Meanwhile, Assad continues to use chlorine gas as a weapon against his people and Iran has learned that it can practice its own strategic patience. Iran knows it can enhance its regional position while improving its ballistic missiles and nuclear centrifuges and then spring forth in around a decade when the deal expires as a fully weaponized nuclear state with an industrial-sized program. And all Israel got was a lousy T-shirt.
Some analysts have long argued that the most coherent interpretation of the previous administration’s behavior is that Barack Obama was committed to boosting the Iranians as a stabilizing force in the Middle East. That case is most compellingly made by Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, as well as Lee Smith and Michael Doran, both senior fellows at the Hudson Institute.
Doran, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and former senior director of the National Security Council, further argued that Russia’s newly enhanced regional position was part and parcel of President Obama’s broader strategy. In his published response to Doran, Dennis Ross, a former special assistant to President Obama from 2009–2011, who served in senior positions related to the Middle East for several U.S administrations, disagreed with Doran’s premise but largely supported his conclusions. That is to say, whether by design or by accident, the result of President Obama’s eight-year overcorrection in foreign policy is the dramatically enhanced influence and position of both Russia and Iran, and the diminished standing of the United States and its allies.
Foreign Policy at a Crossroad
Now, in the early months of his presidency, Donald Trump finds himself at a fork in the road in terms of foreign policy. When it comes to Syria, there are no good options available today. What’s left to ponder recalls a scene from the Hollywood blockbuster, Argo, where CIA agents Tony Mendez and Jack O’Donnell (played by Ben Affleck and Bryan Cranston) bring their rescue plan to CIA director Stansfield Turner. Unconvinced, he asks, “You don’t have a better bad idea than this?” to which O’Donnell replies emphatically, “This is the best bad idea we have sir.” As Tony Mendez understood at the time, “There are only bad options; it’s about finding the best one.”
The rationale for American action was always there along with the attendant warning that the United States would eventually have to get involved, only the choices then would be far worse and under even more complicated circumstances. At the beginning of the crisis, it was a localized conflict; it has now been transformed into a global war of jihad. While those on the political right argued that the Muslim Brotherhood would take over if Assad was toppled, the West’s collective dithering over what to do about Damascus helped produce “Jihad Central” in Syria, a magnet for international Islamists of a more ostentatious and dangerous ideological stripe.
There were those on the political left who argued that what happened over there didn’t threaten American interests; however, as the refugee crisis and global attacks perpetrated by ISIS and its sympathizers attest, the line regarding the misapplication of Las Vegas rules rings true: What happens in Syria won’t stay in Syria. And for those who warned about the Pottery Barn rules and wanted to avoid regional blame for any involvement, Syria has long been shattered. By clinging to the status quo or working to keep Assad in power the United States appears to be in league with Moscow rather than opposing Russian efforts.
After six years of unbridled Syrian carnage, the crisis isn’t a Republican or Democrat problem; rather, it is a profound moral failing and example of being on the proverbial wrong side of history, par excellence. The United States is in need of a Goldilocks policy—solutions in between the way too hot and way too cold spectrum. As Donald Trump weighs his options, there is the gravitational pull of putting his personal stamp on the manic presidential tradition of overcorrection. Or there is the opportunity to learn the proper lessons from history and from America’s successes and failures abroad. One can only hope he chooses the latter.
Image: Flight operations on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Navy