The Buzz

Denis McDonough: A Caricature of Realism

The New York Times has produced what must be the most comprehensive public account so far of the Obama administration’s internal deliberations on Syria. A few things are noteworthy. The administration comes off rather well--once you discount that it lacks a strategic vision. Most officials, even some with hawkish reputations, are painfully aware of the complexities and complications that bedevil every U.S. policy option. Many figures live up to their popular reputations. Samantha Power says to White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, “if you had met the rebels as frequently as I have, you would be as passionate as I am” about aiding them. Susan Rice, by contrast, warns that deeper involvement “could consume the agenda of the president’s second term,” a remark that ironically parallels her much-regretted Rwanda quip: “if we use the word genocide and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November election?” Tellingly, the Times’ otherwise long and detailed narrative offers little information on Obama’s decision to push a Syria intervention through Congress. There is even less about the decision to accept the Putin plan. This is further testament to the hastiness of both moves.

At moments, McDonough comes off well, resisting Power’s “passion” for armed salvation and hewing closely to the president’s own perspective. One might be tempted to call his instincts “realist.” The Times account shows such hopes are misplaced, revealing McDonough’s ultimate stance as pressure grew within the administration for closer ties to the rebels:

Mr. McDonough, who had perhaps the closest ties to Mr. Obama, remained skeptical. He questioned how much it was in America’s interest to tamp down the violence in Syria....Mr. McDonough argued that the status quo in Syria could keep Iran pinned down for years. In later discussions, he also suggested that a fight in Syria between Hezbollah and Al Qaeda would work to America’s advantage.

Patiently watching as ones’ challengers turn on each other might seem like the height of realism. Yet here it’s more of a cartoon-villain caricature of realism - one in which statesmanship means coolly tolerating any amount of death, destruction, and chaos, so long as it is visited upon the enemy. Yet that’s not realism - it’s barely distinct from nihilism. While actual realists have often given less weight to moral and emotional concerns, they do it out of regard for broader strategic interests, not out of a beggar-thy-neighbor thirst for blood. And adding any strategic breadth to McDonough’s view shows its weakness.

In absolute terms, the war is putting great pressure on a number of American friends. Refugees swamp Jordan and Turkey, and add to the social challenges facing Europe. Israel faces new instability on its border. Lebanon is on the brink of civil war - or, strictly speaking, closer to the brink than usual. U.S. differences with Saudi Arabia have been thrown into sharp relief. The Kurdish question has become even more complex, with potentially grave implications for stability in Iraq and for Turkey’s attempts to resolve its internal Kurdish troubles. Long-standing Middle Eastern borders are now being questioned. Relations with Russia have become more tense. Sectarian tensions stoked by the conflict have led to violence around the globe - including against Americans. It’s hard to see why we should root for all this to continue.

McDonough might answer that our Middle East policy still centers on two areas of concern: Iranian power and the threat of Sunni terrorism. That these forces are now focused on each other and not on us could be seen as a relative victory, even if there have been serious costs on other fronts. This view is also mistaken, and for multiple reasons. Jihadists, and to a lesser extent Iran, are deeply dissatisfied with the current regional order. It has deliberately marginalized and suppressed them both. The United States, however, finds the present arrangement more agreeable than most plausible alternatives. The Syrian conflict has chipped away at the foundations of that order, presenting opportunities for those it keeps out. The black banner of jihad now flies openly and proudly over parts of Syria - unimaginable just a few years ago.