Obama's inertia on Syria does not serve US interests

The US president has remained utterly unisinterested in the Middle East; his method is strategic evasion.

There are many delusions in the Obama administration's foreign policy, particularly when it comes to the Syrian conflict.

When Barack Obama came to office in 2008, many hailed the return of political "realism" to the White House. For them, the new president was a refreshing contrast with his predecessor George W Bush, who had sought to democratise the Middle East, and who pursued a global war on terror after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

If Mr Bush had led the United States into years of ruinous conflict, Mr Obama was supposed to inject pragmatism and conciliation into American policy overseas.

What is realism, or realpolitik? For Henry Kissinger, it is "foreign policy based on calculations of power and the national interest", and emerged from a belief that "the well-being of the state justified whatever means were employed to further it".

As the political theorist Hans J Morgenthau has written: "A realist theory of international politics will also avoid the other popular fallacy of equating the foreign policies of a statesman with his philosophic or political sympathies, and of deducing the former from the latter".

In other words, realist leaders pursue the interests of the state regardless of their own philosophical preferences. There are objective laws of politics, and one must distinguish these from "what is only a subjective judgement, divorced from the facts as they are and informed by prejudice and wishful thinking".

To realists, Mr Bush seemed very much a wishful thinker, more a misguided, foolish idealist than someone motivated by the timeless rules of politics. Strangely, his administration's reliance on military force, its officials' justification of whatever actions would enhance American power, were not regarded as signs of realism.

Mr Obama was reinvented by his many supporters as the antithesis of his predecessor. Foreign policy realism, which had never particularly appealed to Americans long fed on a blend of brawn and ethics in their foreign policy, was, similarly, turned against Mr Bush. But the irony, as the American reaction to the Syrian conflict has shown time and again, is that Mr Obama has proven to be, at best, a mediocre realist.

More impressive, if cynical, in this regard have been Vladimir Putin's Russia and Iran. Initially many observers, this writer included, predicted that Russia was making a mistake in standing by President Bashar Al Assad, who seemed destined to be overthrown. Yet the Russians calculated well, understanding the president's strengths and the rebels' weaknesses. They patiently helped Mr Al Assad reorganise his military forces and intelligence capabilities, permitting him to counterattack and turn the tide of war.

The essence of the Russian and Iranian approach to Syria starting in 2011 was, first, to conclude that Mr Al Assad's downfall would represent a strategic defeat for them; and, second, to ensure that the Syrian president would remain in place, whatever the consequences.This meant bolstering the Syrian regime regardless of its barbaric retaliation against hundreds of thousands of civilians. It was a case of the end justifying the means, the realist maxim par excellence, and neither Moscow nor Tehran ever wavered from that course.

In contrast, Mr Obama and his administration, and European officials, hesitated from the start, avoided taking decisions, and in the end preferred rhetoric to effective policy. They condemned Mr Al Assad, issuing statements that the Syrian president had to leave office, but never adopted measures, such as arming the rebels, to help bring this about. Unlike the Russians and the Iranians, the Americans did not seem to consider what happened in Syria to be of strategic importance.

The often-heard argument justifying US inaction was that Washington had no real stake in Syria. But this view was not justified, and it's surprising how many realists who should have known better gave Mr Obama the benefit of the doubt. That's not to say that America should have deployed troops in Syria, which would have been disastrous. But on the other hand the outcome there always was, and still is, bound to have an effect on vital US interests.

Iran's investment of money and personnel in the Syrian battle, despite its own economic woes, was a sure sign that it considered the consequences essential to its security. And containing Iranian power in the region, and the power of Iran's Lebanese ally Hizbollah, has long been a priority in Washington, with a bearing on America's Arab allies and on Israel. If Iranian influence in Syria can be undermined, this would greatly weaken the Islamic Republic, whose nuclear programme remains a focus of regional concerns for the US.

At the same time, if Iran triumphs in Syria, it will expand its influence throughout the Levant, placing both Syria and Lebanon under its effective control. Iran will also have reinforced its presence on the borders of two key US allies, Israel and Jordan. With Iraq already under Tehran's sway, the Arabian Peninsula countries, all of them US allies, will feel much less secure and the stability of the region could decrease. The prospect of sectarian conflict in the Gulf would raise the price of oil, therefore harming the global economy.

One doesn't have to be much of a realist to realise that the US would pay a heavy political price for all this. Yet Mr Obama has remained utterly uninterested in the Middle East. If realism is about advancing what is best for America, then Mr Obama has done nothing of the sort. His method is, simply, strategic evasion, which he has peddled as the product of new foreign policy thinking.

Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut

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