Obama has been on duty when the world has come unstuck.
When President Obama sits down to write his foreign policy memoir he may be tempted to use as his book title the four words he reportedly uses privately to summarise the Obama doctrine: “Don’t Do Stupid Stuff” (with “stuff” sometimes defined more spicily). Up to now, that approach has not served the country badly — fight where you must, fix what you can, work with allies wherever possible but never forget that using force is not the sole criteria for seriousness, considering, as Obama noted in a speech last week, that the wars that cost us the most were those we leapt into without proper preparation or allies and “without levelling with the American people about the sacrifice required.”
So “Don’t Do Stupid Stuff” would certainly work as a book title today. But sitting here in Kurdistan — a true island of decency near the epicentre of what is now the biggest civil war on the planet, between Sunnis and Shiites, stretching from Iran across Iraq and Syria into Lebanon — I think Obama may eventually opt for a different book title: “Present at the Disintegration.”
Obama has been on duty when the world has come unstuck in more ways than any recent president. George H.W. Bush dealt deftly with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Bill Clinton was the first president who had to fire cruise missiles at a person — Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan — in the first battle ever between a superpower and a superempowered angry man. When that super empowered angry man struck our homeland on 9/11, George W. Bush responded with two invasions.
Obama has had to confront the culmination of all these trends, and more: the blowback from both invasions; a weak, humiliated but still dangerous Russia; a drone war against many more superempowered angry men from Yemen to Pakistan; the simultaneous disintegration of traditional Arab states and the nuclearisation of Iran; plus the decline of “spheres of influence” dictated by traditional powers from above and the rise of “people of influence” emerging from the squares and social networks below. These Square People have challenged everything from Russia’s sphere of influence in Ukraine to the right of the pro-US Egyptian military to keep ruling Egypt. Dealing with all these at once has been a doctrinal and tactical challenge, especially when combined with an exhausted US public and an economic recession sapping defence spending. Obviously, Obama would much prefer that his foreign policy memoir be called “Present at the Re-Integration” — at the forging of a new, stable pro-Western order. But that is so much harder today than Obama critics allow. Hey, it was relatively easy to be a hero on foreign policy when the main project was deterrence of another superpower.
But when so much foreign policy involves dealing with countries that are falling apart or an entire region engulfed in civil war — and the only real solutions are not deterrence but transforming societies that are completely unlike our own and lack the necessary building blocks and we already spent $2 trillion on such projects in Iraq and Afghanistan with little to show for it — the notion that Obama might be a little wary about getting more deeply involved in Syria and is not waxing eloquent about the opportunity does not strike me as crazy.
I never believed that with just a few more arms early on the Syrian “democrats” would have toppled President Bashar al-Assad and all would have been fine. The Shiite/ Alawites in Syria were never leaving quietly, and Iran, Russia and Hezbollah would have made sure of it. And does anyone believe that Saudi Arabia, our main ally in the Syrian fight, is trying to promote the same thing we are there, a pluralistic democracy, which is precisely what the Saudis do not allow in their own country?
Yes, being in Kurdistan, it is clear that the metastasising of the Syrian conflict has reached a stage where it is becoming a factory for thousands of jihadists from Europe, Central Asia, Russia, the Arab world and even America, who are learning, as one Syrian Kurdish leader told me, “to chop people’s heads off and then go back home.” The conflict is also, as an Iraqi Kurdish security expert added, legitimising al-Qaeda’s shift “from the caves of Afghanistan into the mainstream of the Arab world” as defenders of Sunni Islam. These are big threats. But when I ask Kurds what to do, the answer I get is that arming decent Syrians, as Obama has vowed to do more of, might help bring Assad to the table, but “there is no conventional military solution” — neither Shiites nor Sunnis will decisively beat the other, remarked a former deputy prime minister of Iraq, Barham Salih. “But walking away is not possible any more.”
The only solution, they say, is for the US and Russia (how likely is that!) to broker a power-sharing deal in Syria between Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran and their proxies. Repeat after me: There is no military solution to Syria — and Iran and Russia have to be part of any diplomatic one.