Obama in Syria: A Failure to Communicate

Public reaction to recent events in Europe, Africa and the Middle East has again exposed a debilitating flaw in the Obama White House. For all of its considerable strengths, this administration has, at times, a blind spot for the need to fully join the public debate and utilize its bully pulpit to sell the American people on tough and widely misunderstood policy decisions.

That ivory tower approach to the rough and tumble of American politics has proven disastrous in the past. The president seemed to acknowledge as much following the 2010 election in which his party lost 63 House seats and control of the chamber. He told reporters,

You know, this is something that I think every president needs to go through, because . . . the responsibilities of this office are so enormous and so many people are depending on what we do, and in the rush of activity sometimes we lose track of . . . the ways that we connected with folks that got us here in the first place.

He conceded: "... I'm not recommending for every future president that they take a shellacking like I did last night. You know, I'm sure there're easier ways to learn these lessons."

But the national dialogue that is developing around Syria brings to serious question whether this White House has, in fact, learned the lessons the president spoke of. The White House, the Department of Defense and the State Department have been sorting through the nettlesome choices we face in confronting the failed state that was once lead by Bashir al-Assad, the rise of the transnational terrorist movement now known as the Islamic State and the aspirations of the numerous religious, ethnic and political groups that make up the region known as Syria.

I will be the first to admit that developing clear and achievable objectives in Syria is very difficult and explaining them is even tougher. Several years ago, when opposition to the repressive Assad regime began to erupt into open violence, I was frustrated that the U.S. was not being more assertive. While I continue to think we might have done more there early on, I have come to appreciate that the White House essentially got the policy right.

The risk of the U.S. playing too heavy a hand in Syria might eliminate the current bad guy, but would once again leave the U.S. holding the bag in terms of producing a viable successor. As we learned in Iraq, nation building can be far more expensive and dangerous than the military action that created the need for it. And failure to replace either ISIS or Assad with a viable successor would very likely create an even more chaotic long term situation, breeding even more violence and threats of future terrorism

The complexity of developing a policy that not only takes out the bad guys but leaves us with some sense of progress after they are gone is very effectively outlined in a column published last Thursday in the Washington Post by Fareed Zakaria. Zakaria points out that:

Defeating the group militarily would not be difficult. But to keep it defeated, someone would have to rule its territories or else it, or a variant, would just come back. The Islamic State draws its support from Sunnis in Iraq and Syria who feel persecuted by the non-Sunni governments...

Politicians call on the United States to build up an army of moderate Syrians. It is a worthwhile endeavor. But historically, when foreigners have helped put together local forces, those forces have usually lacked legitimacy and staying power -- think of the Cubans who landed at the Bay of Pigs, the South Vietnamese regime or Washington's favored Iraqi exiles.

This essential problem -- the lack of a credible local ally -- makes ground operations in Syria harder than in Iraq, Afghanistan or Vietnam.

Zakaria argues, however, that we can overcome these difficulties if follow Obama's plan of using "strategic patience". He cites the work of Seth Jones in his recent book, Hunting in the Shadows, underscoring the critical need for a "light-footprint strategy" if we are to succeed in achieving our ultimate objectives in Middle Eastern conflicts. Jones argues that when the U.S. and its allies have sent large numbers of troops into Muslim communities we have lost the war of ideas. "Al-Qaeda has benefited through increased radicalization and additional recruits."

The administration has operated from the "shadows" not because it was indecisive or weak, as its critics have attempted to argue, but because that is the strategy that will not simply get rid of the bad guys, but will offer us the prospect of replacing them with a regime that we can live with, and not be faced with yet another costly military intervention in that part of the world every five or ten years for the indefinite future.

In the same edition of the Post in which the Zakaria column appeared, another important piece by David Ignatius outlines how unpopular ISIS is within the Sunni Arab world, and how much common ground the west has with those in the Middle East who wish to or could be persuaded to oppose them. The question is whether we fight smart or stupid and right now the fight stupid advocates seem to be ascendant.

I think the White House has either said or implied all of this to be the case. But much like in the days following the passage of the Recovery Act in 2009, when funds for the creation of jobs were only beginning to flow and the toll of massive layoffs was still continuing to mount, the White House has failed to engage in the daily task of explaining what they are doing, why they are doing it and why the course they have chosen is far superior to the alternatives being advanced by their critics. They are abandoning the political battlefield when the need for leadership is the greatest. That failure not only places a well-considered Syria policy in jeopardy, but bleeds into the politics of every other issue from the budget to the treatment of immigrants who are in no way connected to the troubles of the Middle East.

Those who truly understand the complexity of using American force in a manner that will ultimately benefit our national interest are coalescing around the policy choices that the White House has selected, and the burden for informing the American people of the rightness of those choices lies with all clear thinking citizens, but most especially, it lies with the Obama administration itself.

It does little good to have chosen the right course if you don't win the public debate for maintaining it. That is the most important job now facing this White House. Let us hope that they will recognize that fact and rise to the occasion.