No Dog in This Fight

Why Obama is playing it smart on Syria.

By , a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

As Syria heats up, one guy is playing it cool. U.S. President Barack Obama may be up all night worrying about matters closer to home — like his poll numbers — but he’s not losing sleep over what to do about Syria or Iran. He knows exactly what his priorities are.

Right now, the president is rightly concerned much less about the fall of the House of Assad and much more about the survival of the House of America, which he equates with his own re-election, or to put it more succinctly, the perpetuation of the House of Obama.

If there is any doubt, just look at the outcome of Kofi Annan’s contact group meeting in Geneva this weekend. The Americans backed a highly questionable plan for a political transition in Syria that, to placate the Russians, failed to even mention Bashar al-Assad’s removal. Obama just wants the situation in Syria to go away. With the options at his disposal, can you blame him?  

Unless forced by some spate of violence that qualitatively and quantitatively exceeds the horrors so far (a Syrian Srebrenica?), Obama will try to avoid risky, ill-considered military ventures or half measures on both Syria and Iran that would likely to lead to war that could prove even more detrimental to his re-election efforts than inaction. But he’s not just thinking about November: However painful, this is one of those moments when politics and the right policy instincts actually coincide.

Governing is about choosing, and Syria is the poster child for tough choices. So far, Obama has made the right ones. In a conflict that pits a still-powerful regime against an opposition that is growing stronger but still lacks the resources and power to overthrow the Assads, there are no good options. Too much blood has flowed for neatly packaged diplomacy, and military options — arming the opposition, safe zones, air strikes — are risky and really don’t answer the mail on what to do after the Assads depart. Who or what will provide the thousands of peacekeepers and billions required to preserve order and rebuild the country in an environment where Sunnis and Alawis alike will be looking for retribution?

The moral and strategic arguments for a more muscular U.S. role may be compelling. The killing goes on day after day and America watches. Bosnia redux? Syria is truly important; it is not Libya. Its unique geopolitical location — with Lebanon, Israel, Iraq, and Turkey as neighbors and Big Daddy Iran just over the horizon — make its future of critical importance.

Still, for an American president, there are other considerations that need to be weighed — factors that speak to Obama’s politics, the November election, and the mood of the country he is responsible for governing.

Diplomats, scholars, even politicians (usually of the opposing party) sometimes question the legitimacy of domestic politics, which they consider crude and cheap, particularly when moral or humanitarian issues are involved. Presidents don’t have that luxury. An individual may well have the moral imperative to act in the face of evil and wrongdoing; a leader of a country may well too. But he or she has additional responsibilities to consider, which involve the country as a whole and his or her own political future, which — let’s face it — is often conflated with the nation’s interest.

On both Syria and Iran, Obama — much to the dismay of both the liberal interventionists and the neocons — will try to dance the multilateral tango (always act with others); avoid military action (who knows where it might lead?); and make sure others take the lead in any rebuilding efforts (we don’t need to own another Muslim country). And yes, America’s image abroad — along with that of just about every other member of the international community — will suffer as a result of continued inaction. But this president has more important priorities and constituencies.

Here’s a politically incorrect guide to the president’s thinking on Iran and Syria between now and November.

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

The Hero of Detroit, Not Damascus

Most Americans don’t even know where Syria is.  I’m not trying to demean my fellow countrymen, only to highlight a fundamental truth these days.

After watching the two longest wars in American history  — with 6,000 dead and counting and more than a trillion spent and counting, not to mention the thousands of troops grievously wounded and the loss of credibility, Americans want the focus to be on fixing their own broken house, not repairing somebody else’s.

The public, poll after poll suggests, doesn’t want to withdraw from the world, but does want to be smarter about how the United States operates abroad, and wants above all to concentrate more on domestic priorities. And that goes for both donkeys and elephants: A recent Pew poll on partisan polarization suggests that 83 percent agree we should pay less attention to problems overseas and concentrate on problems here at home — the highest percentage expressing this view since 1994.

Despite his own initial “I am and can change the world” reveries, the president has known that from the get-go. And his policies so far have been pretty competent and smart in that regard: an early departure from Iraq, a responsible exit from Afghanistan, great caution on Libya, Iran, and Syria.

He knows from his predecessor that there’s very little glory or political hay to be made in the Middle East. And he knows from his predecessor’s father that there’s much to be lost even in the winning. Remember: Bush 41 won a big battle against Saddam but lost the war at home because he wasn’t in tune with the economic travails of ordinary Americans. This president is not going to make that mistake.


Foreign Policy Adventures: No Upsides…

Rarely has foreign policy — outside of rising oil prices and terror attacks — been less relevant to American voters. It figures almost not at all in a campaign focused on unemployment, disposable income, and mortgage woes. Republicans are having a hard time finding vulnerabilities in the Obama’s foreign policies, I’ve argued elsewhere, and a consensus has emerged between the two candidates on some of the core foreign-policy issues.

What this means in practical terms is that success abroad — even spectacular success — won’t mean much in election currency. As long as the administration doesn’t allow the Republicans to outflank it on the one foreign issue Americans do care about — fighting terror — there’s not much upside to risking military action or a big peace initiative that could be messy, costly, and worst of all seen as a failure. In political terms, Obama’s Middle East policy has been pretty successful — killing Osama bin Laden and whacking al Qaeda operatives from one end of the planet to the other, getting out of Iraq, and taking out Muammar al-Qaddafi without owning a mess in Libya. Other issues — Israeli-Palestinian peace or the Arab spring turned winter — really don’t matter much in terms of the election, unless of course the president stumbles.


…But Plenty of Downsides

And that — together with bad options on Iran and Syria — is the source of the Obama’s caution. I’ve never really understood the notion of the “October surprise” — not in the world of foreign policy this president inhabits. The idea that any president would want to willfully plunge ahead into the broken, angry, dysfunctional Middle East looking for opportunities and glory to help him win re-election is an idea reserved for the conspiratorial and the interminably obtuse.

You can divide the Middle East Obama confronts in two: migraine headaches and root canals. There are no opportunities, only risks and dangers. And the president is resolved to avoid them for now, or at least minimize them.

On Iran, it’s clear he and the mullahs share a common objective: avoid an Israeli attack anytime soon. A unilateral Israeli strike would inject tremendous uncertainty into the global economy, roil markets, raise oil and gas prices, and retard an already weak recovery. It could draw America into another Middle East quagmire. If things went badly, the Republicans would start hammering the president for not dealing with Israel’s Iranian concerns earlier and charge weakness and incompetence.

The notion that Obama is more prepared to go to war with Iran because it’s an election year and he must satisfy the pro-Israeli community or an Israeli prime minister is nonsense, given where the electorate is. At the same time, Obama isn’t in much of a position to make concessions on the nuclear issue, either, because he knows he’ll get hit with the appeasement charge faster than you can say the word “enrichment.”

It’s the fear of war, not the desire for one, that’s driving the president, and this is very much related to his re-election. A war with the mullahs and the Revolutionary Guards is the last thing Obama wants or needs now. It’s much safer to keep the nuclear talks limping along and get through November without a crisis.

Syria is in many ways worse because of the killing and the costs to stop it. The Russians are blocking more meaningful collective action; the U.S. military has warned that intervention would be much more complex than Libya. There isn’t even a good policy-by-committee option, as there was in dealing with Qaddafi. Syria’s just too complicated for that.

Chris Hondros/Getty Images

Romney Can’t Hurt Obama on Syria or Iran

Still, there are no domestic pressures to intervene. Sen. John Kerry has urged a more muscular approach, as have Mitt Romney and John McCain. But none of this interventionist pressure has gained much traction. That’s because nobody has a clue how to get rid of the Assads, let alone create a political transition to something better and stable. Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel has called for trying Assad in The Hague; the neocons and liberal interventionists talk about safe zones and arming the rebels. But I’m not sure they really believe in it. Despite an effort on the part of some to make Syria the fulcrum of Western civilization (weaken Iran, avoid regional war, etc.) these arguments aren’t taking, as there’s just no stomach or heart for another U.S.-led intervention. The Republicans have no better ideas on Syria or Iran than the president does, and all the militant rhetoric sounds hollow.

Amos Moshe Milner/GPO via Getty Images

But Hillary May be More Vulnerable

In little more than six months, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be a private citizen. During this period, if the Syrian situation worsens and America is seen to be watching from the sidelines, her own legacy as secretary cannot help but be tarnished. It is neither fair nor right — Obama is in charge of Syria strategy. But he will have other opportunities to craft a foreign-policy legacy. As the point person on the Syria issue, she won’t. And the last thing the Clinton legacy needs is another Rwanda.

In the end, this is not about individuals. Syria is not Barack Obama’s or America’s singular responsibility, nor is it America’s primary fight. Unless pushed by a bloodbath on a massive scale, the president will act cautiously and always in the company of others. When it comes to Damascus (and Tehran too), he’ll prefer pressure, process, multilateralism, and talking over shooting and risky unilateral intervention. It’s not pretty and it’s hard to watch. But it’s not only necessary politics, it’s in the national interest right now too.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former U.S. State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

More from Foreign Policy

Children are hooked up to IV drips on the stairs at a children's hospital in Beijing.
Children are hooked up to IV drips on the stairs at a children's hospital in Beijing.

Chinese Hospitals Are Housing Another Deadly Outbreak

Authorities are covering up the spread of antibiotic-resistant pneumonia.

Henry Kissinger during an interview in Washington in August 1980.
Henry Kissinger during an interview in Washington in August 1980.

Henry Kissinger, Colossus on the World Stage

The late statesman was a master of realpolitik—whom some regarded as a war criminal.

A Ukrainian soldier in helmet and fatigues holds a cell phone and looks up at the night sky as an explosion lights up the horizon behind him.
A Ukrainian soldier in helmet and fatigues holds a cell phone and looks up at the night sky as an explosion lights up the horizon behind him.

The West’s False Choice in Ukraine

The crossroads is not between war and compromise, but between victory and defeat.

Illustrated portraits of Reps. MIke Gallagher, right, and Raja Krishnamoorthi
Illustrated portraits of Reps. MIke Gallagher, right, and Raja Krishnamoorthi

The Masterminds

Washington wants to get tough on China, and the leaders of the House China Committee are in the driver’s seat.