Wednesday, April 2, 2014

James Schlesinger, RIP

Published on March 28, 2014

At a party celebrating his 95th year, a sweet young thing once asked Ambassador Robert Strausz-Hupé if he could think of anything positive about growing very old.  Without missing a beat, Strausz-Hupé sipped at his champagne and answered: “Yes: One’s enemies grow silent.”
Alas, one’s friends, mentors and cherished associates do, too. James Schlesinger, who died yesterday at the age of 85, is a case in point. As I approach a mere 63 years of age, I sense the world rolling forth in such a way that those a decade or two ahead of me (and a few in my own, as well) are liable to fall off the edge at any time.
Unsettling as the fact may be, there’s nothing to be done about it, in this case or in any other—least of all by repeating what the obituaries are already saying. When a former cabinet official and CIA Director passes away, everyone enmeshed in the journalistic web is obliged to say something, and a certain sameness tends to pervade the genre.  As many know, one of the first things aspiring journalists are asked to do is to draft obituaries for well-known figures who are still very much alive. I don’t consider myself a journalist either first and foremost or last and least. So let me instead briefly describe my encounters with Jim Schlesinger over the years, scant and episodic though they were, and what at this somber moment I glean from them upon reflection
The first time I laid eyes on Jim Schlesinger, one-on-one and in the flesh, took place at the front door of Scoop Jackson’s home on Rockwood Parkway, near American University, one early morning in June 1979. The doorbell rang, and Scoop—not quite dressed yet as he plucked suit and shoes from a closet specially organized to protect him against the embarrassments of his color-blindness—shouted for me to answer it, please. (Of course, you might wonder, dear reader, what the deuce I was doing at Scoop’s house at 7 AM on any morning.  Short answer: I was the designated house-sitter while Scoop was away for much of the summer in Everett, Washington and China, but he had not yet departed Washington—so I shared the house with him for three or four days, at his kind invitation.)
I opened the door and there stood, looming, but with a friendly smile on his face, Jim Schlesinger. I guess he expected to see Scoop. He saw me instead—“kid” then age 28, with John-Lennon glasses and dark beard. I pre-empted: “Good morning, Mr. Secretary—Senator Jackson will be right down.” (Schlesinger was 50 at the time, and had already been DCI and SecDef… he rose young and rapidly.)
“And you would be?” he asked in reply.
“Adam Garfinkle, very newly minted Ph.D. and an insignificant junior staffer; oh, and designated house-sitter for when Scoop heads off to China.”
“Is that your 1952 Cadillac over there?” My car was in the tight circular driveway in front of the house.
“It sure is—the garage is already full.”
“Does Scoop still have that beat-up old Chevy in there?”
“The white ’61? Yes; but it’s not all that beat up, really… I’m looking forward to exercising it during the summer. Um, you want to come inside to wait?”
“No, thanks; I think I hear him coming down the steps now.” And indeed he was.
Scoop thanked me for getting the door as he whooshed past to join the then Secretary of Energy whom Jimmy Carter would soon fire—Schlesinger waved “so long” to me, and that was that.
I knew—everyone knew—Schlesinger’s reputation: gruff, arrogant, ruthless, unfriendly, condescending, no-nonsense, all-business out-of-central-casting Harvard economics Ph.D. and former RAND Corp. big shot. He was nice enough to me, though; and he knew a ’52 Caddy when he saw one. Scoop got along well with him. So how awful could the guy possibly be?
Some years later, when I was executive editor of The National Interest, Schlesinger was a board member and an occasional author. I used to see him at our annual dinners, and on at least two occasions Owen Harries assigned me to edit a major lead essay by Schlesinger. Schlesinger took great pains in his writing, and he was very particular about some aspects of the art. But he was wise enough to know when a talented editor could help him, and, happily, he thought of me as that caliber of editor.
Other authors we communicated with by fax and phone, as necessary, back in those ancient days before email attachments, in the iterative process that constitutes serious professional editing. Schlesinger instead twice demanded my physical presence for the culmination of the editing process. Once I went to his house in Arlington, off Nellie Custis Drive. On another occasion I remember grabbing a taxi out to his office at the Mitre Corporation, and we went line by line over the text at hand.
Schlesinger could be irascible. He could even be slightly volcanic. But he had a definite view of how he wished to sound and, far more often than not, he was right on the merits. Basically, he disliked adjectives. He detested flowery language and lazy sentiment of all kinds. He accepted the suggestions he liked gracefully, and would listen patiently to my explanations of why this formulation was superior to that formulation. But as someone 23 years my senior he put himself in mentoring mode as well. I was helping him, but at the same time he was teaching me—like the old UVa. economics prof he was. We jawed and scribbled and jawed some more. Two and a half hours later I was completely exhausted; he wasn’t in the slightest. The essay, however, now gleamed.
I saw him from time to time in those days, even when we had no essay to polish for press. Sometimes he was in pretty good spirits, other times he wasn’t, and among those other times he was occasionally into spirits of the Scotch whiskey variety. He once explained it to me very simply: “I still miss Rachel.” (His wife of more than 40 years, and the mother of their eight children, passed away of cancer in 1995.)
Schlesinger had a tendency of referring to anyone younger than him as “young man”, even if they were in their 50s or 60s; but for some reason he always just called me Adam. I don’t know why. One day he called me out of the blue after he’d read some essay I had published and told me how much he liked it. I was bowled over. Then he said, “Adam…” and proceeded to tick off two or three or four points that, he averred, might have made the essay even stronger. Damned if he wasn’t right, too.
Sometime in 1999 I left the position of executive editor at The National Interest to go work for the Hart-Rudman Commission staff. Schlesinger was one of the 14 commissioners, so I saw him at fairly regular intervals both in commission meetings and privately for most of the next two years. I was the principal writer for all three of the Commission reports, including the last one—the rubber-meets-road recommendations part—that represented the business end of the Commission. Each of the three reports was shepherded by a senior adviser reporting to the Commission’s executive director—Lynn Davis for the first one, Peter Rodman for the second, and, de facto at least, Jim Schlesinger for the third.
Schlesinger was, of course, just one of 14 commissioners, and not surprisingly the seven Democrats and seven Republicans did not always see eye to eye on matters of substance or style.  Schlesinger knew that if he sat next to the man with the pen—me—he’d get more than his share of flesh. And so on several occasions we went at it again. He would come over to the staff offices in Crystal City with a marked up manuscript, come into my office without knocking, shut the door, sit down, wave his arms around and begin to bellow at me; for one example: “Whose f____ing idea is this crappy title?”
“In this case, Jim, it’s Newt’s. What was I supposed to do? Tell him no?”
“Well we’re gonna change it”, he shouted, “and if he objects you can tell him to come see me.”
“Yes, sir—let’s do it.”
And we’d go line by line, line by line, line by line, with Schlesinger alternatively exasperated, thoughtful, in praise, and in frequent frustration over the audacity of other commissioners who dared to disagree with him. Sometimes he would say things that took me aback. For example, he scoffed at the idea that economic competitions could really be multiple-sum where they mattered most. When the relative economic weight of the United States declines, he told me, even if we are also absolutely better off in material terms, our political leverage will suffer. And he would point his index finger toward my chest and growl, “Now don’t you forget that, Adam, and don’t listen to these liberal ninnies who think the world is some sort of Boy Scout camp.”
“Forget? Me? How could I, Jim?” Yikes.
After the Hart-Rudman gig ended, I became editor of The National Interest, now newly supported institutionally by an unequal partnership made up of the Nixon Center and Hollinger International (aka Conrad Black). The less said about that arrangement the better; suffice it to say that, after roughly two years, the head of the Nixon Center, with Mr. Black seated at his side, fired me. We discussed severance terms and came to what I thought was an agreement.
After a short time, having gained new employment working for Colin Powell at the State Department, what I thought had been agreed wasn’t—or wasn’t any more. I turned to Mr. Black to recall the conversation as it actually took place and to bear witness to same, and he somehow failed to recall it. To bring this shard of a story to an end, none other than Jim Schlesinger, who was a senior member of the Nixon Center board, called me a few days later to broker a compromise solution. The compromise was of his design, he told me, and I thought it fair enough under the circumstances. I would not have said no to Jim Schlesinger in any event, but I didn’t need to. He clearly regretted how things had turned out, and counseled me to have no regrets—“You have conducted yourself honorably”, he said—and to point myself toward the future. It’s hard even now to express how much his words meant to me at the time.
Our last encounter, already some years ago, produced no artifact. Jim Schlesinger was an inveterate and intrepid birder. He not only knew Cadillacs; he also knew a wood thrush from a wren. When the film The Big Year came out in 2011, I happened to get from a publisher a book on bird-watching. So I asked Schlesinger if he would consider reviewing the book and the film together for The American Interest. He told me he was tempted, but he just didn’t have the energy for it.  So it goes.
Jim Schlesinger was a great man, a consequential man, and an enigmatic man too in some ways. He was both abrasive and kind, aggressive and cooperative, disheveled but disciplined. He disliked ego-preening politicians, excessive concern for creature comforts, sappy meliorists, lazy thinkers, and anyone who responded sideways to an argument with ad hominemaspersions. I’m honored to have known him, and to have learned from him. (Were I to express any more emotion than that, Jim would definitely not approve.)

Monday, February 3, 2014

Diplomacy Update: Overselling and Under-delivering

Feb. 2, 2014

In recent weeks I have on at least three occasions run across the statement that, if I may paraphrase, John Kerry has accomplished more as Secretary of State in four months than Hillary Clinton accomplished in four years. What to make of such remarks? The first step is to establish their provenance.
These statements, which are sometimes adorned with specifics and sometimes not, are specifically political in nature. They come not from Republicans who, though they may have motive to deflate Hillary Clinton politically, do not often see Secretary Kerry’s record thus far as so obviously praiseworthy. Rather, they come from Democrats who think of themselves as being to the left of Hillary Clinton (and her pro-Iraq War vote) and who seem to be getting behind the idea of a primary challenge by Elizabeth Warren.
The left-liberal gentry despise Ms. Clinton so much that some of them are even willing to buy in to the ridiculous GOP accusation that she was guilty of some heinous dereliction of duty in the Benghazi September 2012 debacle. Such people, who apparently think that all discrete low- and mid-level diplomatic security decisions come to the desk of the Secretary of State, have not the foggiest idea what the Secretary actually does on a day-to-day basis. This is a little like expecting the chairman of General Motors to personally concern himself with a particular snarky robot. I’m not among those who think Ms. Clinton was an especially good Secretary of State; she did the right thing, however, by accepting responsibility but not blame for Benghazi. If she bore any blame, it was for supporting that foolish war in the first place, which is what led to Benghazi. But that’s another story.
Hating Hillary for her Iraq War votes while praising John Kerry is a little peculiar, true, since John Kerry voted for the war before he voted against it, after which he explained why both votes were correct. But this form of peculiarity is nothing new or even especially unusual. President Obama himself chose key first-term cabinet officials (Clinton and Gates) and a Vice President to boot who either voted for or otherwise supported the 2002 Senate Resolution regarding Iraq that he vociferously opposed.
Peculiar or not, the digs at Hillary, in order to work politically as intended, have to fall upon an audience that thinks the Syria chemical weapons agreement, Geneva II, the P5+1-Iran deal, and the search for an Israeli-Palestinian FAPS (framework agreement for a peace settlement, as the current lingo has it) are all marvelous achievements. The diggers have done their homework. There is in fact a large audience of this sort, even if most of it is not composed of likely Elizabeth Warren boosters. It is composed of typical casual American observers who cannot distinguish between the terms diplomacy and statecraft, or between the terms government and regime, and who cannot even state the plain dictionary meanings of the terms country, nation, state, and nation-state. My guess is that these typical, casual American observers make up about 98 percent of adult Americans, and include nearly all members of the American political class as well. Needless to say, they include the vast majority of voters, too.
And why should it be otherwise? What do most people care about such things? Why should they care, here in the unusually safe, secure, and wealthy World Island we call North America? How does it affect their daily lives? (Well, actually, it does, but never mind that for now.) So the great majority of Americans who are aware of some international news, or some news having to do with U.S. foreign policy, are what might be called accidental or incidental observers of U.S. diplomacy. They are sideswiped from time to time by headlines in the local newspaper or, more rarely, USA Today. More likely, they are exposed to a ten-second drive-by remark on the evening news, or see mention of, say, a civil war in Syria in the periphery of their celeb culture-heavy internet feed. My guess is that the number of written or spoken words involved in any one of these encounters is less than 50, and very often less than 25—a headline and a slug, and that’s about it.
If that’s accurate, then a fair number of Americans know that John Kerry achieved an agreement in late September, with the aid of Russia, to rid Syria of all its chemical weapons. That made the television news crawl at the time, so even a guy sitting in a sports bar somewhere watching hoops and working on his third “lite” beer might have seen that. But it’s as sure as fowl poop in a chicken coop that he didn’t know much about the bizarre sequence of events that preceded the agreement. And he probably hasn’t seen a single word about what’s happened since.
Our sports bar denizen (let’s call him Joe) doesn’t know about the protracted delays in implementing any of the agreement. He doesn’t realize that the deal contradicted prior U.S. policy, since it made Assad a partner in the operation rather than an object to be removed from power. He doesn’t realize that the Syrian regime did not declare all its chemical weapons stocks, programs, and fabrication facilities in the first place, and that we lack independent means of verifying the accuracy of the Syrian declaration. He’s not aware of the desperate discussions about how to denature these poisons, who would do it and at what cost. He doesn’t know that less than 4 percent of the stuff has so far been touched at all, even after all this time. And most important, he doesn’t realize that, since Friday, the Syrian government is denying ever having agreed to destroy six fabrication facilities; it now says it will only deactivate them—a process that can be reversed in about 72 hours.
He might know, however, that the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013. And if he does, he probably thinks of the Nobel Peace Prize as kind of a good thing, as a vaguely positive seal-of-good-peacekeeping symbol. So, way to go Secretary Kerry!
Nor, of course, would it be even remotely reasonably to expect Joe or his sister Jane, with her copy of USA Today folded under her arm as she returns from running an errand for office or home, to know that the Syrian government prides itself on its ability to lie to gullible foreigners. The Syrian regime has lied to every U.S. administration since that of Dwight D. Eisenhower. I once told the story, here in this space, of how, way back in 1974, Hafez al-Assad sought to humiliate Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger and his trusty sidekick Joseph Sisco through almost endless negotiations over prospective Syrian attendance at a Geneva Conference held after the 1973 Middle East war. Assad-the-father kept the discussions at the procedural, shape-of-the-table level. When those procedures were finally agreed, after months of agonizing talks and the waste of thousands of gallons of aviation fuel, Assad informed the Americans that he never had any intention of attending in the first place. We had been diddled. Assad-the-son knows this history. Joe and Jane do not. Neither, probably, does Hillary Clinton or Elizabeth Warren. And John Kerry?
Same with Geneva II. Joe and Jane may be aware that the United States and Russia convened a diplomatic summit in Switzerland last week in an effort to stop the Syrian civil war. That was pretty big news for a while before the summit began. Even Diane Rehm had someone on the radio talking about it.
But is Joe or Jane aware that this conference never had a chance to accomplish anything except divide and harm the opposition, buy time for the regime’s war machine and its Russian and Iranian suppliers, and get more people killed as all sides rushed to improve their battlefield positions in advance of the meeting? Is he aware that the pre-conference attempts to generate local ceasefires were cynically abused by the regime to effect surrenders? Here the bleating of the so-called London 11 group of opposition-supporting states, led by the United States, in the wake of the conference’s complete (and utterly predictable) failure, is noteworthy: “We express outrage at the maintaining, by the regime, of its ‘starve or surrender’ strategy.”
Did these outraged people really not know better before this sham of a conference began, despite evidence everywhere to be found?  One is reminded of Sir Harold Nicolson’s famous description of Neville Chamberlain and his top aide:
They stepped into diplomacy with the bright faithfulness of two curates entering a pub for the first time; they did not observe the differences between a social gathering and a rough-house; nor did they realize that the tough guys assembled did not speak or understand their language.
But Joe and Jane are unlikely to hear or read any of this. Instead, aided by the President’s most recent State of the Union eyewash, they’re more liable to think, “Well gosh, Kerry tried, and did his best—and it’s not over yet.”
Right: Insofar as any follow-on diplomacy to Geneva II can yet be discerned, it seems to be basing itself on a narrative that goes like this: The Russians have to be embarrassed by the conduct of the Syrian regime in Switzerland, and so it will now press Assad and his associates for concessions. This, the narrative goes, has been the plan all along, for we knew from the start that only the Russians had the leverage over Assad to deliver a diplomatic settlement.
Note that these are same Russians that Kerry has chosen in the past few days to scream at over Moscow’s interference in Kiev. Never mind that Kerry and the rest of the Administration had gone AWOL when the real preparatory work concerning Ukraine’s political trajectory was being done. And far, far more important, these are same Russians who are, we are recently given to understand, repeatedly violating the 1987 INF Treaty.
This is a big, big, deal. Without going into detail about SS-20s and P-2s and the context created by the nuclear freeze movement and all the rest, the INF Treaty of 1987, the only U.S.-Soviet Cold War-era arms control agreement that ever actually eliminated any nuclear weapons—indeed, an entire class of them—was the geopolitical equivalent at the time of the Berlin Airlift. It totally changed the sense of psychological momentum in Europe from one favoring the USSR to one favoring the United States. It was a key event in the peaceful end to the Cold War itself.
As Joe and Jane might know, but probably don’t, the Russians have been violating it now for more than a year. How might they know? Because the New York Times ran a front-page, above-the-fold story on it. But I have not detected any sub-elite reportage.  The Russians are doing this, it seems to me, for three interlocking reasons: because they can (since they think, correctly, that the Obama Administration will not do anything about it); because it deepens the wedge separating the United States from the “New Europe” members of NATO, and indeed is aimed at the de facto reversal of the expansion of NATO; and because the substitute missile shield we are building in East/Central Europe would (if we ever really build and deploy it) degrade Russian military capabilities, whereas the original since-abandoned deployment scheme would not have.
So, back to the point, Secretary Kerry apparently thinks he can depend on the Russians, who are cheating on one arms control agreement, to get the Syrians to stop cheating on another oneSecretary Kerry apparently thinks he can depend on the Russians, who are cheating on one arms control agreement, to get the Syrians to stop cheating on another one, and also make life-threatening concessions to the rebel opposition at the same time. And the Russians are going to do this for us even as Kerry is fecklessly berating them over an issue (Ukraine) against which we have close to zero leverage, but they have, in their own view, vital national interests.
Now, it’s way too much to ask Joe and Jane to connect the dots among various diplomatic portfolios. In these times, when technology abets the segmentation and fragmentation of narrativity itself, connecting dots is rapidly becoming a lapsed craft. But one sort of does expect the Secretary of State to be able to do this.
Similarly, it’s true that our sports bar denizen may have seen something about the nuclear deal with Iran reached in November. But, similarly, neither Joe nor Jane has heard anything about what’s happened since. They have no way easy way of knowing that the deal, announced to much celebration, wasn’t really finished at the time. They don’t know that it took a series of so-called technical negotiations to ready the agreement for implementation, and that the Iranians walked out of the first session in a huff. They don’t know that the agreement, reached in November, only actually began implementation on January 20, and no one knows for sure if the Iranians have really done as promised in the past dozen days.
They also probably do not know any details—that the deal only lasts a scant six months, during which it is perfectly licit for Iran to continue to enrich uranium on its own soil. They probably don’t appreciate the fact that even the President, who continues to warn how fragile this process is, knows that this achievement isn’t worth much yet. So when some op-ed writer just drops mention of the P5+1-Iran agreement in a list of John Kerry’s achievements, Joe and Jane just nod and offer a quiet, “Way to go, guy. Another one for the home team.”
And finally, the Israelis and Palestinians: It’s not clear if Joe and Jane have heard much about the negotiations that Secretary Kerry resurrected back near the start of his tenure. If they saw something about it back then, any substance has probably dropped way below the radar of their February 2014 consciousness. But even at that time they probably couldn’t have remembered that the cessation in direct negotiations was caused by rookie blunders made by the White House back in 2009—blunders that forced the Palestinian delegation to make demands of Israel regarding housing starts in East Jerusalem that the Palestinians had themselves never before set as pre-conditions to negotiation. They would not have known that the Obama Administration in its first term therefore had the worst record in this area than any Administration since that of Richard Nixon.
Never mind that. Kerry deserves credit for persistence, for craft, for hiring talented assistants, and for preventing leaks—a genuine sign of serious work being done. The U.S. Ambassador to Israel recently lifted hopes of a breakthrough by claiming that senior Israeli and Palestinian leaders in these talks have said things to each other that they have never before said. I have no doubt that probably by March, coincident (but not coincidental) with a planned Presidential trip that includes Riyadh, there will be announced, again to great fanfare, a FAPS.
Now, what is a FAPS? I’m not sure. Some people have been arguing for years—in error in my view—that since the two sides will never develop the mutual trust to make peace themselves, the United States should announce publicly its view of a settlement and, if necessary, impose it on the parties. Other have argued instead that the United States needs to be the insurance policy between the two sides, making up with our own promises what the two sides can’t quite do for themselves. In other words, the U.S. role is to supply the difference between a pier and a bridge, reducing their risks so that they will venture forward in expectation of getting somewhere better than where they are now. A FAPS, as its definition is evolving in practice, looks to be a calculated compromise between the two points of view—more explicit than past Administrations have been willing to go, but not detailed enough to warrant an imposition if one side or the other bristles. I know the fellow who is in charge of this business, and I know that in the past he has opposed the imposition strategy. I suspect he’s looking for a Goldilocks solution, and if he can’t get it he’s looking to buy time until maybe he can.
I hope this works, but I’m skeptical. My sense is that the sides are still about as far apart as ever on all the key issues. I’m disappointed to hear that Kerry buys into the recent Israeli demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, which strikes me as a gratuitous and costly addition to the negotiating burden. I’m happy in theory that the Palestinian side has apparently agreed to allow discussion of compensation for Jews who left Arab countries after 1947-48, but in practice this is liable to raise an enormous can of worms given the diversity of the historical cases, and, like the “Jewish” state business, raise the cost to Israel in other ways of getting a deal that is sound on security grounds.
Most of all, I’m worried that the achievement of a FAPS will raise expectations that are bound to be frustrated by a recalcitrant reality. If you oversell what can be achieved in diplomacy, you pay a very high price later on if the deal falls apart. That’s what happened at Camp David back in 2000. That’s what I fear will happen again.
For the two sides to agree on a FAPS, it has to be ambiguous enough to allow for their genuine disagreements to be papered over. But it can’t be so ambiguous that it obviously says nothing. This can get tricky.  It can only proceed by dint of a very generous supply of weasel words, by simply eliminating issues on which no bridging language can be found, and by allowing both sides to register reservations. This thing could end up looking like a block of Swiss cheese with more holes than cheese. We’re bound to find out, because neither side wants to be responsible for the negotiations breaking down at this point. What they’re doing, therefore, is positioning themselves so that when things do get ugly, they can plausibly blame the other side for failure. We know this, of course, and are trying to minimize the reach of this ploy. It can’t be a whole lot of fun doing this day in and day out.
And what’s all this for anyway? The activity itself is useful, maybe, in diminishing the wrath of the House of Saud toward the United States, and possibly in creating some useful precedents for future negotiations. But my sense is that the Secretary of State (and the Secretary of Defense and, maybe, the President) are all maxi-linkers—people who believe that a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will have very powerful and positive effects on all the region’s problems. It won’t. It’s worth doing for its own sake, and it certainly won’t hurt if it works out well, but it’s likely to generate more short- and mid-term violence from die-hard rejectionists even if it does work through, and it won’t have major positive ramifications beyond Israel’s immediate neighborhood. So even this achievement, on the off chance it is achieved, will be much more modest than often supposed.
Joe and Jane don’t know and probably don’t care about all this (unless they are Jewish, of Arab decent or are Evangelicals). So when they see video of Kerry on the evening news, smiling with Israelis and Arabs all around, they get a nice, warm and fuzzy, if highly temporary, sensation of a good deed being done.  Atta boy, John.
There’s one more thing Joe and Jane, as Americans, tend not to know. For the umpteenth time—and I apologize to my regular readers for repeating this yet again—diplomacy and force are complements, not opposites. It was a bit frustrating, let me tell you by way of a personal anecdote, to have worked for Colin Powell during a time mainly of war, and then still be there when Condoleezza Rice came strolling onto the Seventh Floor, declaring in January 2005 that “the time for diplomacy is now.” Were we supposed to take from that remark the notion that Powell and Rich Armitage and everyone else—by exerting themselves to prevent war from breaking out in South Asia, for example—had just been sitting around the office war-mongering for the previous four years? If the balance within the complement had been off during those years, it certainly wasn’t Powell’s fault. It is, after all, the President’s foreign policy, because in a democracy he’s the one who gets elected.
So how should Joe and Jane think about diplomacy? Well, there’s plenty of advice to choose from. Consider David Mitchell’s view, expressed through the voice of one of his characters inCloud Atlas (p. 444):
Oh, diplomacy. . . it mops up war’s spillages; legitimizes its outcomes; gives the strong state the means to impose its will on a weaker one, while saving its fleets and battalions for weightier opponents. Only professional diplomats, inveterate idiots, and women view diplomacy as a long-term substitute for war.
While Mitchell’s instincts point in the right direction, I think he goes too far. So let Henry Kissinger nail the point down. In the January 21, 2007 Washington Post he wrote as follows (Joe, Jane, pay attention now, please, because I’m not going to tell you again):
. . . it is not possible to jettison the military instrument and rely, as some argue, on purely political means. A freestanding diplomacy is an ancient American illusion. History offers few examples of it. The attempt to separate diplomacy and power results in power lacking direction and diplomacy being deprived of incentives.
John Kerry, you might want to take note as well. If you do, and if the President lets you, you might actually achieve something of value during the next three years. You haven’t yet.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Pete Seeger: So Long, It's Been a Bit Weird to Know You

Back in the late spring of 1979, my friend Saul Brody and I set forth from West Philadelphia in my then still newly acquired 1952 Cadillac Fleetwood for Croton Point Park, New York. We were headed for the Great Hudson River Revival folk festival, also known as the Clearwater Revival. Saul, then a newly minted Ph.D. from the Penn folklore department, was on the bill as a minor performer, but his august presence got me and the car into the performers’ area. I didn’t have to buy a ticket for the two days of music or worry about food or parking. It was a perfect symbiosis. I brought my Gibson F-4 mandolin, just in case and just for fun. Saul brought his guitar, his clutch of harmonicas, and, as I recall, at least two fifths of middling quality bourbon.
Why am I telling you all this? Because the Clearwater Revival was the brainchild of Pete and Toshi Seeger. The music began way back in the mid-1960s. It was always set up as a benefit concert to help clean up the Hudson River, which was filthy and getting worse. The event grew with each succeeding year, and by 1978, thanks partly to the large size of a new generation of folkies, the festival set its roots near the river at Croton Point Park. The very next year, I was there.
We pulled in at a late afternoon hour. After unloading our stuff, we went over to a large hall where the mess was, and where performers and help-staff were mostly assembled, eating, drinking, talking, picking some in the corners and just wandering around. Around 6 pm in walked Pete Seeger, with his trademark straw hat and gray beard, to welcome everyone and introduce the key staff people who’d be helping to put on the music. It was all very laid back. Seeger did not look or sound like a Communist. But of course he was. Still was.

I’m not going to retell his life story here. The obituaries do a pretty good job, except of course most of them pass over lightly or ignore entirely Seeger’s adversary culture politics. President Obama’s uncomplicated eulogy remarks yesterday did so entirely, but I can understand a reason for that which doesn’t ipso facto make Obama into a stealth revolutionary Marxist: It’s just unseemly to speak ill of the dead, especially the so recently dead.
Today’s New York Times, which has lots and lots of obit copy about Seeger, does not skip over Seeger’s politics. It tells you that he joined the Young Communist League at Harvard back before World War II, that he left the Party sometime after the war but remained a Marxist and a “communist with a small c”, in Seeger’s own words, all his life. He never really tried to hide it, but later in life he never tried to beat anyone over the head with it either. It never came up during my two or three brief conversations with him back in 1979, which were exclusively about music and musical instruments. But he also never expressed any remorse over the enormities committed by leftwing totalitarians. He frequently referred to capitalism and the United States as evil. If he was critical of any leftwing cause’s tactics or outcomes, I never heard it.
By and by, lots of old lefties from the civil rights and Vietnam War eras thought better of their youthful exuberance. Some became moderates, but a few lurched all the way to the right, keeping entirely intact the Trotskyite style of thinking about politics, merely reversing the conventional ideological valance. To these prodigal right-leaning sons, Seeger’s undaunted leftism became a kind of personal reproach. He became generally known among them as the Banjo Bolshevik. Every once in a while they’d write some scathing criticism of Seeger, whenever he made it into the news with his latest embrace of the Sandinistas or Occupy Wall Street and dozens of causes in between.
And of course the criticism was accurate as far as it went: Seeger was a communist, he saw very little good in the United States, government system or mainstream society, and, by extension, tended to embrace its every enemy, more or less uncritically. It was sort of infuriating to anyone with a brain. And yet the criticisms of Seeger nearly always bore too personal an edge, as if to say, Pete, you remind me of myself when I thought and acted like a complete fool, and I wish you’d stop making me remember what a nitwit I used to be.
As for myself, I never felt a need to hone that edge. My father was a member of the Teamsters Union when I was growing up, a genuine Jewish member of the proletariat. He knew all about actual Communists mole-hunting within the labor movement for useful idiots. He instructed me as to how Communists were liars and crazy dreamers all at the same time, how they deployed the worst of human nature supposedly to bring out the best. My father only made it to fifth grade back in the day (when he was born Teddy Roosevelt was President), but he wasn’t stupid; I listened and learned. So when I got to college in the late 1960s and heard what the SDS types were saying, I was by then pretty well inoculated against most forms of ideological bullshistory. Thus, in all the years since, Pete Seeger never really bothered me that much. And now that he’s dead I’m in no mood for schaudenfreude (besides which it doesn’t really seem to fit for someone who made it to 94).

Besides, Pete had some good qualities. He loved folk music and made preserving and spreading it his life’s work. He wrote some great songs, too, like “Turn, Turn, Turn”—even though when he sang “If I Had a Hammer”, he pretty clearly had hammer as in “hammer-and-sickle” in mind.
He also remained optimistic his whole life. He really believed that if you found the hopeful stories, the inspiring stories, the forward-looking stories and told and sang about them enough, it would make a real difference. He believed that if he could get people to sing along with him, and learn those lyrics whether they really wanted to or not, the words would sink in and he would ultimately convert them to anti-capitalist politics and make the world a better place.
Did he? I sort of doubt it, although no one can deny that the Clearwater project has done much good in cleaning up the Hudson. In the end, while I can’t prove it, I think Seeger’s politics were emotional in origin, not intellectual—and that their net impact remains mostly emotional as well (not that emotional impact sums to no impact). His belief that the rich got richer by making the poor poorer was at best childish.
When you come right down to it, what Seeger did, probably without knowing it, was to devise a kind of new-age folk religion out of musical protest rituals. What he did made people feel good, made them feel like a part of something larger than themselves at a time when traditional means of religious communal expression weren’t working so well. The merging of environmental consciousness into the older leftist portfolio was almost too good to be true for this purpose: Lenin plus Gaia equaled countercultural nirvana. It was fine for most never to get beyond the lyrical slogans to the second paragraph of any thought about a political topic—that just wasn’t the point. Communal singing is a very powerful form of human celebration that creates and sustains spiritual connectedness; if you don’t realize that, it means you’ve never been involved in it. For all I know it probably has health benefits as well.

I really enjoyed myself at that 1979 Clearwater Revival folk festival. I heard some great music, live and up close—the Paul Winter Consort, Pierre Bensusan, Taj Mahal, and many, many others. I got to pick mandolin with Taj on his banjo after hours, just the two of us, a momentary joy I will never forget—“long gone like a turkey through the corn, turkey through the corn.”
The ride back to Philly also provided a vivid memory. We were running out of gas at one point, and the fill-up lines to all the gas stations that Sunday were outrageously long: remember, this was 1979. But the station attendant (yes, back then you could not pump your own gas) saw my Cadillac and waved me to the front of the queue. Saul swore he’d have to write a song about that, but I don’t think he ever did.
What I don’t remember from that weekend is anything about communists or politics, courtesy of Pete Seeger or anybody else. Many of us, I think, corrode our lives by obsessing too much about politics. It definitely does not have health benefits for most people. But the way Pete Seeger went about it? Well, it makes me wonder.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Obama's Mideast Recessional

Jan. 21, 2014:

Imagine trying to follow a critical baseball or football game—a World Series finale or a Superbowl, say—without being able to see it in person or even on TV, without knowing which players are in the lineups at any given time, and without even having access to a real-time eyewitness play-by-play over the radio or the internet. All you have to go on is delayed second- and third-party accounts whose unbiased reliability cannot be firmly established, and, worse, whose motive to obfuscate or “spin” the facts has to be assumed. That’s a little like what trying to follow U.S. foreign policy feels like right now, U.S. Mideast policy in particular. Things are happening even amid some internal debate and disagreement. Assessments and decisions are being made, and those judgments, large and small, are bearing consequences. But for those who aren’t calling the pitches and flashing the signs to hitters and base-runners, and who can’t even follow the game in real time, it’s frustrating trying to figure out what’s going on because what we do know of the decision-making process could conceivably fit into more than one explanatory template.
The sports metaphor is obviously a limited one. U.S. foreign policy is not a game. No score can be expressed in numbers than makes any sense. There are more than two teams. Lineups are neither symmetrical nor fixed. Offense and defense are not sharply distinguished. The competition doesn’t ever exactly end. The rules are diffuse. There are no umpires, aside, perhaps, from the unrelenting logic of strategic interaction. But you still get the basic idea: Important stuff is going down, but we on the outside can only infer what it is. And this is a “big game.” Unprecedented instability in the Middle East, whatever else it’s doing, is teeing up an unprecedented number of generative decision points for U.S. officials, creating path-dependent realities we’ll be living with for decades. These are molten times, so the demands to “get it right” now reach incandescent levels of intensity (or they should).
We know most of the discrete decision points: What to do about the Syrian civil war? How best to stop or limit the Iranian military-nuclear program? What to do about a re-fracturing Iraq? How to stop the contagion from Syria and Iraq from spreading into Jordan and Lebanon? How to handle the critical Turkish angle viz Syria and Iraq and the Kurds amid a new and potentially far-reaching Turkish political crisis? How far and in which ways and with what relative priority to push Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations? How to influence post-“Arab Spring” political developments in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain and elsewhere? How to think about the burgeoning sectarian cleavages in the region and relate it specific countries? How the counter-proliferation portfolio relates to the other challenges in the region? How to refashion the U.S counterterror intelligence footprint given the withdrawal of so many platforms and personnel from Iraq and, prospectively, Afghanistan?
What is striking about these decision points is how many of them there are right now, and how diverse, difficult and intertwined they tend to be. This is not normal. That observation in turn leads to other questions: Does the Obama Administration have a strategic theory of the case as regards the region as a whole that can tie all of these discrete points together in some overarching logical framework? And is that theory of the Middle Eastern case, if it exists, consciously related to global strategic objectives of some sort? If it does and if it is, whose theory is it? The President’s? The Secretary of State’s? Someone else’s? Are the principals agreed or not—on some of it, most of it, all of it?
This is not a simple set of questions because different Presidents and principals have demonstrably different styles of relating strategic abstractions to policy behavior. Some do have explicit theories of the case and exert themselves consistently to match behavior to strategy. The Nixon-Kissinger tenure was the quintessence of such an approach, but, tutored by World War and disciplined by Cold War, the Eisenhower and Kennedy-Johnson Administrations approximated it.
Some Administrations have had highly abstract, often thickly moralist theories of the case, but these theories have been too abstract to marshal consistent discipline in a policy process. They often leave subordinates to guess and argue over what the President wants. That circumstance typified both the Reagan and George W. Bush presidencies, and to some extent the Carter presidency as well.
Some Presidents and their closest advisers have deeply practiced intuitions about policy, but are not so keen on formal strategy exercises or explicit strategies. The Bush-Scowcroft-Baker team exemplified this approach, as did the Truman-Acheson team. A President can have a disposition toward strategy without having a formal strategy as such, and in very fluid times that may be most he can have, or should want. This is possible because when discrete decisions come before the President, there are not a large number of choices he can make by the time they get there. His instincts can cause those decision points to cluster a certain way even if he cannot fully or consistently articulate why he has decided as he has in a fashion that would satisfy a Kissinger, a Brzezinski, an Acheson or even a Scowcroft.
Some Presidents seem to have no use for strategy at all, are not adept or comfortable thinking in such terms, and so tend to deal with unavoidable foreign policy decision points on a case-by-case basis. The Clinton-Christopher period illustrates this approach.
And Barack Obama? Is this Administration’s foreign policy just distracted ad hocery, as many claim, as some evidence from the process side suggests? Or, agree with it or not, does it have, as others claim, an explicit strategic theory of the case that embraces the world and the Middle East as a part of it? Or, like the George H.W. Bush Administration, does the Obama Administration have highly intelligent (or highly misguided) instincts that fall short of explicit, formal strategy, but that are nevertheless driving policy in a particular direction over time? Which is it? How do we know? What counts as evidence?
I will answer these questions in due course, but before an answer can make much sense we need first to understand more about the novelty of a thoroughly destabilized Middle East, and how it got that way. Then we need to look briefly at some of the aforementioned discrete Middle Eastern decision points in hopes that a characteristic pattern of Obama Administration decision-making emerges from them. Then, maybe, we’ll be able to accurately characterize the Obama Administration’s approach, putting us in a position to make some judgments about how wise it is, and what it’s likely to lead to.

The Real Deal
Over the past seventy or so years a kind of intellectual tic developed among casual Western observers of the “Middle East” that has held the region to be “unstable.” (I put Middle East in scare quotes to suggest that said casual observers have been casual, too, about defining the region they mean.) Well, like a lot of things, a region is stable or unstable only by comparison to some place else, or the same place at different times. Hence, how one defines the area one is talking about obviously affects comparisons.
So, if said casual Western observers have meant by “Middle East” just the “Arab-Israeli” conflict zone alone (and they often have), the wars in 1948-49, 1956, 1967, 1970-71, 1973, 1982 and so on, “peacetime” periods speckled by acts of terrorism, reprisals, raiding, assassinations and the like, probably qualify that highly area as unstable compared to Europe, South America, and most of Asia during the Cold War. If observers meant the Levant or the Gulf or North Africa or more broadly the “Arab world”, or even more broadly the “Muslim world”, the instability label fit a lot less snugly. Yes, there were palace coups and assassinations and military interventions into politics and a few insurgencies, civil wars and other incidents of mass political violence within countries in all of these defined zones. But there was really only one bona fied interstate war that did not involve Israel, and none that pitted Arab states directly against one another.
There were also some very long-lived, highly stable regimes: Qaddafi in Libya from September 1969 to October 2011; the Assads in Syria from November 1970 to date; Mubarak in Egypt from October 1981 to February 2012; the Ba’ath in Iraq, mostly under Saddam Hussein, from July 1968 until March 2003, and one could go on. Of course cemeteries are stable, too, so stability is not always a good thing, as most of us imagine healthy civil societies. But I am using “stability” in a descriptive, social science sense—no more, no less.
You can get some idea of how relatively stable the Middle East has been for most of the past 60-70 years, dating to just before the end of 2011, by comparing it to what’s going on now. Now the region as a whole—all of it, pretty much, however you define it—is unstable. Really unstable. It could get even worse and probably will, but this, folks, is what instability looks like—this is the real deal. This is an entire region engaged in the political equivalent of a demolition derby, except that no one seems to be having any fun.
Consider:  There are no conventional cross-border wars going on right now, but we’ve got just about everything else wherewith to make an instability cocktail. Civil wars and active major insurgencies? Check: Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and Somalia (the latter two if you include non-Arab countries). Political violence just short of institutionalized insurgencies? Check: Libya, Egypt, Bahrain, Lebanon and, arguably, Algeria. Merely frightened or weak governments to one degree or another? Check: Jordan, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Sudan and both Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Ordinarily well-institutionalized governments in political crisis, and not in control of their entire national territory? Check: Turkey. The only two major countries in the region (I’m excluding three Gulf families or collections of families with flags: Oman, Qatar and the UAE) that are in control of their national territory and are not in their own estimation teetering on the brink of some internal meltdown are Iran and Israel. And long before the rest of the region convalesces those two may go to war.
Moreover, as many observers have pointed out, we’re not looking just at some two dozen countries in trouble, we’re looking at more than a few whose very existence as polities is in jeopardy. That certainly goes for Syria, and it probably goes for Iraq. The existence of an integral Libya, Lebanon, Yemen and Sudan very long into the future is no sure bet either. The prospect of regime upheaval (not government administration change but actual regime change, properly defined) against the monarchies in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Morocco is far from zero. The rise of pan-Kurdish nationalism has implications for the territorial configurations of Iran and Turkey as well as of Iraq and Syria. “Palestine”, less than a polity but more than a figment of political imagination, has long been in limbo and, current negotiations notwithstanding, is likely to remain there for quite a while. So we’re not just talking about the sum of individual country troubles, we’re talking about an entire regional state subsystem undulating and disintegrating from the decay of some of its units and the growing weakness and unpredictability of other units.

One good tic deserves another, I suppose. Just as casual Western observers used to be quick to disparage the Middle East’s instability, they were and remain determined to blame someone for it. The American mainstream press operates biographically: who’s up, who’s down; who’s screwed up and who hasn’t (yet). This saves journalists and editors from having to actually understand issues, and, besides, they’re probably right to think that most of their readers prefer it that way. High-brow gossip trumps actual analysis, in spades.
The result of this habit is that, depending on their politics mostly, some blame President Obama for the Middle Eastern mess we behold today. He should, they archly declare, have intervened early in Syria. He should have supported the Iranian Green Revolution in 2009. He should have stood by Mubarak, even as Mubarak’s own colleagues were throwing him over the side. And had he done all this and a nearly endless list of other things he should have done but did not do, or that he did do but should not have done, everything would be fine today.
Others prefer to blame George W. Bush and the neocons. It was the Iraq War that caused all of this. I’m not kidding; there’s a short essay called “What the War in Iraq Wrought” in The New Yorker, dated January 15, by someone named John Lee Anderson that blames everything wrong in the region, even by implication what’s happening in Egypt, on the Iraq War because that’s what supposedly created the sectarian demon loosed on the Middle East today. 
Some are more ecumenical in their revisionism: The United States caused all the trouble, all the administrations dating back as far as anyone can remember them. Or it’s the British, or the French, or the generic West, or the Russians, or (of course, lest we forget) the Jews. It rarely seems to occur that the peoples of the region might just bear some responsibility for their own situation. And it virtually never occurs that looking for someone to blame is perhaps not the best way to go about understanding regional realities.
It is especially annoying when people who really ought to know better do such things, doubly so when they do it in “mea culpa” mode. I was stunned when I heard President Bush say in 2003, “For 60 years, the United States pursued stability at the expense of democracy the Middle East, and we achieved neither”, a statement that Condoleezza Rice repeated often while Secretary of State (which inclination, more than anything else, led me away from her service). In other words, the reason that Arab countries were not democracies, and hence produced terrorists, is not because of thousands of years of their own historical and cultural experiences, but because of U.S. foreign policy decisions over the previous six decades. This is the argument that leftwing critics of U.S. support for authoritarian regimes in a Cold War context used to make; for avowedly conservative Republicans to start making it was truly breathtaking, not least because, no matter who makes it, it is absurd.
We did too achieve stability for those 60 years; by any reasonable measure, U.S. Cold War-era Middle East policy was a success. Far more important and to the point, it was never in our power in any case to turn Arab states into democracies. This is something George W. Bush (I hope) has by now learned the hard way, Dr. Rice too. It is astounding that even when we criticize ourselves we do it with a dollop of hubris larger than Mt. McKinley: It’s always all about us. Except that it isn’t. The United States is not and never has been the determining factor in everything that goes on in the Middle East, or anywhere else abroad for that matter (except maybe Panama for a time). We need to get over ourselves.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that what Presidents decide is totally without effect. For good or ill, the United States does matter some most of the time, and a lot at least some of the time. The Iraq War turned out to be ill-advised, certainly the way it was fought if not the decision itself. The way we decided to operate in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban regime amounted to another mistake, though it’s taken more time for that mistake to become clear to most observers. Screwing up these two wars has amounted to a strategic defeat for the United States in the wider region, and every U.S. ally and partner has suffered from this defeat accordingly, just as all U.S. adversaries and competitors have gained to one degree or another.
The Obama Administration inherited this defeat, decided to cut U.S. loses, and we’ll see later if by doing so it has made things worse or not. Certainly the oscillation between crusading interventionism and the subsequent American recessional (if you don’t get Kipling allusion it’s not important) under Obama has had its own disorienting impact. As to the broader implications of recent U.S. policies, the Iraq War did stoke the coals of sectarian division into a fire, but it did not create them. The recrudescence of Sunni-Shi’a violence goes back proximately to 1973-74, the year that the quadrupling of oil prices both set the stage for the collapse of the Pahlavi regime in Iran and bankrolled Saudi wahhabism, setting up a collision to come between extremist Sunni and Shi’a clerics (not that sectarian conflict in Islam is exclusively theological in nature, anymore than the 16th century Wars of the Reformation were). Had the Obama Administration early on and effectively quashed the Syrian situation, it might have earned a delay in the region’s sectarian clash—but probably no more than that, since the demon had already broken its chains earlier in Iraq and had already made deadly visitations as far away as Pakistan.
Factors inherent to the region explain most of what is happening now. With few exceptions, the Arab states are weak relative to their tribal societies and sectarian identities. These weak states, most of which are heterogeneous ethnically or in sectarian terms, have been unable to devise effective loyalty formulae or achieve strong records of economic growth or social justice over the years. Many have been bitten hard by the resource curse. The strongly patriarchal, authoritarian bias of these societies has hindered adaptation to many aspects of modernity, not least their ability to create open market economies in place of the radical elite-rentier distortions that have characterized every single one of the Arab countries, republic and monarchy alike, from the beginning of the independence era.
For all these deficiencies the Arab state elites have preferred to blame the West, the United States and especially Israel, and the only thing more bizarre than this is the credulity of so many Westerners in believing them. Sure, the artificiality of many of the territorial states created in the wake of World War I has not helped, but it’s not been the only or the main impediment in most cases so many decades later, and it’s certainly not something anyone can reasonably blame on President Bush, President Obama or the United States in general.
Suffice it to say, messes like the ones we see today in the Middle East have lots of causes, some remote, some more proximate. They are hard to disentangle, and even harder to communicate to people who, frankly, don’t care to know if it gets in the way of their blame game, which some pursue because it’s politically useful and others pursue because they really just don’t know any better. Look, you can lead a political partisan to knowledge but you can’t make him think.

So Many Decisions
Let’s turn now to a few of the discrete decision points enumerated above, and try to make our way through the policy thickets. Despite the interconnectedness of much of the portfolio, we’re going to take the topics one by one, and do our knitting as the need arises.

First Syria. The best way to begin an understanding of U.S. policy toward Syria is to start with Libya. In March 2011, before the upheaval in Syria really amounted to anything, the President decided to throw in with Britain and France and start a war in Libya. Administration counsels were divided as the mayhem in Libya increased. Defense Secretary Bob Gates and all the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff opposed intervention. So did Vice President Biden and then-National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, who was “Biden’s guy.” So did lots of others outside the Administration, including the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and, for what little it’s worth, me.
The President seemed ambivalent, and so he laid down a series of strenuous conditions before he would countenance intervention—included Arab League support and a UNSC Article 7 resolution. But the President heeded the war party when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was won over to it, and, perhaps to his chagrin, all of his conditions were improbably met. While we’ll have to await candid memoirs to know for sure, my guess is that the President soon regretted his decision in light of the many dour and unintended consequences of the Libya intervention. Thanks to the allies’ failure, yet again, to plan for the post-combat phase of the war, some of these dour consequences have affected Libya (and led to the September 2012 Benghazi raid) while others have spread all the way to Mali, northern Nigeria and, arguably, Algeria.
So when his aides divided again over Syria a few months later, this time President Obama was determined to stay out. How much partisan political considerations came into play as the 2012 election approached is hard to say, but I think they probably mattered a lot (and I said so at the time). In any event, even without election politics affecting his judgment, U.S. passivity with respect to Syria was over-determined.
No doubt a good deal of analysis and spleen was laid before the President early on over Syria. My own view, also in print, is that the ricochet of excessive caution from Libya was unfortunate. An early exercise of American leadership, in conjunction with Turkey and with NATO backing, could have staunched the violence before it metathesized, radicalized into sectarian camps and spread to other countries. U.S. boots on the ground and even early no-fly zones were not necessary to achieve this, and were not even desirable. There are means to exerting influence short of putting lots of U.S. troops in harm’s way: that’s why we have allies, intelligence operations, special forces and an array of cyber-dirty tricks. But the Administration discouraged the Turks, and the policy of passivity it adopted has turned out to be the most expensive policy of all.
In all fairness, Syria was always a hard problem. Unlike Libya, which is an island from a military point of view and a small country in population terms, Syria is larger, harder to get at militarily and was known to have chemical and perhaps biological weapons stocks. Stand-off weapons like cruise missiles are not very good at cratering airfields or working in close coordination with rebel ground forces, and JCS Chairman Martin Dempsey spoke volubly about the need for 700 sorties to take down Syria’s air defense system before U.S. planes could operate overhead. That’s a big number, and was made to sound like it. Unlike Libya, however, some serious stakes attended the Syrian case, most of them linked to Iran. That’s what made it hard: the combination of real national interest stakes with no simple military options.
By the time the Administration got around to serious consideration of arming the rebels (it started by helping to coordinate third-party deals, like one from Croatia, and by getting the CIA to move some weapons stocks from Libya to the Syrian rebels), radical Sunni jihadis started showing up in large numbers, coalescing into Jabat al-Nusra. That made what was hard to start with even harder. It was not foolish to be concerned about U.S. weapons ending up in the wrong hands, and so non-lethal assistance became the preferred currency of aid. But concern need not be paralyzing, unless one wants to be paralyzed and have some reason to justify it.
Even the non-lethal aid was slow and small in coming, leading some observers to suspect that the Administration now wanted the Assad regime to survive (never mind that wayward “Assad must go” comment when it looked like it would happen anyway) as a counterbalance to Sunni jihadis. It has led some to claim further that passivity in Syria was a bargaining ploy meant for Iranian delectation. Maybe so. Now that we know the extent and the dates of secret contacts with Iran, run in part through Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman from his station at the UN in New York, it’s plausible to imagine American body language, if not also literal language, saying to the Iranians, in effect: Look, do what you want in Syria; we Americans are not determined to interfere with your interests in your own neighborhood. We don’t even have ambitions of regime change, and here the Administration’s early “engagement” policy, one that led to a standoffish U.S. attitude toward the surge of Green opposition in 2009, could have been put forward as evidence of non-aggressive intentions.
We will return to the Iran portfolio below, but it is important to understand that the Obama Administration, from the start, saw Syria as a lesser-included problem set within a policy focused on Iran. In this it was consistent with previous Administrations’ policies. The United States has never really had a policy as such toward Syria. Syria has always been an adjunct to more important policies—Arab-Israeli, Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, and so on. In the past, this tendency had some very unfortunate consequences, even allowing the Syrian regime to kill Americans and otherwise attack U.S. interests—as in Iraq, for example—and really pay no price for it. This time around, it made at least a little more sense.
Of course, it can be argued that a more forceful U.S. policy toward the Assad regime would have gained more with respect to Iran, but that is not the approach the Obama Administration took. With Iraqi WMD programs no longer something the Iranians feared, a rather ironic turn of events given the President’s attitude toward the Iraq War, I suspect that the Administration view was that if we no longer appear to be a mortal threat to the Iranian regime, we will change the calculations in Tehran as to the costs and benefits of acquiring nuclear weapons. With sanctions we will raise their costs, and with diplomacy we will reduce the benefits of so risky a course—and then maybe we can bank that new Iranian calculation in a formal agreement. But let’s stick with Syria for now.
As U.S. passivity amid the Syrian civil war became protracted, the tide of battle turned in favor of the regime. Clearly, one of the reasons for initial U.S. passivity was the sense, confirmed by intelligence assessments, that the rebels would win with or without U.S. help. High-profile Sunni defections from the regime, like that of Manaf Tlas and others, were seen as evidence of this verdict. But as has long, long been the case in Syria, the Sunnis could not agree among themselves, and could not effectively cooperate to move their successful early effort to the regime-kill phase. Meanwhile, the Russians poured in arms and advisers, including advisers experienced fighting in Chechnya, and the Iranians via Hizballah and the Al-Quds brigades began to provide crucial help to Assad. The tide turned, and still the Obama Administration did nothing—except now the policy focus moved to Syrian chemical arms, and the White House drew the first of two “red lines” against chemical use.
My guess is that the President thought the first chemical weapons red line was a freebie—a way to look strong and engaged without actually risking anything. At that point no chemical weapons had been used in combat and there was no military reason to think they would be used. This was a fundamental misreading of the Alawi regime and its principals. The Administration should have paid more attention to how much skill the Syrians applied to humiliating Kofi Annan, and how much delight they took in doing it. Indeed, the Syrian regime might never have used chemicals had President Obama not warned them against it—in truth they did not really need to do so for strictly military reasons. Sensing Obama’s timidity about military engagement, the Syrian regime did what it does best: bullying, taunting, sparing psychologically with a less committed party. And by using chemicals without paying any price, they signaled to the rebels the highly credible taunt that the Americans will, in the end, leave you hung out to dry.
Then came the second chemical weapons red line, and we all remember what happened next. The Syrians, having shown only a very little chemical ankle before, testing what the American response would be (there was none), now used chemicals in a big way and for all to see. Some credulous Americans (James Fallows prominent among them) were sure the opposition did this stealthily in order to tar the regime, but this only exposed their ignorance and bad judgment. The Russians leaned into that lie, too, but that was to be expected of them as Assad’s lawyer.
Amid all this noxious virtual gas, the Administration strained to ignore evidence of repeated chemical use, lest it be forced to act. This was too embarrassing to persist for long, as evidence mounted from far and wide, coming even from French and British intelligence sources. Then the Administration suddenly got its back up and prepared to act, going so far as to send six cruise-missile armed ships into the Mediterranean. But then, just as suddenly, following the withdrawal of British support thanks to an unanticipated defeat in Parliament, Obama decided to be no less democratic than Britain and go to Congress for approval.
It’s still unclear whether Obama thought he would get approval, or if he knew he would not and then be able to blame Congress for his not doing something he never really wanted to do in the first place. Whatever the case, the episode evoked Administration comments about an attack with stand-off weapons being “incredibly small”—Secretary Kerry’s absurd and hurtful remark designed to appease Congressional skeptics worried about a slippery slope, and a remark the President felt obliged to contradict in public (“The U.S. military doesn’t do pinpricks”). But the deed was done; the Secretarial tongue had flapped, robbing a prospective attack of most of its impact before anyone had so much as caressed a trigger. In the end, as we know, the President did a bait-and-switch on himself, wrong-footing most of his own aides in the process, forgoing the use of force for a charade of a chemical weapons deal through Russian aegis.
There is nothing wrong with eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons in the face of a possibly crumbling of the Syria state, but the deal does not eliminate all of Syria’s chemical weapons. It may end up eliminating only those the regime itself declared—and we have no reliable means of verifying the existence of what was not declared. Very likely, the most up-to-date and lethal munitions were not declared, leaving the so-called international community—mainly the United States, as it predictably turned out—to play the role of hazmat garbage collector, and foot the bill to boot.
Now, the process of watching the President go from red line to red line to congressional ploy to Russian diplomatic life-preserver (an idea that was not as impromptu as the Administration made it seem at the time) was painful in the extreme. The new NSC Advisor, Susan Rice, was shown to be essentially incompetent as she presided over, or tried to chase, the most embarrassing excuse for a foreign policy decision process I have ever seen.
And what was the result? First, as many pointed out, the chemical weapons deal legitimated Assad and turned him into a partner for implementing the agreement—in direct contradiction to the “Assad must go” policy. The same contradiction also emerged in the delay in getting any of the chemicals out of the country. Why the delay? Well, Syria is a war zone, and the ground-transportation needed to be made safe before the chemicals could be brought to a port. Who made ground-transportation problematic? Our putative allies, the Free Syrian Army and its associates. So we were put in a position of complaining that our allies were causing a delay in implementing a deal we had made with their and our enemy. In other words, the side we wanted to win overall we now wanted to lose temporarily and locally so that a mostly decorative arms control agreement divorced entirely from the rest of the civil war could go forward. If that’s not proof of incoherent fecklessness in a policy, I don’t know what is.
However this looked here in the United States, the FSA interpreted it as a betrayal, and so did the Saudis. The Syrian regime accelerated its military actions in the wake of the chemical weapons deal; now that Assad was certain the United States would not use force, he went for broke in trying to smash the opposition. He focused on the connective tissue linking the Damascus area to Latakia province (where the battle for Al-Qusayr was critical—just look at a map), and further north on retaking Aleppo. He has since done well in both areas.
Why the hurry? Well, one reason is the Geneva II conference, slated back in May to begin tomorrow.
In June 2012 nine nations met in Geneva, some of the nine to try to work out a transition away from the Assad regime. Ah, but two of the nine wanted just the reverse: no agreement on any such thing. The Action Group meeting, as it was called, represented the last-ditch, tail-end part of the Kofi Annan UN-sponsored effort to stop the war. Like all the rest of the Annan effort, it failed, as everyone with eyes to see knew it would. Russia and China blocked any language that called for Assad’s ouster. The lowest-common-denominator agreed statement referred feebly to the need to create a transitional regime. It did not explicitly state that Assad could not be a part of that transitional regime. Indeed, it states that the transitional regime “could include members of the present government and the opposition and other groups and shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent.”
The rest of the communiqué was pie-in-the-sky nonsense for the most part about ceasefires that never were or could have been, about democracy in a place that had never in four thousand years known it, and so on. It was not without its unintentionally humorous aspects, however. As innocents by the thousands were being butchered by their own government in Syria, the UN drafters took time to include a demand that women be represented in all phases of the transition. That’s nice.
In the run-up to Geneva II these past few days the wheels have progressively threatened to come completely off the bus. Both the fecklessness and the incoherence of the policy have been revealed anew for all to see. Against the background of vicious internecine violence among rebel groups, and that the regime has taken advantage of in the Aleppo area especially, the U.S. government has been trying to get the FSA coalition to attend the Geneva II meeting. But there are 144 groups in the coalition, and the recent fighting against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has riven the coalition even further. Most opposition groups do not want to go if the terms of the conference do not stipulate that Assad must go, and that is why Kerry in recent days has reiterated that this is the U.S. understanding of the terms of the conference. But if any opposition groups go even as many do not, the net effect will be to further divide and hence weaken the military coalition on the ground in Syria.
How the State Department can read the June 30, 2012 communiqué this way I cannot understand. It is not the plain meaning of the text, and it is certainly not how the Syrian regime or the Russians read it. Kerry has lately accused the Syrians of “revisionism” in interpreting the June 30, 2012 document, but the accusation just as easily fits headed in the other direction. That is how UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon could at the last minute invite the Iranians, an invitation the U.S. government both opposed and sort of favored. After all, Kerry has been in recent weeks most solicitous of the Iranians being in the conference mix, but not as attendees since they supposedly did not endorse the U.S. understanding of the conditions for the conference. But the Iranians can endorse them as laid down on June 30, 2012 without prejudice in any way to Assad’s future. Moon saw that—he can read, after all. Hence the invitation.
This infuriated Kerry. No U.S. Secretary of State enjoys having his knees cut out from under him by the likes of any UN type, especially done without warning at a particularly sensitive moment. So the State Department demanded that Moon rescind his invitation to Iran, even though it was inviting U.S. body language toward Iran in the first place that probably convinced Moon to issue the invitation. Moon complied, quickly but grudgingly. Now some representation from the FSA might show up, and the rescinding saves the U.S. government from having to withdraw from its own sponsored conference, an event into which we have diligently stuffed so much futile, fake and frothy hope in recent weeks.
But maybe that would have been best. Given the state of the battlefield and the unwillingness of the United States to do anything even remotely effectual about it, this conference cannot possibly achieve what the Administration hopes for it. The antagonists insist on a zero-sum attitude, and the conference sponsors do not agree on first principles as regards to purpose. That was clear already many weeks ago. U.S. failure will thus be seen throughout the region as a confirmation of U.S. impotence, and as a victory for Assad, the Iranians, the Russians and utterly ruthless brutality against civilian populations. Why we should ever have been willing to be an accomplice to that I swear I cannot understand.
The plaint that this round of Geneva diplomacy doesn’t stand a great chance of success, “but it’s the only thing we have left to try”—and words to that effect have actually been uttered in public by U.S. officials—just shows once again that, yes, diplomacy can indeed be harmful if leaders fail to grasp that force and diplomacy are complements, not opposites. Bleatings that this is only the beginning of a long process, or that the conference will encourage defections fro the regime, or that an alternative vision to war is itself useful amount to so much mental rubbish. You cannot stop a full-fledged civil war with strongly worded Hallmark cards and silly pabulum about “getting to yes.” All this conference has done, is doing and will do is end up getting more people killed as all sides jockey for battlefield advantage.
Want another example of how harmless one-eyed diplomacy can be? In the run-up to Geneva II the United States has formally joined with Russia is trying to persuade both sides to declare pre-conference ceasefires as a means to ultimately end the war. Bur we have indisputable evidence from the ground that what the Syrian regime is offering are not local ceasefires, but terms of surrender. The regime is offering dribs and drabs of food and medicine to besieged civilians in return for allowing the Syria flag to fly over this or that neighborhood, but as soon as regime operatives get inside they are demanding information about rebel fighters’ whereabouts, they are arresting some people and they are simply shooting others who try to walk away. This is a Chechnya-style “ceasefire.” Can John Kerry possibly not know this? If he does know it, how can he encourage it? Is he so cynical that knowingly betraying U.S. allies is a price he’s eager to pay to end the war?
However exactly it turns out, the spectacle of Geneva II is already a disgrace to the great tradition of U.S. statecraft. Would that its dark shadow remain confined to the Middle East, but one has to wonder what, say, Japanese decision-makers are thinking privately these days. As to Kerry, all he is saying, apparently, is give appeasement a chance.

Which brings us back to Iran. Since I last wrote on the Iran nuclear deal, on December 30, the technical teams have reached agreement and the deal was supposed to begin implementation yesterday, January 20. This is good, tentatively, despite the fact that the agreement itself is flawed. The deal’s short term (just six months) and the fact that the West gave in on the principle of uranium enrichment, seen together, makes an eventual Iranian bomb more likely, not less. As I have explained before, only the prospect of a change in the U.S.-Iranian relationship outside the four corners of any document may make those risks worth running. How likely is that?
Not zero, but not very high. If, as explained above, the Iranians no longer fear U.S. efforts at regime change, and if they believe that this U.S. Administration, at least, is not obsessed by the bogeyman of Iranian regional hegemony, then maybe they will reason that they don’t need a full-fledged nuclear weapons capability to deter us. Problem solved, at least for the next three years: There will be no Iranian nuclear breakout as long as this diplomatic engagement persists. If the United States needs to pay over and over again for it to persist, as seems quite possible, it’s still a small price to pay—so the thinking may go—to avoid a war. And make no mistake: The Administration is still on record, as the result of a bruising and protracted but presumably ironclad ultimate Presidential decision, that the goal of the policy is and fully remains prevention, not deterrence. (Then again, we have Bob Gates’s remark that “the word of this White House means nothing.” You work out the sum.)
Now, this sort of pay and pay and pay again as you go approach reminds me of a wonderful line from William Saroyan’s My Name is Aram: “If you give to a thief then he can no longer steal from you, and he is therefore no longer a thief.” But I do not mean to imply that Obama Administration policy toward Iran is pure appeasement. That’s one construction of its motive, but there is another way of looking at this. It requires, however, a creative mixing of levels of analysis.
Maybe, as some have argued, the Obama Administration has a grand theory, an ambitious strategy, that sees an entente with Iran as the best way to protect the region and the world from the protracted threat of Sunni jihadi radicalism. Maybe the Administration wants generally to lean Shi’a as a means of counterbalancing the proliferation of al-Qaeda franchises in and beyond the region, and thinks the short-term price of doing so is worth it. The price would include a severe deterioration of relations with Saudi Arabia, which we’ve already seen but, supporters might say, so what? Where else can the Saudis go for protection? The price also includes a strain of ties with Israel, which we would have to ask to trust us to ultimately have its back if things go wrong. This makes the Israelis nervous, but as power politics go it’s not an outlandish proposition—and of course the Israelis have to worry about Sunni jihadis as well as Iranian-inspired Shi’a enemies.
The complement to this argument is that fears of Iranian hegemony are vastly overblown. Iran is not ten cubits tall. Its annual military budget falls short even of U.S. supplementals in recent war years. U.S. technical military superiority over Iran is so huge as to be nearly incalculable. Far more important, just what does Iranian regional hegemony actually mean? What are its likely and natural limits?
A power that is Persian and Shi’i evokes natural antibodies in a region that is Arab and mostly Sunni. Iranian influence could make a big difference in Bahrain, where a Sunni minority regime rules and oppresses a Shi’a majority, and it could make a difference, perhaps, in al-Hasa province in Saudi Arabia, which is where most of the country’s Shi’a and oil are both located. We already know about Iraq—Iran can have a fair bit of influence in Baghdad as long as Shi’a are in power, but that doesn’t mean it can dictate and control everything that happens there. Iran can mess around inconclusively in Lebanon, but Lebanese politics are structurally inconclusive—so there’s not much lasting benefit in doing that. The Iranians can supply weapons to the Shi’a Houthis in Yemen, as they are in fact newly doing; but what vital interest does the United States have in Yemen short of preventing it from becoming an al-Qaeda breeding ground? And of course the Iranians can ally with Alawis in Syria, not that Twelver Shi’a and Alawis have anything in common except antipathy to Sunnis.
In other words, the idea that somehow the Iranians could recreate thoroughgoing imperial territorial control on the order of the Achaemenid, Sassanid or Safavid empires in today’s Middle East, even with the Arabs as dysfunctional as they are, is a fantasy. They can make trouble for selected locals, but without a robust nuclear order of battle, Iran cannot successfully attack or conquer Palestine or any other Levantine or Gulf real estate. In a century or two more than 280 million native Arabic speakers will still be native Arabic speakers, not Farsi speakers. So if U.S. policy can keep Iran below a robust nuclear order of battle, what real danger is there in letting Tehran enmesh itself in enervating conflicts unending with assorted Arabs and Sunnis? And if the Russians want to help them, it’s their privilege to stomp around futilely in the sandbox as well. They’ll probably live (and die) to regret it.
Let’s not wax too glib. There are clearly risks when the United States, which has supplied common security goods to the region for several decades, suddenly decides that it’s “overinvested” in a region, to use Ben Rhodes’s intemperately leaked language, that is increasingly harder to manage. Some associates begin to contemplate posterior-protecting deals, while others look to new forms of self-help. Saudi Arabia getting a nuclear bomb from Pakistan is not something we want to see happen. More problematic still, sectarian war tends to breed radicals and sideline (or extirpate) moderates, and that’s not in our long-term security interests either. Tacitly siding with Assad and his Iranian sponsors, or just being seen to do so, can only feed Sunni radicalism in and beyond the region. So it’s one thing to imagine that natural balances will bracket dangers in the Middle East if only we get out of the way and let them form, and quite another to survive the transition from one kind of security regime to another.
I suspect that Administration principals understand all this reasonably well. I am skeptical that Obama and Kerry “surely dream of a ‘Nixon to China’ masterstroke” regarding Iran, and that they “undoubtedly see Iran and its Shiite allies as potential partners in the fight against Sunni jihadism.” Those who sat in at the highest levels of first-term deliberations on such matters describe the President as very leery of ambitious ploys and very skeptical of Iranian motives. Words like “surely” and “undoubtedly” really do not belong in a discussion like this. When, more recently, Obama gave the nuclear deal no more than a 50-50 chance of working out in the end, he was speaking in similarly skeptical, reserved tones.
So I don’t think the President has any explicit strategic theory of the case on the Middle East. I don’t hear any Kissingerian gears turning. His orientation to the region is more like that of George H.W. Bush: He has intuitions, instincts. And those instincts tell him that getting what we want in this part of the world is very hard, and getting harder as the one-stop-shopping opportunities we used to “enjoy” with stable authoritarian Arab allies are not what the used to be. I think Rhodes was for all practical purposes channeling POTUS when he wrote Jeffrey Goldberg as follows:

The United States makes decisions about our foreign policy based on our interests. It’s not in America’s interests to have troops in the middle of every conflict in the Middle East, or to be permanently involved in open-ended wars in the Middle East. It is in our interests to spend significant diplomatic effort—and resources—seeking to resolve conflict and build the capacity of our partners, which is exactly what we are doing. This notion that there was a previous age when we dictated the internal affairs of countries in the Middle East is not borne out by reality. When we had well over a hundred thousand troops in Iraq, we weren’t able to shape the political reality of that country, or to end sectarian hatred. Moreover, the notion that we are disengaged doesn’t make sense when the United States is engaged across the region in ways that no other nation is—to reach an agreement over Iran’s nuclear program, advance Israeli-Palestinian peace, destroy Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles, counter al-Qaeda and its affiliates, secure Israel and our Gulf partners, and support transitions to democracy from Yemen to Libya.

Now, Rhodes was writing to a journalist, so there is spin here—especially toward the end. Our “engagement” is mostly for show, for the purpose of managing impressions, because, in the absence of a willingness to put and keep real skin in the game, that’s all it can be. The Syria diplomacy is deeply problematic, the Arab-Israeli diplomacy will not bring peace, the Iran deal may or may not have a happy ending, there are not going to be democratic transitions in Libya or Yemen, and so on. So this is one of those many statements that is true as spoken but false as intended. It’s intended to make passivity look like something other than it is, and to make it seem both wise and prudent at the same time.
The truth is that we have a classical Goldilocks problem: We don’t want to do too little, because that runs risks, and we don’t want to do too much, because that runs risks, too. Finding the level and specific focus that’s “just right” is hard, and even honest and well-informed people can disagree about it. Personally, I think the President underestimates the cumulative costs and risks of doing too little, which need not be limited to then Middle East. But I don’t think it moves the ball to ascribe very ambitious and controversial goals to those who do not have them. Way too many presidential “doctrines” have been created by outside observers trying to impose more coherence on an Administration’s views than really exists. Let’s please not invent an Obama Doctrine out of mostly thin air.
And of course, even if the Administration were pursuing some grand new regional balance with the mullahs as the Persian mean, the President has to know that there’s no guarantee that some new regional order will be so appealing as to obviate a need for policy. The collapse of Syria and Iraq as states poses gray-zone problems for counter-terrorism; the same could be said, prospectively, about Libya and some other countries. Our being less intrusive in the region would not necessarily make us less popular targets; indeed, our being seen to be in bed with Iran could make us more popular targets. Local balances will not solve all our present problems, and may even create some new ones.

Which conveniently brings us to Iraq. Since I wrote on December 30 all hell has broken loose (again) in Iraq. Al-Qaeda, in the form of ISIS, is back, and it’s still in control of Ramadi and Falluja. Efforts directed from Baghdad to get tribal leaders to persuade ISIS to leave the cities have not succeeded, and may have even resulted in a new Sunni pact directed against Maliki in Baghdad. As of this writing, too, al-Qaeda has forced Baghdad into lockdown mode: the demons are getting closer. And everyone in Iraq still privately believes that one Sunni desert tribesman is worth a hundred cowardly Shi’a villagers in a fight. That’s the lore, that’s the perception and hence to some extent that’s the reality. Could a Sunni vanguard force, whether Islamist or not, just ride roughshod over a much larger on-paper but disintegrating Shi’a army all the way to Baghdad? Damn right it could. Anyone who doubts that, after all these years, still doesn’t know the first thing about Iraq.
So, then, should the Obama Administration accede to Prime Minister Maliki’s request for U.S. weapons and training? It’s tempting. Having failed to get a SOFA agreement, we might now be able to guarantee that Iraq’s order of battle remains American for many years, and we might be able to salvage something of the working relationship we envisaged having with Iraq some years ago. If we help him, we might be able to get him to shut down the air corridor from Iran to Syria (or do we really want that corridor shut down?). Most Americans who were invested in the war policy want to do this, and they say they can get some of the right stuff delivered fast.
I understand the motive, and to some extent I credit it. Maliki needs us, so maybe we can help him in a way that persuades him to govern more inclusively. So far he’s been a blundering sectarian ass. We have an interest in Iraq not disintegrating utterly, and a more fully national rather than sectarian-minded government in Baghdad is instrumental to that. But what if no matter how many weapons we send and how many Iraqi officers we promise to train, the Sunnis cannot be kept at bay?
What will the President decide, and when will he decide it? If he agrees that we are overinvested in the region, and if he doubts the capacity of outsiders to engage purposely in a place like Iraq, he might be tempted to ignore Maliki. If Iraq falls completely apart he can do what he does best: blame it all on George W. Bush. (What he should do if that happens is coordinate with Turkey to recognize the Kurdish Regional Government as an independent state; but he won’t.)
On the other hand, the collapse of the Iraqi state is bad for us in its own right and either collapse or a radical Sunni victory there will make things even worse in Syria, too. It’s a tough decision, and no overarching theory of the case can make it much easier. In the end, my guess is that politics will prevail, as it usuall does in this Administration. When the President anticipates the optic of U.S. weapons and U.S. soldiers returning to Iraq—even if just as trainers—he’s got to cringe. I think he’ll balk. I wonder if Secretaries Hagel and Kerry have a view about this, and I wonder if it’s the same view. Oh to be a fly on the wall at a PC (principals committee) meeting over this one.

A Theory About Theory
Now, finally, if I’m right to argue that President Obama has instincts and intuitions, but no ambitious grand strategy for the Middle East, does he have anything more definite in mind that places the Middle East into a more expansive global framework? I promised you I’d answer this question, and so I will.
The answer is the same: The President is not a man, I think, who trusts formal strategy exercises, but he’s not a completely distracted case-by-case guy either. He probably believes that, indeed, the United States is overinvested in the Middle East and underinvested in Asia. Hence the pivot, and never mind the botching of the idea’s presentation as an either/or proposition. For all I know he once asked himself what’s the worst case in the Middle East? What if everything goes wrong? How would that really affect vital American interests? Not traditional commitments, not reputational capital, not obligations that flow from habit instead of fresh thought—but genuine vital interests? And for all I know, his answer was that, short of a WMD proliferation chain-reaction, not much.
Again, I’m skeptical that Obama consciously deploys any explicit or formal strategic logic here, or accepts any academic theories of benign realism or natural balancing. But I think he senses that the world is a messier place generally after the relative stasis of the Cold War, and that the degree of control one can get over any major issue area through traditional state-to-state relations has declined as popular and populist mobilizations, aided by new cyber-technologies, have grown on both sub-state and trans-state levels. Certainly the Middle East is a lot messier, even if much of the rest of the world isn’t (yet).
In my estimation, this intuition has made President Obama generally more risk averse, and risk adverse in an area where he is in any case short on experience and, privately, confidence. When his advisers are divided, he has been noticeably uneasy. Like a judge, he has tried to find the common ground among them, which is fine for community activist work but not necessarily for making foreign policy. When his advisers engage in groupthink, as they done more and more with Gates and Donilon gone, or when no one strenuously objects to something (like Kerry’s whimsical pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian peace), he’s content to engage in image management—the twitterization of U.S. foreign policy, so to speak—because he knows he can’t just ignore all these things.
The President’s sensitivity to limits also tends to make policy reactive and its real goals modest. So in the mess that is the Middle East today he wants Iraq to be governed more inclusively. He wants Syria and Libya to be governed, period. He wants Egypt to be stable, and he’s not too picky about how. He wants Iran to not have nuclear weapons, and he’s willing to bend a lot to prevent it via diplomacy because he probably thinks that Iranian leaders cannot exert their will beyond their borders with any more consistent success these days than we can.
The one subject on which he seem to have a definite view and is willing to act preemptively has to do with preventing terrorist attacks that kill American civilians, especially on U.S. soil. That explains his affection for drone attacks, his toleration for GITMO, his refusal to emasculate NSA collection programs except at a small margin, and his unstinting support for quietly creating small but powerful special-forces bases far and wide.
Taken all together, this is neither appeasement nor isolationism. It’s obviously not strategic maximalism either. It’s something in between, and in that in-between space, suspended between expectations inherited from the past and hesitations generated by a fuzzy future, things sometimes get weird or uncomfortable in the face of an unprecedented avalanche of decision points. Weird like Geneva II.