Want a good measure of how degraded the presidential foreign policy debate has become? Over the last four years, America has largely been a bystander in the largest strategic and humanitarian disaster of our time – the collapse of sovereignty in Syria, producing 5 million refugees, causing more than 300,000 deaths and empowering some of the most vicious, totalitarian nut jobs in the world.
But what is the critique from both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders? That America is overcommitted, especially in the Middle East. Trump in particular has argued that America is a pathetic debtor country that must get its own house in order before engaging in nation-building. “We cannot go around to every country that we’re not exactly happy with,” Trump said recently, “and say we’re going to re-create.”
This has hardly been Obama’s temptation. His motivation being ... what? A determination to be the anti-Bush? Serial indecision? The pivot to Asia? For whatever reason, Obama has consistently filed action in Syria under the category of “stupid stuff,” often overruling the more forward-leaning views of his senior foreign policy advisers (including then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton). Tamara Cofman Wittes of the Brookings Institution recently testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “incremental steps over the last four years to shape both the battlefield and the context for diplomacy” have been “too little and too late to alter the conflict’s fundamental dynamics.”
What have been those dynamics? The regime of Bashar Assad, once teetering on the brink of destruction, has been saved by Iranian and Russian military interventions. Early on, jihadi groups in Syria became the most serious, well-equipped opposition to the regime, forcing rivals off the field and raising a long-term terrorist threat. Assad has committed mass atrocities with impunity, so long as he doesn’t use chemical weapons again (though his victims end up just as dead by other methods). To avoid responsibility for this nightmare, the Obama administration has tried to narrow the definition of U.S. interests. What really matters is removing Assad’s chemical weapons. Or the Iranian nuclear agreement. Or killing terrorists with drones and special operations. Anything else is, according to Obama, “someone else’s civil war.”
If Obama loses sleep over the situation, he gives no public indication. On the contrary, he often congratulates himself on the coolness and realism of his judgment on Syria (declaring himself “very proud” of his decision not to enforce the chemical weapons “red line”). But this is the kind of thing – like the Rwandan genocide for Bill Clinton – that Obama will be left explaining for the duration of his post-presidency. During the Obama years, perpetrators have been given a clear message: Mass atrocities work, at least if you have faithful sponsors and halfhearted enemies.
Though negotiations are ongoing, a genuine settlement during Obama’s presidency is unlikely. Peace agreements codify a balance of power; they don’t usually create a new one. “Without greater military pressure on the Syrian government,” former Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford told the Senate hearing, “it will not negotiate a compromise political settlement.” Secretary of State John Kerry still tries to huff and puff about a military option: “If President Assad has come to a conclusion that there’s no Plan B, then he’s come to a conclusion that is totally without foundation whatsoever and even dangerous.” No one thinks there is a Plan B. No one.
Years of inaction have narrowed American options. Would the U.S. really risk a military confrontation with Russia to enforce a no-fly zone? But any kind of rapprochement with Assad would be both immoral and pointless. He will never have the legitimacy to reunify and rebuild a country he burned to the ground. This leaves (1) more aggressive support for nonradical opposition to Assad and for bordering countries, (2) helping liberated communities with governance and service delivery as an alternative to the jihadis, (3) outreach to traumatized refugee children who are at risk of radicalization, and, most importantly, (4) abandoning Obama’s self-serving and destructive argument that the only alternatives in Syria are inaction or occupation.
The theory – practiced by Obama and endorsed by Trump – that the Syrian conflict will somehow burn itself out has been a security debacle and a humanitarian catastrophe. When America refuses to play an active role, the natural result is a regional Shiite-Sunni proxy war, exploited by Iran and Russia to expand their influence and by jihadis to expand their capabilities.
And still, the populists of right and left argue – callously and foolishly – that America does too much.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.