were, lacked presidential imprimatur.
Maybe John Kerry thought that the negotiations would create their own positive dynamic; they sometimes do. And maybe he thought that if that happened the President would throw in fully with the effort. On that last matter, we’ll never know. Kerry certainly thought that success would ramify widely and benignly through all the problems of the region and beyond, and here he, like the associated conventional “linkage” wisdom that all but engulfs the Washington salon crowd, has been mistaken.
So, in hindsight, was the whole effort worth it anyway? Strange question, you might say: If it failed, how could it still have been worth it? Answer: Even negotiations that fail to achieve stated aims can be useful if any one of four conditions obtains. First, they may provide positive new benchmarks for subsequent negotiating efforts. Second, they may build trust among antagonists. Third, even in failure they may improve the relative political strength of moderates on respective sides. And fourth, they may serve ancillary interests, like pleasing significant third parties, which can make it easier for those third parties to cooperate with the mediator or with one or both of the parties to the negotiation on other issues. So let’s look briefly at these conditions, in reverse order.
One reason for keeping up the appearance that the United States is striving to bring Israelis and Palestinians to an agreement is that is helps Arab friends of the United States, in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the UAE, Oman and elsewhere, to widen their maneuvering room in cooperating with Washington. This is a case, too, where the existence of negotiations can provide justification for direct if discreet contact between Arab countries and Israel. Some say that private conclaves have been held in recent years between Israel and Saudi Arabia; if so, the existence of U.S.-mediated Israeli-Palestinian negotiations makes the risks of such contacts politically acceptable to wider strata of the Saudi elite.
Of course, the problem here is that if the negotiations collapse, as they now have, that benefit gets yanked away, and, all else equal, that can be disruptive. In this case, relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia have gotten so bad under the Obama Administration that the Israel-Palestine negotiations, however scant their chances of success, constituted one of the few zones of assent between Washington and Riyadh; now that it is no more, one wonders about the impact.
Has the strength of relative moderates in Israel or among the Palestinians been strengthened as a result of negotiations? That remains to be seen. Certainly, the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation, to the extent it is real or translatable into practical terms, seems to suggest precisely the reverse. But not so fast—and many indeed jumped to the wrong conclusion about this development. Hamas is weak. It is unpopular in Gaza and, thanks to the attitude of both the al-Sisi government in Cairo and the Islamist government in Tehran, it is grown painfully poor. Egypt’s shutting down the tunnels under the Gaza-Sinai border has deprived Hamas of most of its “tax” revenue. So it is not a foregone conclusion that the reconciliation means that Fatah becomes less moderate; it could mean instead that Hamas becomes less powerful, if not also more moderate in due course.
The collapse of the talks might help more centrist and left-of-center parties in Israel. Most Israelis favor a two-state solution and are ready for serious concessions to get it, if they are confident that an agreement would truly end the conflict. The Netanyahu government, as many see it, did not have what it takes. The problem is that it takes a credible and powerful enough Palestinian interlocutor to complete the circuit. If the Israeli electorate thought there was a real partner for a real peace on the Palestinian side, it would do what it has done before: Toss out the incumbent coalition and elect those willing to make a deal. But absent that Palestinian partner, nothing avails to put the matter to a test.
How about building personal trust among the elites on the two sides? This is a wasting and, some would say, a wasted asset. These negotiators know each other very, very well. They have known each other personally for many years. It may be doubted that the most recent round changed much in this regard. But the Palestinian leadership is aging and will change before long. Mahmud Abbas is heading toward 80 years of age and his is an old 80. Names from the past, like Mohammed Dahlan, and newer ones, like Marwan Barghouti, will soon be added to the core mix, most likely. As negotiating teams change shape, regular meetings—both in formal and in informal settings—probably are useful.
What about new benchmarks? Did the recent negotiations produce any fragments of agreement, any clarifications, that might be usefully preserved for the future? I am not privy to the negotiating record in detail, so I cannot say for sure. My hunch here, however, is that the answer is no—and worse than no. The United States bent over backwards in these negotiations to propitiate the Israelis and, according to Indyk, it paid off in remarkable flexibility from Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu. Not only did the Americans not insist that negotiating progress be linked to improvement for Palestinians on the ground, but it in effect blessed two agenda items that heretofore had not been up prominently on the table.
One of these is the relatively recent Israeli demand, dating from only a few years ago, that the Palestinians recognize Israel as an explicitly Jewish state. As I wrote when this notion first raised its ugly face, this is a foolish demand not only from the perspective of peace process prospects but also from the narrower perspective of Israeli negotiating strategy—unless of course the demand is designed to make agreement impossible. The second is the idea that compensation for Jewish refugees from Arab countries be put on the table next to compensation for Arab refugees from what became Israel. Since the conditions and circumstances that led Jews to leave Arab countries after 1947-48 differed significantly from place to place, it is hard to see how it would be possible to arrive at any coherent accounting.
Both of these issues just add new burdens to a central agenda that is already populated and contentious enough. That John Kerry facilitated this pollution of the agenda is a mark of poor judgment on his part. If anything, the precedents established during this most recent effort will probably make arriving at an ultimate end-of-conflict agreement harder, not easier. In this regard, anyway, the recent negotiations may have represented a step backward.
There are always those naïfs who say that diplomacy should always be tried since, even in failure, it can’t do any harm. These “getting to yes” halfwits fail to understand the possibility of toxic precedents, and they fail to acknowledge that punctured expectations can have disastrous negative effects on the ground. Never mind that failure also undermines the reputational power of those most closely associated with the effort, in this case Secretary Kerry, whose reputation cannot stand much more degradation.
Now, in this case, expectations never rose very high to start with, so their deflation poses little immediate danger. But every time negotiations start and then fail, more and more people on both sides conclude that they can never succeed. This is not good. There is new talk in Israel now about unilateral action to settle the matter without a formal agreement. What some people seem to have in mind is a mix of ideas propagated many years ago by Yigal Allon and Moshe Dayan. Dayan famously favored creating facts on the ground in the absence of a propitious negotiation. Allon favored a unilateral repartition of the West Bank. Taken together, one can imagine an Israeli government of the sort now in power drawing a line, fortifying it and leaving the rest to whomever would pick up the pieces. That way a Palestinian state of some sort would have to arise by default. After it arose, in time, maybe Israel could negotiate at least some kind of limited understanding with it.
A lot of Israelis think this is the only way forward now. And the group includes some unlikely allies: those toward the right who are territorial nationalists, and those toward the left who think the occupation is bad for the State of Israel. The former would get half a loaf from the changed approach; the latter would get an end to the occupation and the offloading of Israeli responsibility for millions of now stateless Arabs. Despite differences of ideology, some in both camps are for giving heavily populated Arab towns in Israel, especially Umm al-Fahm, to this new Palestinian state for demographic reasons.
Fail at negotiations often enough, and unilateralist energies of this sort get released, for better or for worse. The point: Failed negotiations do have consequences, some possibly benign and others not, so not to make an effort to think them through ahead of time is simply irresponsible. Presumably, the U.S. government would not be thrilled with a unilateral Israeli course of the sort just described. What can it do?
As I noted in an earlier post, the concept of a FAPS (Framework Agreement for a Peace Settlement) was a halfway house between an imposed settlement and more or less disinterested facilitation. At this point, Washington basically has two choices: move toward imposition, and use the Israeli aid relationship as a lever to fully penalize Israeli settlement activity, especially activity outside the bloc of territories understood by everyone to become part of Israel in a settlement; or back off to a gardening phase in which the emphasis moves to security cooperation on the ground, small reciprocal parallel efforts at normalization, and backstopping against beyond-the-pale decisions that would make it all but impossible to restart negotiations in the future. The former would require presidential accord and activism—very unlikely in the run-up to the midterm elections. Does Kerry have the heart to downshift to the latter sort of fare? He better, or things could get even worse than they already are.
The enormities of the Syrian civil war continue. The rebel evacuation of Homs is the latest news, the result of the standard regime strategy of siege starvation and random aerial shelling and bombing of civilian areas, especially marketplaces. The number of dead and displaced continues to rise. Children and the elderly are in many areas trying to stay alive by eating grass and tree bark. In most areas the regime is either holding its own or winning these days; in a few, as on the Syrian side of the Golan armistice line, the rebels have the upper hand. But a large battle there is looming.
It is also well known that the regime is planning an election soon. Yes, Bashir Assad has graciously agreed to run for another presidential term. The Russian government, which complains about the upcoming May 25 election in Kiev, is fine with the Syrian arrangements. This tells you all you need to know about the limitless cynicism of Russian policy and its leaders. And it is therefore remarkable that Secretary Kerry can speak about selected cooperation with Sergei Lavrov, including in Syria and with regard to Iran, as though Lavrov represents a civilized government. I’m not saying we shouldn’t deal at all with Russia; where we have mutual interests, we have to deal with them. All great power relationships are or can be mixed. But dealing is one thing; speaking as though it’s some kind of privilege to sit down with Lavrov, or that the business being conducted is similar to business conducted with Germany or Argentina, is something else again.
The strategic stakes in the Syrian civil war remain the same. To the extent the regime prevails, Iran and Russia win, ruthlessness wins, and sectarian polarization in the entire region increases. Refugee stresses, especially dangerous to Jordan, increase to and eventually likely beyond the breaking point. To the extent the moderate rebels win, all this bad news starts to flow in the opposite direction. To the extend that radical Sunnis prevail, new problems arise, of course, but they are not likely to be very long-lived or dangerous without the support of any major state, and no such support is in the offing. Nor would such an outcome be as injurious to U.S. regional interests as the victory of the Assad regime. Besides, an Assad regime that prevails along the Mediterranean coast and around Damascus is very unlikely to be able to assert control anytime soon over the Syrian desert or in the northern part of the country, giving us the worst of both worlds: a victory for Shi’a evil plus a gray zone where Sunni al-Qaeda-like terrorists can plot their own evil deeds.
All of this argues for a concerted U.S. effort to gather regional and international support for a moderate rebel alternative to the regime, and to help it congeal into a coherent political as well as a military force. This is not about U.S. boots on the ground and never was. The United States would have help in this regard, and in a modest way we have been pursuing this track with Saudi Arabia since the failure of Geneva II. That’s why some rebel groups now have some anti-tank weapons. But, apparently, while the State Department wants to move fast and large, the White House doesn’t. This has been the case now for years. The President is acting like Nancy Reagan: He just says no.
In place of doing anything strategically meaningful, nearly all the action has focused instead on this ridiculous chemical arms regime—a project that, even if could be completed, bears absolutely no relationship to the real stakes in the civil war. There are only, at last count, four problems with this whole rack of nonsense.
First, the agreement makes us de facto partners with a regime the President has said “has to go.” It makes us castigate the rebels, the guys we by rights should be helping, for obstructing the movement of chemical stocks to the sea for shipment out of Syria. It is hard even to imagine a more vivid illustration of how incoherent this policy is.
Second, the Syrians have reinterpreted the agreement unilaterally to allow them to shutter rather than destroy the four sites that actually prepare munitions like Sarin nerve gas from their chemical precursors. We have complained, but we haven’t done anything. The Russians are mute on the point, very unhelpfully but hardly surprisingly.
Third, the Syrians have continued killing their own people with chemicals, just not the ones listed in the agreement. We have complained about that too, but also have not actually done anything about it. A more vivid proof that the Syrian regime is criminal and untrustworthy would be hard to find.
Fourth, and most amazingly, the Syrians never declared, from the start, all their stockpiles and fabrication sites. They declared 26. There are at least thirty, and according to Israeli estimates there were around 50, although some were in isolated areas and have since been consolidated or moved during the civil war. As I wrote when this whole thing started, the Syrian government has lied to every U.S. administration since that of Dwight Eisenhower, and it is lying to the Obama Administration.
A little background may make what has been happening a bit clearer. Syria’s chemical weapons program goes back to the mid-1970s, and really got going with Soviet help in the 1980s. The Soviets taught the Syrians the know-how, and Russians have continued to do so because the Syrians have been unable to institutionalize the technical knowledge among themselves. Precursors for nerve gas, which are industrial chemicals made in often large amounts and available commercially, are, like Sarin itself, moderately unstable and deteriorate over time, and so must be restocked. (One of them, for example, is a chemical used to leach bauxite ore to produce alumina.) Over a more than 40-year period, most of Syria’s old chemical stocks of precursors became worthless for military purposes, but still toxic. The Syrians never bothered to invest in capabilities to denature the toxins, so they just piled up. We essentially have played the role of hazmat garbage collectors, paying out of our own pocket to get rid of all this useless stuff—hundreds of tons of it—but leaving the newer and better materials off the books and in regime hands (possibly now in Latakia province). The result is that while the effort marginally reduces the danger of Islamist crazies getting their hands on the precursors, it has absolutely zero effect on the Syrian chemical war order of battle.
Could it be that the U.S. government has not known this all along? I find it hard to believe. The state of the U.S. intelligence community’s knowledge of such matters, and the Israeli, French, British and German intelligence communities too, is not—shall we say—very bad in this regard. Yet, as best I can tell, it was only three days ago that the very first statement by a U.S. government official about this problem emerged. Jen Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman, let loose on May 9 that “we remain skeptical” as to whether the Syrian government “has revealed the full extent of its stockpiles.” This statement was reported in the May 10 Khaleej Times, but not in any American newspaper that I saw. Just a day latter, in a Washington Post interview, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said: “It is true and positive that step by step, they got rid of them. Today the work is about 90 percent done. Provided that they did not hide anything from us.” Unfortunately, the interviewer, the estimable Lally Weymouth, failed to understand the significance of Fabius’s afterthought or to follow up on it.
Certainly the President has never raised the inconvenient possibility. He said at the end of April that 87 percent of Syria’s chemical weapons had been removed, and “the fact that we didn’t have to fire a missile to get that accomplished is not a failure to uphold international norms, it’s a success.” Really, do tell.
So why now, in May, is anyone in the U.S. government raising this point? Why after all this time are officials finally uttering the ever-obvious fact that there has never been any reason to trust the Syrian government’s original declaration about its chemical stocks? (The Hebrew press carried such doubts at the time, but nowhere else did any mainstream press that I know of even raise a question about the matter.) I wish I knew “why now.” I don’t; but stay tuned—I’m noodling around.
At the end of his Asia trip, back at the end of April in Manila, the President got downright testy with critics of his foreign policy. Now, admittedly, some of his critics made for soft targets: “Why it is that everybody is so eager to use military force, after we’ve just gone through a decade of war at enormous cost to our troops and to our budget. And what it is exactly that these critics think would have been accomplished?” the President asked. And it’s true: There are some Republican Senators for whom every problem in the world raises mindless calls for using force.
But specifically with regard to Syria, the President said of those who urge a more vigorous policy, “They themselves say, ‘No, no, no, we don’t mean sending in troops.’ Well, what do you mean?”—as if his own advisers had not answered this question many, many times in private. Added Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, of whom more in a moment, “If we took all of the actions that our critics have demanded, we’d lose count of the number of military conflicts that America would be engaged in.”
The President tried to make it seem that small-ball diplomacy and starting a war were the only tools in the U.S. toolkit, with nothing in between. This is disingenuous, if it is not sincerely myopic. Obviously, the man isn’t stupid and he knows better. So what is he thinking, then?
We got a chance to peer into a deeper level of his views on May 7, when the President was in Los Angeles—during a Democratic Party fundraising trip—for a USC Shoah Foundation event, a foundation founded by Stephen Spielberg twenty years ago. What he said, in the shadow of the abduction of a few hundred Nigerian girls, is quite remarkable. The President emphasized the limits to what American power can do: “I have this remarkable title right now—President of the United States. And yet every day when I wake up, and I think about the young girls in Nigeria or children caught up in the conflict in Syria—when there are times when I want to reach out and save those kids—and having to think through what levers, what power, do we have at any given moment.”
Fair enough; I respect the President’s caution over using force. I wish his predecessor had been more sensitive to those limits and to the unintended consequences of war. But then he added a remark or two that sent me reeling. The use of force is not the only option and it is not enough, he uncontroversially said. But then came this:
By keeping memories alive, by telling stories, by hearing these stories, we can do our part to save lives. I think drop by drop that we can erode and wear down the forces that are so destructive, that we can tell a different story. . . . None of the tragedies that we see today may rise to the full horror of the Holocaust, but they demand our attention, that we not turn away, that we choose empathy over indifference, and that our empathy leads to action. And that’s not always easy. . . . [W]e have to act even when there is sometimes ambiguity. Even when the path is not always clearly lit, we have to try.
So we have to act when crimes against humanity threaten, yet this President, wringing hands like Hamlet, is not acting. He is not behaving like the Niebuhrian of his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. He proposes instead that we tell stories, that we preserve memories, that we change the normative environment “drop by drop.” Tell it to the kids eating grass to stay alive in Syria, sir.
Maybe the President’s remarks reflected the context of the Los Angeles event in a way the newspaper quotes do not really convey. Maybe this was just scripted pablum “interrupted”, so to speak, by the ambient reality of the Nigerian abductions. But the remarks come across as the words of man who is more energized at the prospect of memorializing the dead than he is at preventing their deaths. There is something almost surreal about these comments, something which suggests that the power of speech, of testimony, is more appropriate in situations of imminent peril than the judicious use of American power. Words as mystical incantations; more magical thinking?
How do we explain this? Well, it’s impossible for me, a rank outsider, to be sure; but I have what I would call a working speculation, about six degree short of a hypothesis.
When he was first a candidate for President and then an early first-term President, a lot of people characterized his approach to policy issues as that of policy-wonk law professor. But to me, Obama seemed much more like a judge, someone who prefers to sit above it all choosing among options, giving orders and delegating authority, and someone whose exquisite political skills allow him to forge the circumstances and persons to whom he will delegate. I reached this conclusion because when I first investigated candidate Obama’s views on policy issues, I found that he had no ideas of his own. He rather researched, revised and reworded the ideas of others. He is not an independent or creative thinker; he is a political webmaster and a master manager who also really knows how to wow an audience with his powers of speech.
So he early on delegated responsibility for the shooting wars he inherited to Bob Gates, and later to Chuck Hagel, two Republicans who protected his political flank and absolved the Democrats if anything went badly wrong. He outsourced basic thinking about terrorism and counterproliferation policy, very important to Obama for political reasons, to John O. Brennan. He delegated the spearhead of his domestic agenda to Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, because his White House was inherently weak from the President’s own lack of experienced engagement on the national political level.
Most important here, I suspect he ended up informally delegating authority for strategic thinking to Ben Rhodes, the clever but essentially mistaken young man who early on wrote all of his key foreign policy speeches. (Rhodes was also the author of the “linkage”-ridden Baker-Hamilton Report of December 2006, one of the most embarrassing such documents ever written, but one that helped make his reputation in Democratic circles nonetheless.) Rhodes is the main one, I believe, who either convinced or strongly reinforced the President’s intuition that the United States is vastly overinvested in the Middle East, that we need to pivot to Asia at the expense of our investments in the Middle East and Europe, that in the absence of traditional American “Cold War-era” leadership benign regional balances will form to keep the peace, and that the world is deep in normative liberalism and well beyond the grubby power politics of earlier eras.
All of this is very trendy and sounds “progressive” and smart, but, of course, it is mostly wrong. I’m not saying that Rhodes is a kind of Svengali or Rasputin or that President Obama is a rank innocent somehow in this thrall, only that Rhodes’s highly articulate intelligence matches the President’s tastes in repartee–and that sitting together pouring over language in speech texts can have a deeply influential impact on a principal who has little prior experience in the subject. They both believe deeply in the independent power of words. And it probably helps the relationship that Rhodes, because of his youth, is not a threat to the President’s ego.
In any event, all this delegation leaves President Obama to be Politician-in-Chief, which is what he knows best, likes best, and succeeds at best. It leaves him to be the judge, sitting on high, delegating and managing and sifting the ideas of others. But it’s ultimately all about politics, all about power. This is a man who, when asked some years ago what he wanted his presidential legacy to be, said that he wanted to win the midterm elections for the Democrats, sealing control over House, Senate and White House all together.
This is small-mindedness on a giant scale. And it is a form of small-mindedness that leaves the President stranded between high-sounding language that really does not create its own reality after it and effective action when act he should. My sense is that, not entirely unlike his predecessor much of the time, in very hard cases—like Syria—he really doesn’t know what to do, and so he temporizes, just waiting, like Dickens’s Wilkins Micawber, either for something to turn up or for the problem to somehow go away. I am certain that the President would be deeply moved by Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s beautiful sentiment in “A Court Lady”, if he knew of it: “Happy are all free peoples, too strong to be dispossessed, But blessed are those among nations, who dare to be strong for the rest.” But I’m equally sure he’d affirm the anti-idealist warning of a mature Walter Lippmann: “It is a disease of the soul to be in love with impossible things.”
Barack Obama seems unable to choose at this level, when principles equally dear and insights equally persuasive turn out to be incommensurate. So he dresses his indecision in Mr. Rhodes’s strategic ventriloquism, suggesting to the great audience of the world at large an aura of deeply thoughtful and prudential leadership. Meanwhile, the Middle East spins and swirls and skitters onward to who-knows-what destination.
Anyway, that’s my working hypothesis, and I’m sticking to it, until something better comes along.