Belmont Club

Born To Be Mild

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.

When the Arab Spring erupted in Egypt, this flexibility manifested itself again. Lizza writes, “Obama’s instinct was to try to have it both ways. He wanted to position the United States on the side of the protesters. … Nonetheless, Obama wanted to assure other autocratic allies that the U.S. did not hastily abandon its friends, and he feared that the uprising could spin out of control.” Then events followed thick and fast.  By the time the Libyan crisis broke out, Obama had moved so far past the inhibitions he felt in Iraq that he was ready to use all the tools at his disposal to prevent what Power had called “The Problem From Hell” — a humanitarian crisis. He would intervene in Libya.

This was not inconsistency. It was growth.

Obama has emphasized bureaucratic efficiency over ideology, and approached foreign policy as if it were case law, deciding his response to every threat or crisis on its own merits. “When you start applying blanket policies on the complexities of the current world situation, you’re going to get yourself into trouble,” he said in a recent interview with NBC News.

This characteristic ability to take each individual situation on its own merits was the very opposite of being “adventurist and ideological.”  Lizza quoted one aide who termed it “leading from behind.” It was a necessary skill in a world shaped, according to Lizza, by Obama’s unspoken belief “that the relative power of the U.S. is declining … and that the U.S. is reviled in many parts of the world. Pursuing our interests and spreading our ideals thus requires stealth and modesty as well as military strength.” You had to know when to bomb and when to bow.

Obama may be moving toward something resembling a doctrine. One of his advisers described the President’s actions in Libya as “leading from behind.” That’s not a slogan designed for signs at the 2012 Democratic Convention, but it does accurately describe the balance that Obama now seems to be finding. It’s a different definition of leadership than America is known for, and it comes from two unspoken beliefs: that the relative power of the U.S. is declining, as rivals like China rise, and that the U.S. is reviled in many parts of the world. Pursuing our interests and spreading our ideals thus requires stealth and modesty as well as military strength. “It’s so at odds with the John Wayne expectation for what America is in the world,” the adviser said. “But it’s necessary for shepherding us through this phase.”

As applied to the Syrian situation, that duality implied that Obama would always show a two-sided coin. He will exhibit “modesty” towards Assad and show “military strength” — but elsewhere. How the two are connected has not yet been explained. A cynic might characterize the characterization of “leading from behind” as the most flattering description of opportunism that anyone has ever had the temerity to articulate. It justifies, in advance, any action the president might choose to take, appealing to his greater wisdom and unimpeachable intellect.

Ironically, both Smith and Lizza appear to agree on one thing: Obama will do what he wants to do. Smith calls it “ideology” and others call  it “leading from behind”; but they both mean the same thing. What Obama decides on the day is where U.S. interest lies. Case law. Where they disagree is on whether or not such a framework — whatever you wish to call it — works. Lizza seems to believe that President Obama is actually accomplishing something. Lee Smith, on the other hand, argues that Obama may be pursuing a self-defined chimera.

And if were a chimera, how would Obama know? Given a pre-existing and unspoken belief that “that the relative power of the U.S. is declining,” the president’s yardstick is already designed to measure failure. Defeats and humiliations are not unexpected; on the contrary, they are already anticipated, even planned for. The problem with the kind of “consequentialism” Lizza describes is that it is divorced from any objective external measurement that can be viewed apart from the president’s ever-growing mind. America’s success or failure cannot be judged simply by what the president thinks it is. It must have a reality all its own.

Without an anchor in objective measures; without a foreign policy aimed at growing America’s power and prosperity according to certain benchmarks, all “consequentialism” amounts to is a bet on how many points the home team will lose by.  It is a fantasy strategy; a species of oriental fatalism once alien to the U.S., but now native to the White House.

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