Playing Patience While Syria Burns

WASHINGTON, USA - OCTOBER 2: US President Barak Obama speaks during a press conference at the White House in Washington, USA
WASHINGTON, USA - OCTOBER 2: US President Barak Obama speaks during a press conference at the White House in Washington, USA on October 2, 2015. During the press conference he announced the resignation of Arnie Duncan as Secretary of Education and appointed John King as his temporary replacement. He also answered question on gun control, Russia, and the situation in Syria. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

In England the game of solitaire is known as "patience." For those unfamiliar with the game, a single card player places a shuffled deck of cards face down and tries, by turning them over and rearranging them, to end up with four columns, one for each suit, with the cards ranked from ace to king.

I have never understood why anyone wastes their time this way when they could be reading a good book -- or even a bad book. Nevertheless, it was the game of patience I thought of earlier this year when Susan Rice, President Obama's national security adviser, unveiled the administration's new foreign policy doctrine: "strategic patience." For, ever since the Syrian civil war broke out in March 2011, her boss has strongly resembled a bored man playing a game of patience -- endlessly rearranging the cards and never quite getting them in the right order.

Now, nobody should pretend that Syria is an easy problem to solve. To borrow a phrase made famous by the U.S. ambassador at the United Nations, Samantha Power, it is a "problem from hell." There are now multiple warring factions in the country, which is close to falling irrevocably apart into at least four separate territories. The United States is not the only outside power that has tried to influence the outcome. So has Russia, which has dramatically escalated its intervention in recent weeks. So have Turkey, Iran, Iraq and the Gulf states.

Yet for all its bewildering complexity, the Syrian crisis is also a classic foreign policy problem: the kind that presidents of the United States have been grappling with since the end of World War II. Civil war breaks out inside a minor-league country; in this case not a U.S. ally. The authoritarian ruler deploys lethal force to crush opposition, brazenly violating human rights. The death toll rapidly rises. Refugees pour out of the country, destabilizing neighboring states. What to do?

The president has played patience. To describe his chronic card-shuffling, Washington insiders now use the verb "to meeting" -- as in "We're going to meeting this problem to death." Syria has been meetinged to death, along with up to 330,000 of its citizens, a third of them civilians.

The solitaire strategy has had eight phases:

1. August 2011: Obama tells Bashar al-Assad to "step aside." He doesn't oblige.

2. February 2012: Obama tries going through the UN Security Council. Russia and China veto his resolution for a democratic transition in Syria. A UN-mediated ceasefire also fails. A second U.S. resolution is vetoed in July.

3. June 2012: Under pressure from Republicans to arm the Free Syrian Army, Obama refuses. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta explains that arming the FSA would lead to "a terrible civil war." A terrible civil war happens anyway.

4. Summer 2012: Panetta, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, CIA Director David Petraeus and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey all press Obama to arm approved rebel groups. Obama resists, but ultimately does approve CIA training of 10,000 rebel fighters. When finally deployed these fighters prove useless.

5. July 2012-August 2013: Trying to sound tough, the White House says that if Assad uses chemical weapons he will "cross a red line." Chemical weapons get used anyway and the White House confirms Assad's forces were responsible.

6. September 2013: The red line proves to be a pink dotted line as Obama announces he will seek congressional approval for U.S. military action. Russians persuade Assad to hand over chemical weapons to encourage congressional opposition. In an address to the nation, Obama announces that U.S. is no longer the "global policeman."

7. August 2014: Islamic State executes James Foley and other Western hostages, leading Obama to authorize joint air strikes with Gulf states against IS in Syria. After a year in which 7,300 attacks were carried out, IS still controls much of eastern Syria.

8. September 2015: Having had his plan for joint action rejected by Obama, President Putin seizes the initiative. In response to a Syrian request, he sends not only fighter jets but also ground forces to Latakia and warships to the Caspian Sea. Russians begin air and missile strikes against Assad's opponents.

As I said, this was never an easy issue. Nor is it certain that Putin will emerge triumphant. But nobody can seriously argue that Obama's approach has been a success. I was a harsh critic of the way the administration of George W. Bush conducted its invasion and occupation of Iraq. Yet we need to admit now that Obama's dithering over Syria has been as bad. According to Iraq Body Count, the total number of deaths following the U.S. invasion was 224,000, of whom between 144,000 and 166,000 were civilians. At least in Iraq we got rid of Saddam. Assad is still alive and killing in Damascus.

The first great flaw in Obama's strategy has been his insistence that the only alternative to doing next-to-nothing was all-out invasion à la Bush. Every time Senator John McCain has urged him to act in Syria, Obama has accused him of wanting another Iraq. This is so simplistic that the president cannot possibly believe it. There are many degrees of intervention in a war like the one raging in Syria. Think only of the successful interventions Bill Clinton undertook, albeit belatedly, in the former Yugoslavia. Think, more recently, of how effectively the French took out Al Qaeda when they marched into Mali.

But the bigger flaw in "strategic patience" is one identified long ago by Henry Kissinger. In 1963 Kissinger summed up what he called the "terrible dilemma" confronting any strategic decision-maker:

Each political leader has the choice between making the assessment which requires the least effort or making an assessment which requires more effort. If he makes the assessment that requires least effort, then as time goes on it may turn out that he was wrong and then he will have to pay a heavy price. If he acts on the basis of a guess, he will never be able to prove that his effort was necessary, but he may save himself a great deal of grief later on. ... If he acts early, he cannot know whether it was necessary. If he waits, he may be lucky or he may be unlucky.

Obama, with his lawyer's training, is risk averse, so he naturally prefers the line of least resistance. As the anti-Bush, his approach to strategy boils down to "Don't do stupid s***." But that, like "strategic patience," is just another way of saying, "Always kick the can down the road." Sometimes, as Kissinger says, that can work out. Procrastinators can get lucky. Sometimes, however, the can being kicked down the road turns out to be packed with explosives.

Syria has been Obama's nemesis, his very own improvised explosive device. In Cairo in 2009 he promised a new era of peace and understanding between the United States and the Muslim world. Five years later, a caliphate has been proclaimed by a fanatical and bloodthirsty Islamist movement that not only controls large tracts of Syria and Iraq but also has the capacity to recruit followers from the U.S. itself. America's European allies are being overwhelmed by millions of refugees. And Russia has re-established itself as a power-broker in the Middle East, a role Henry Kissinger successfully removed from Moscow 45 years ago.

In an interview shortly after Obama's Cairo speech, Kissinger described the president as being "like a chess player who ... has opened his game with an unusual opening." He was wrong. No great student of strategy, Obama has played patience with himself -- and lost.

The first volume of Niall Ferguson's new biography of Henry Kissinger has just been published by Penguin.