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Belmont Club

Born To Be Mild

April 28th, 2011 - 3:42 pm

Lee Smith tries to understand the administration’s reluctance to take on the Syrian regime, which can be seen machine-gunning protesters in this video. In the face of outrages committed daily, which it does not even bother to hide, “why is Obama protecting Assad?” he asks.  For exempted Assad is. Smith cites diplomatic sources suggesting the Opthamologist of Damascus will be specifically spared from the “targeted sanctions.” The better not to anger the president of Syria.

Smith believes the reluctance is because Obama needs Assad to carry out his long-cherished goal of signing a comprehensive peace agreement between the Arab states and Israel. That, like other initiatves, has met with nothing but failure. But the greater the failure, the greater Obama’s need for Assad. Assad holds the keys to the car Obama dreams of driving.

So why is the administration protecting a regime that makes war against its own people as well as America and her allies? As Michael Doran explains in his latest article in Foreign Affairs (“The Heirs of Nasser”), it is because “the Obama administration has made the Arab-Israeli peace process the organizing principle of its Middle East policy.”

Doran writes that “from the outset, the Obama administration has believed in the importance of pursuing a ‘comprehensive’ settlement — meaning a peace treaty that includes not just the Palestinians but, in addition, all the Arab states, especially Syria.”

As the administration has failed to make any headway in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, the Syrian track has grown in importance. Consequently, Washington has chosen to treat Syria not as an adversary deserving containment but rather as a partner in the negotiations deserving of engagement.

The president, having bet the farm on the “engagement policy,” found he was losing; and determined to walk out of the diplomatic casino a winner, decided to double down. “If this leads to failure, doing it again but harder, will result in success.” Lee Smith calls the policy “adventurist and ideological.”

But the New Yorker disagrees. The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza argues that Obama is the very example of a non-ideological leader. Obama was growing all the time.  It was true that “as a student during the Reagan years, Obama gravitated toward conventionally left-leaning positions.” But with the passage of years, he read the books and talked to experts and broadened his perspective.

Obama had always read widely, and now he was determined to get a deeper education. He read popular books on foreign affairs by Fareed Zakaria and Thomas Friedman. He met with Anthony Lake, who had left the Nixon Administration over Vietnam and went on to work in Democratic Administrations, and with Susan Rice, who had served in the Clinton Administration and carried with her the guilt of having failed to act to prevent the Rwandan genocide. He also contacted Samantha Power, a thirty-four-year-old journalist and Harvard professor specializing in human rights. In her twenties, Power had reported from the Balkans and witnessed the campaigns of ethnic cleansing there.

Power made a special impression. She convinced him of the need to stop “The Problem From Hell” — genocide. But his nuanced intellect prevented the notion from becoming dogma. He would not, for example, blindly follow the principle in Iraq.

As he campaigned in New Hampshire, in 2007, Obama said that he would not leave troops in Iraq even to stop genocide. “Well, look, if that’s the criteria by which we are making decisions on the deployment of U.S. forces, then by that argument you would have three hundred thousand troops in the Congo right now, where millions have been slaughtered as a consequence of ethnic strife, which we haven’t done,” he said. “We would be deploying unilaterally and occupying the Sudan, which we haven’t done.”

But his aversion to force was modified by the experience of having to deal with Afghanistan. He grew some more to accommodate the new knowledge. “In Oslo, he surprised a largely left-leaning audience by talking about the martial imperatives of a Commander-in-Chief overseeing two wars. Obama’s aides often insist that he is an anti-ideological politician interested only in what actually works. He is, one says, a ‘consequentialist.’” A consequentialist, one who seeks results.

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