Syria and the Burden of Incumbency

Paul Pillar

Debate about U.S. policy toward Syria has clearly exhibited some of the downsides of a reality about any discourse on foreign policy: that everyone is free to criticize anyone else's position or recommendations, but the incumbent president is the only one who has to come up with a real policy and try to make it work. The Syrian issue is an especially troubling demonstration of some of these downsides because it is one for which, as I have observed since early in the conflict, there are no good solutions. It is far easier to knock down someone else's ideas about this issue than it is to defend any ideas of one's own. Greg Sargent of the Washington Post has noted how President Obama's handling of the Syrian situation has been roundly criticized by many people who never get around to declaring what they would do instead if they had the responsibility for making policy. A contribution to debate that is all criticism and no positive alternatives is unhelpful not only because it does not directly get us any closer to a workable policy. It does not even get us indirectly closer to an improved policy; the best policy option is not necessarily the one that is least often the target of vocal, public criticism.

The discourse on Syria has exhibited other significant defects, some of which Sargent touches upon. There has been a confusion of process with outcome. This is what President Obama seemed to be complaining about when he said he wasn't trying to win “style points.” The problem with this particular focus on decision-making style is not only that it may be unfair to an incumbent trying to deal with an intractable situation. It is that some of the methods likely to win points with pundits and the public are less likely than other methods to arrive at sound policy. We like our leaders to appear decisive and resolute. We do not like them to appear vacillating and uncertain. Those preferences are understandable; they are connected to the very nature of leadership. The trouble comes when the yearning for decisiveness means criticism of the very sort of thoroughness and deliberation that is necessary to consider options carefully in the interest of arriving at the best (or least bad) option. The benchmark at the opposite end of this spectrum is the decision to launch the Iraq War, made by a president who trusted his gut and had no policy process at all to consider whether the war was a good idea.

Obama has been charged with short-circuiting his own habitually thorough decision-making by taking a walk with Denis McDonough around the south lawn of the White House and suddenly deciding to throw the question of an attack on Syria into the lap of Congress. But rather than abridging or cutting corners in the policy-making process, this was a move to make it more thorough, by involving in that process the legislative branch—which, by the way, is supposed to have war-declaring power under the Constitution.

This gets to another unhelpful conflation in debate and criticism about policy toward Syria, which is a confusion of motives with results. Did Mr. Obama make his move to Congress not out of some scruples of a former constitutional law professor but at least as much to spread responsibility to his political opponents and get buy-in for what would be a costly and risky military move? Of course he did. And when he made his other big change on Syria and ran with the Russian proposal on chemical weapons, was he grasping a lifeline that helped him to get out of the consequences of his own earlier mistake when he talked about use of chemical weapons as a game-changing red line? Yes again. But this is another example of how popular yearnings about leadership style conflict with what may be necessary to arrive at better rather than worse policies. We don't like to see our leaders change their minds because this looks indecisive, and pundits criticize this as vacillation. But changing one's mind and one's policy course may be necessary to adapt to new circumstances, to take advantage of new information, or as in the present case, to prevent previous mistakes from being compounded.

Given that I have criticized some of President Obama's moves on Syria, I ought to respond to Sargent's challenge to put up or shut up and say exactly how I would have done things differently. I would have followed all along a policy of non-intervention, for the fundamental reasons that there is no U.S. interest clearly served by one particular outcome of the Syrian civil war than another outcome, that it would be difficult or impossible for U.S. action to achieve a particular outcome of that war anyway, and that U.S. intervention would be more likely to increase than to decrease the overall violence and destruction associated with that war. I would have endeavored to articulate this reasoning, clearly and publicly. I may have won some style points for consistency, although I also would have been pilloried on the Washington Post editorial page and elsewhere for not doing more about the suffering in Syria.

I would have made greater efforts to internationalize consideration of Syria's political future, with full participation of both Russia and Iran. I would not have elevated the significance of chemical weapons far above that of the other sources of 100,000 deaths and other casualties in this war, and I would not have portrayed use of these weapons as a game-changer. I hope that after the chemical incident on August 21st I would have had the diplomatic agility to work with the Russians on an initiative to get Syria to surrender its chemical munitions, which should not have required threats of a U.S. air war. I can't say I would have been that agile, but if so we may have gotten to a situation similar in important respects to where we actually are now. Once again, style is not the same as outcome.

Image: White House/Flickr.

TopicsCongressDomestic PoliticsPublic OpinionThe PresidencyWMD RegionsUnited StatesSyria

Merkel's Triumph

Jacob Heilbrunn

"Mother knows best" seems to be Germany's current motto. Angela Merkel, who won a third term as chancellor on Sunday, is known as "Mutti," or mommy in Germany. In a time of economic prosperity and psychic unease over Europe, Germans clung to her skirt. She easily persuaded what amounts to an infantilized electorate that she can keep it swaddled in prosperity and comfort. But the greatest test of her political skills is before her.

In traveling across Germany over the past week on a trip sponsored by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, it quickly became clear to me that Germans have rarely been more skittish about losing what they have earned over the past decades. At a rally in Frankfurt the Left party's fiery leader Sarah Wagenknecht, who apparently emulates Rosa Luxemberg's hairstyle, delivered a tirade against capitalism and social injustice, but that doesn't really make a huge dent with the electorate. It's too old school. The Left party's share of the vote dropped, from 11.9 percent in 2009 to 8.3 percent. The Green party didn't score very well in this federal election, either. It dropped from 10.7 percent in 2009 to 8.1 percent. It became enmeshed in a pedophilia scandal, dating back to its founding years in the early 1980s when party leader Juergen Trittin apparently signed off on some flyers touting the virtues of taking an agnostic stance about "uncoerced" sex between adults and children. Meanwhile, the Free Democratic Party suffered a cataclysmic loss, dropping to 4.8 percent, below the minimum 5 percent barrier for entry into the Bundestag.

So the small parties, more or less took it on the chin. One didn't. It was the Alternative For Germany, which scored 4.9 percent, coming within a whisker of entering parliament. This was a more than respectable result for a party that barely existed a few months ago. The AFD consists of disaffected Germans who view the Euro with grave msigivings. Until now, Germany had been something of an anomaly in Europe, the only major country where an anti-Euro party had not taken flight. No longer. The AFD mirrors the Austrian Freedom Party, which also espouses classical liberal economics, coupled with an anti-immigrant stance. In American terms, the AFD represents Germany's version of a Tea Party movement—a grass roots movement that detests elites. In Germany's case, the elites have, by and large, uniformly backed the Euro. Klaus-Dieter Frankenberger, the editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, wryly referred to those skeptical about Europe, both in the economics section of his newspaper and at the Bundesbank, as "Euro-Taliban."

The AFD will likely achieve its greatest success in the upcoming European elections. It can campaign against Brussels in Brussels. For now, Germans chose consolidation in this election. A grand coalition between the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats looms. Or, if the socialists balk, or, if Merkel proves somewhat more adventurous, one with the Green party, which would allow the Christian Democrats to present themselves as progressive and openminded, key themes in modern Germany. But the Christian Democratic base might revolt. It is the grand coalition that appears to be what many Germans want—consensus, reassurance, "no experiments," as Konrad Adeanuer once put it. But in decapitating the liberal Free Democrats, who espouse lower taxes and civil liberties, perhaps Merkel succeeded all to well. Germans have two votes in the election. Traditionally, they have split their votes, giving one to a candidate and another to a party. But this time the Christian Democrats urged their followers not to split the ticket. Whether the Free Democrats, plagued by factionalism and a weak leadership, can ever recover is an open question. The best that the elderly Rainer Bruderele, one of the party's leaders, could do in a commercial was to complacently smear a thick dollop of butter on a slice of bread to suggest that the party would safeguard bourgeois comforts and prosperity. The voters, as Lorentz Maroldt observed in Der Tagesspiegel, responded by snatching away the butter from the Free Democrats in the election. It is disconsolatory to think that the liberal tradition, dating back to the nineteenth century, and embodied in the twentieth by figures such as Theodor Heuss, Walter Scheel, and Hans-Dietrich Genscher, has reached its terminus. Only an honest look by the party at its failures, which must include a purge of the inept leaders that brought it to its current impasse, can open a new path for future success for the Free Democrats.

Now the Alternative For Germany may form a true conservative opposition to Merkel's party, lambasting it for kowtowing to Europe. Still, it is Merkel's hour. She has persistently been underestimated by many in her own party—and it is very much her party now. She has polished off one rival after another and reinvented the Christian Democrats in her own image, much to the distress of the more conservative party wing. It continued with her latest campaign for office. Her campaign manager Lutz Meyer explained at a dinner on Friday that she had hired him, a former Social Democratic campaign adviser, to renew her brand and to emphasize her feminine qualities. Her entire campaign consisted of softening her message and image, of suggesting to Germans that she could provide the security and comfort they desire. Now Merkel is at the zenith of her power. Not only Germany, but also the rest of Europe will be watching to see how she approaches the monetary crisis that continues to plague the continent. She will have to prove that mother really does know best.

Image: Flickr/Armin Kübelbeck. CC BY-SA 3.0.

TopicsEuropean Union RegionsGermany

TNI's Best of the Web 9/21

The Buzz

Starting this week, TNI’s Managing Editor, Harry Kazianis, will select the day’s top foreign policy, national security, and defense articles for your reading pleasure. From the latest crisis in Syria or the Middle East, to China’s rise, to important matters of U.S. foreign policy, TNI has you covered.

What you need to know for Saturday 9/21:

New York Times: Saudi Arabia's Proxy War

Washington Post: Debt fight poses risks for Obama and Republicans “Showdowns over spending and Obamacare are likely to shape the political climate for 2014 as the House sets up a confrontation with the White House and congressional Democrats that could lead to a partial shutdown.”

Foreign Policy: Sliding Toward Damascus - "How Syria's civil war crept into the heart of Baghdad -- then went boom."

World Politics Review: U.S. Paying the Price for Taking Brazil for Granted

Foreign Affairs: Bo Behind Bars? “Former Chinese politician Bo Xilai is expected to be sentenced for corruption this weekend."

TopicsGlobal Governance

Rouhani's Message

Paul Pillar

The op ed from President Hassan Rouhani in the Washington Post should be read carefully on at least four levels.

The first is as one measure of the overall earnestness and seriousness with which the current leadership of Iran is approaching relations with the United States and with the rest of the outside world. Can you find an unreasonable phrase anywhere in the piece? I can't.

The second is as a contrast with what we had become accustomed to hearing under the eight-year tenure of Rouhani's predecessor. The contrast is so sharp one would never guess, if we did not already know it was so, that such pronouncements were coming from successive presidents of the same country, separated not by a coup or revolution but instead by a peaceful election. Rouhani's piece in the Post adds to the numerous other indications over the past several weeks that his election marks a profound change in attitude and approach in Tehran.

Third, Rouhani's statements about what Iran wishes to do on issues of high concern to both it and the United States is consistent with what any dispassionate and well-reasoned analysis would arrive at as necessary to facilitate resolution of these issues. On the nuclear question, any resolution will have to recognize—and provide assurances to the West of being limited to—a “peaceful nuclear energy program.” On the more pressing issue of the Syrian war, Rouhani's statement of his government's “readiness to help facilitate dialogue between the Syrian government and the opposition” should be acted upon, both because Iran already is a player, for better or for worse, in the Syrian situation and because working together in addressing the Syrian situation can have beneficial spillover effects in dealing with the nuclear question and other issues.

Fourth, the article contains sage advice about other aspects of the American approach to foreign policy, including on matters that do not directly involve Iran. As with Vladimir Putin's recent missive, Americans ought not to need foreign presidents to point out truths about their own policies and approach toward the world, but they are truths nonetheless. Among Rouhani's observations that are too often forgotten, or never appreciated in the first place, in American discourse is that the world is for the most part not a zero-sum place and that dealing with other nations involves simultaneous competition and cooperation. He correctly observes that a unilateral approach that “glorifies brute force and breeds violence” does not solve shared problems such as terrorism and extremism. He notes that too often “security is pursued at the expense of the insecurity of others, with disastrous consequences.” A glaring example of this in the Middle East that does not directly involve Iran but is condoned by the United States comes readily to mind.

Perhaps the most trenchant of Rouhani's observations is:

We and our international counterparts have spent a lot of time — perhaps too much time — discussing what we don’t want rather than what we do want. This is not unique to Iran’s international relations. In a climate where much of foreign policy is a direct function of domestic politics, focusing on what one doesn’t want is an easy way out of difficult conundrums for many world leaders. Expressing what one does want requires more courage.

This aptly describes how some foreign policy issues—certainly including the Iranian nuclear issue—get addressed in the United States. One of the biggest deficiencies in American discourse about that issue is that it goes little beyond declarations of how badly we don't want an Iranian bomb, with almost no sense of what we do want other than to hurt Iran and no vision for the future other than, by implication, perpetual hostility.

The new Iranian administration has opened a door to a better relationship, and one better for the United States, about as widely as such doors ever are opened. The United States would be foolish not to walk through it.

Image: Office of the President of Iran.

TopicsDomestic PoliticsSanctionsNuclear ProliferationTerrorism RegionsIsraelIranUnited States

John McCain Strikes Back: TNI's Best of the Web 9/19

The Buzz

Starting this week, TNI’s Managing Editor, Harry Kazianis, will select the day’s top foreign policy, national security, and defense articles for your reading pleasure. From the latest crisis in Syria or the Middle East, to China’s rise, to important matters of U.S. foreign policy, TNI has you covered.

What you need to know for Thursday 9/19:

Pravda: Russian’s Deserve Better Than Putin - Senator John McCain responds to Russian President Putin’s New York Times op-ed.

From the op-ed: “President Putin doesn't believe in these values because he doesn't believe in you. He doesn't believe that human nature at liberty can rise above its weaknesses and build just, peaceful, prosperous societies. Or, at least, he doesn't believe Russians can. So he rules by using those weaknesses, by corruption, repression and violence. He rules for himself, not you.

I do believe in you. I believe in your capacity for self-government and your desire for justice and opportunity. I believe in the greatness of the Russian people, who suffered enormously and fought bravely against terrible adversity to save your nation. I believe in your right to make a civilization worthy of your dreams and sacrifices. When I criticize your government, it is not because I am anti-Russian. It is because I believe you deserve a government that believes in you and answers to you. And, I long for the day when you have it.”

Washington Post: Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Effort to Seek peace with Pakistani Taliban off to Rocky Start

New York Times: Through Diplomacy, Obama Finds a Pen Pal in Iran

Foreign Policy: Rebel vs. Rebel - “Syrian jihadi groups are now kidnapping and killing one another. Is this the beginning of an all out war, or an opportunity for the moderates?”

Foreign Affairs: The Sleepwalking Giant - Germany’s Boring Election is Bad News For Europe

The Atlantic: Does Syria Represent Obama's Final Pivot Away From the Middle East? - “The decision not to intervene may signal a broader strategic shift away from the region.”

Image: Wikicommons

TopicsGlobal Governance