Too Big to Fail?
Is Syria's repressive dictatorship really so crucial to Mideast peace and stability that we can't let it fail? The Obama administration still seems to think so.
If you’re a bit confused about U.S. President Barack Obama’s passivity in the face of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal repression of domestic opposition, don’t be. Syria isn’t Libya. The Assad regime is just too consequential to risk undermining.
Although the fall of the House of Assad might actually benefit U.S. interests, the president isn’t going to encourage it. For realists in the White House, Assad’s demise carries more risks than opportunities.
Great powers behave inconsistently — even hypocritically — depending on their interests. That’s not unusual; it’s part of the job description. In fact, in responding to the forces of change and repression loosed throughout the Arab world, flexibility is more important than ideological rigidity.
The last thing America needs is a doctrine or ideological template to govern how it responds to fast-breaking changes in a dozen Arab countries, all of which are strikingly different in their respective circumstances.
That the administration’s response often seemed like a giant game of whack-a-mole, with a new problem popping up daily, was inevitable. And so was the variety of U.S. responses. In Bahrain, where the United States had established the headquarters of the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, and in Yemen, where counterterrorism is king, interests trumped values. You didn’t hear Obama make any "Qaddafi must go"-style speeches directed against Bahrain’s ruling Khalifa family or Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
The contradictions and anomalies of U.S. foreign policy have also been on stark display in the Obama administration’s differing responses to Qaddafi’s and Assad’s repression of their own people.
Beating up Qaddafi proved doable and necessary to prevent what was viewed as potential atrocities by his forces in Benghazi. Libya had few significant air defense systems and no friends; it was relatively easy to construct a coalition of the (semi-)willing in the United Nations, NATO and the Arab League to oppose the man President Ronald Reagan once dubbed the "mad dog of the Middle East" — a tin pot and often bizarre dictator who opposed reform and political change. If you wanted to construct a more vulnerable target in a laboratory, you couldn’t have done much better.
Syria presents a profoundly different situation. U.S. policy has always been driven by the hope that the Assads would change and the fear of what might replace them if they fell. Three additional realities ensured a U.S. response quite different from the one for Libya.
First, Syria was hard. It’s a country with a sophisticated air defense system, chemical and biological weapons, and a great many friends — including Iran and Hezbollah, which are capable of striking back. Marshaling support at the United Nations, mobilizing NATO, and getting buy-in from the Arab League in the way that made the Libya intervention possible are not in the cards. Some of America’s closest friends, including Israel and Saudi Arabia, are also not at all sure that Syria without Assad would be better than with him.
Second, for most U.S. presidents — Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush being the exceptions — Syria has served as a kind of unholy diplomatic grail. Since Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, U.S. policymakers had viewed the Assads as pragmatists capable of facilitating or blocking U.S. policy in Lebanon and the Arab-Israeli peace process.
If only the Syrians could be brought around, presidents have believed for generations, life would be so much easier. The United States wasn’t alone in this illusion — the Israelis, Arabs, Europeans, and Russians felt the same way. Like the Wall Street banks, Syria was then, as it is now, judged as simply too big to fail. There was something perversely comforting about having the Assads around.
I had my own fair share of illusions during my government career, but the Assads were never one of them. I could never quite understand my colleagues’ fascination with the brutal Syrian regime. To me, Bashar al-Assad was a brutal dictator who wanted to be the Frank Sinatra of the Middle East — obsessed with doing things his own way to the point that he priced himself out of peace with Israel and a relationship with the United States. It’s striking that every other Arab state, with the possible exception of Libya, managed to establish a close relationship with the United States. Not Assad.
Third, Obama’s approach toward Syria has been managed by the realists. This stands in contrast with his Libya policy, where liberal interventionists in the administration and neocons outside clamored for action. This group of realists includes the president, who knows his options on Syria aren’t great. He’s being told that American leverage isn’t great and that if he calls for Assad’s head and the Syrian despot survives, he’ll have lost access to a key player in the region.
And after all, what could he do that would deter a regime in a fight for its life? Pull U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford from Damascus? Impose a travel ban on Assad and his family? Press the Europeans to freeze Assad’s money?
In a world of symbols, these steps may make an important point about American values. However, none of them will make a difference in how events play out in Syria.
Simply put, the Obama administration is worried about creating a worse situation if Assad falls. Take your pick of scary scenarios: civil war, a Sunni fundamentalist takeover, or a new base for al Qaeda.
Of course, there would also be an upside to Assad’s demise. A brutal regime would have fallen; Iran would be denied an Arab patron and a critical window into Lebanon and the Arab-Israeli arena; Hamas would likely drift further into the orbit of Egypt and Saudi Arabia; and Hezbollah — though hardly defanged in Lebanon — would lose a critical patron. At this point, however, the administration clearly judges that the risks of U.S. action outweigh the potential benefits.
Bad options, bad outcomes. So, for now, we watch and wait to see where the arc on the Assads is headed — north or south. But if the Assads do survive, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if Washington at some point resumes a business-as-usual posture with the only surviving repressive Arab dictator that’s too big to fail.