Waiting For The Next President

Saleh El Machnouk is a Mason Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and a rising star in Lebanese politics. A former teacher, activist, and political commentator, Machnouk was one of the earliest supporters of the Syrian opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s regime.  Recently he founded and lead the “Young Arab Liberals Coalition”, a grouping of leaders from the Arab Spring aimed at promoting democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. The following essay appeared in NOW News.

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If any hope remained last week for a meaningful Syria policy, signaling a radical change of course in the US administration’s approach towards the war-torn country, President Obama’s speech reassured skeptics he is nowhere near a revision of his overall trajectory. Instead, what we are left with is a president who, almost against his will, will do the absolute minimum to respond to a situation so dire that even he cannot afford to ignore it any further. In doing so, he is all but certain to fail; in fact, the real issue was never Obama’s plan for Syria, but his attitude towards Syria.

Over the past six years, Obama’s foreign policy towards the Middle East has been dominated by two guiding principles. The first is that he was elected to reverse Bush’s overly aggressive and burdensome involvement in the region – pulling out of the Middle East became the raison d’etre of his foreign policy.

The second is a firm conviction that the US could not possibly have a positive impact on events in the region; therefore, when things unfold quickly and unpredictably, the best thing to do is sit back, watch, and hope for the best. Both principles constantly overshadowed any thinking the president has done on Syria over the past three years, and as of last year his chief of staff seems to have added a convenient third: It’s in the US’s best interests that its various regional foes – namely ISIS and Hezbollah – fight each other to the point of exhaustion. All three set the stage for a disastrous policy (or lack thereof) and consequently a disastrous outcome.

While recent events in Syria could have presented the president with an opportunity to seriously reconsider his Syria policy altogether, Obama chose to pursue the same narrow-minded approach. Following his now infamous statement that the US “does not yet have a strategy” on Syria, few expected the administration to come up with an meaningful strategy to defeat the terrorist organization that now occupies territory three times the size of Lebanon. The president did not disappoint. In his latest speech, he spoke of air strikes in Syria not as a case in and of itself, but as just another region where he would “not hesitate” to order strikes. His words could not have been less compelling.

Obama further made an allusion to the Somali and Yemeni counterterrorism models, which only served to consolidate the view that the president has a deep and unshakable misunderstanding of the Syrian conflict. Irrespective of the fact that it is quite difficult to think to these two countries as successful examples of anything, the differences with Syria are striking. In Yemen, the US military helps an allied government combat Al Qaeda cells, which first and foremost represent a security concern for both Yemen and the US. In Syria, the Islamic State (ISIS) is but a symptom of the real problem, which remains the regime’s willingness and ability to commit mass atrocities against its own people and set the stage for ISIS to grow and expand. This kind of confusion is not new to Obama’s talking points on Syria. Recently, he mockingly referred to ISIS as “jayvee team” – ignoring pervasive analysis amongst numerous Arab and American commentators that the group will inevitably prosper and come to dominate parts of northern Syria.

There is more to this mindset. In his speech last week, Obama appeared to ask Syrian rebels (the same doctors, farmers, etc.) to fight in defense of American national security, with an absolute disregard for their own legitimate aspirations, beyond the fundamentally improper assertion that America (at least under his administration) stands with people who “fight for their own freedom.” While the rebels want arms to defeat the regime, Obama is strictly concerned with their role as counterweights to extremists. The only assumed reference the president made to the Syrian people’s desire for peace is his allusion to the need for a “political solution,” which is simply a meaningless political cliché.

The fact that no administration official has explained what that political solution would be or how it might be achieved notwithstanding, the lessons of the failed Geneva conferences have presented ample evidence that without meaningful changes in the balance of power of the ground, Bashar al-Assad is not about to negotiate a peace accord. Assad believes time is on his side, and if there was little reason to negotiate a year ago, there is none at all today. Instead of a never-ending obsession with Bush’s war in Iraq and a misplaced comparison with Yemen and Somalia, Obama should have been thinking about Clinton’s military efforts in Bosnia and the subsequent negotiations led by Richard Holbrooke to secure the Dayton Agreement.

Clinton’s war not only provides valuable lessons in the combination of air strikes and powerful offensive diplomacy, but also about presidential leadership in times when public opinion might be less than enthusiastic about foreign endeavors. Many commentators have pointed out that Obama’s reluctance to engage meaningfully in Syria is simply a reflection of US public opinion. But this comparison is misleading. Before Clinton got involved in Bosnia, a solid majority of the American people opposed US military intervention. Clinton later said that his decision was the right one to make “whatever the US public thought of it” and that the administration had played a role in enforcing a change in public opinion following the Srebrenica massacre. Clinton’s right-thinking intervention was much more a reflection of the administration’s mindfulness than the US public.

While parts of Obama’s strategy might seem compelling in theory, his track record makes it all but impossible for anyone to be hopeful. By approaching the ISIS problem merely as a security problem for the United States, he disregards the fact that his non-interventionist approach has contributed to the group’s rise. After three years of conflict, with over 200,000 dead and 9 million refugees, the weakening of the opposition and the rise of ISIS, it is time to give up on the current US president. One can only hope that the next president will push a “reset” button on the US’s Syria policy.