Sinking Into Quicksand With the Devils We Know

The Arab revolutions have revealed how promising American foreign policy situations can quickly decay by inaction or misguided action. At this point our allies are beginning to view us with doubt while our adversaries view us as indecisive.
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Syria is moving into the ultimate showdown over the fate of the Assad dynasty. President Assad ordered his troops to open fire after today's prayers and they killed another 75 Syrians seeking reform. That brings the total of protesters killed in 3 weeks to over 500. Apparently, the White House has determined not to muster a clarion call for Assad to exit. The tepid, limited, modified hang out, which evidences the U.S. approach to Syria, is part alibi, part realpolitik. But it does not add up to anything more than shopworn passivity created by missteps toward Syria in the past and "revolt fatigue" that is paralyzing a willingness to explore new ideas and new approaches for an "Assad-less Syria."

It is also reflective of the White House's politically-induced addiction to formulating foreign policy on the fly against the 24/7 news cycle. We slip and slide our way around each revolt depending on the severity of the bloodletting.

The young Assad is certainly an enigma to Washington. Secretary Clinton had high hopes that he would be a reformer (as did I) and with overly-ambitious U.S. courting everyone hoped he would move his country away from Iran and toward some degree of rapprochement with the U.S. and Israel.

But the polite courting before the revolt did nothing to alter Assad's mischievous conduct with Iran, Hezbollah and against Lebanon's democrats. Engagement has reached a painful dead-end with nowhere to go. And despite Assad's commitment to lift the dreaded emergency laws, the anger and resentment among Syrians at escalating casualties and indiscriminate killing is ravaging whatever reputation Assad hoped to salvage in the face of the protests. Repairable or not, there are a lot of bodies in the streets due to his extended family's fears that it may have to give up its autocratic caliphate.

Heeding the entreaties of professional diplomats, as well as Turkey, Israel, and perhaps even Saudi Arabia, the president has apparently sympathized with calls to avoid appearing to be part of a global cabal to toss Assad under the bus. Turkey fears that if Syria unravels, its Kurds would fuel further irredentism. Ironically, some in Jerusalem mistakenly consider Assad a preferred known quantity since the "known" Mubarak is gone creating an Egyptian "unknown." No sense in repeating the same "unknown" in Damascus.

And as for the Saudis, well, the White House is so eager to quell a formidable deterioration in the relationship that it may have deferred to the Saudis if the errant Assad's longevity was important to Riyadh.

What this all adds up to is a U.S. policy being dictated by regional parochialism and calculated finger-crossing that Assad will use just enough force and institute enough tangible reform to quell the violence before this wobbly White House deck of cards topples.

I, for one, do not subscribe to the view that an Assad-less Syria poses any more of danger to American interests than his preservation. He has already proven to be tone-deaf on core issues of most concern to Washington.

And then what?

The Syrian people are intelligent and educated. They know Washington is keeping its powder dry and by default, holding firm in the "pro-Assad" camp until it may be too late to earn any street credit from Syrians who may become indebted to Washington and realign their nation away from the vexing pro-Iranian, pro-terrorist isolation Assad's regime imposed on them. We made that same mistake in Egypt -- street credit is virtually non-existent for the role the U.S. played in Mubarak's departure. Clearly, the Obama Administration is having a hard time multitasking in the Middle East. It is so caught up in the strategic distraction of Libya's protracted civil war that it is fast losing sight of the core strategic interests that must guide our approach to each revolt.

A survey of the region is indicative of this drift, lack of focus, and indecision.

Egypt's revolution has transitioned into Act II. The media spotlight is no longer on Tahrir Square. Behind the scenes political maneuvering in Cairo has become so "inside the beltway" that Egypt does not receive nary a headline anymore. But as Egypt lurches forward to parliamentary elections, the unorganized secular democrats who triumphantly toppled Mubarak are increasingly voicing concern that a coalition of Salfi Islamist political parties may actually wind up controlling Egypt's parliament.

And what is the U.S. doing to best position itself? Instead of galvanizing a global approach to rescue Egypt's economy from a failure that would be blamed on the democrats and not Mubarak's legacy, it missed a golden opportunity at last week's World Bank/IMF meetings.

With respect to our waning influence, the rest of the Middle East is not fairing any better. Yemen is afire because President Salah is clinging to the palace drapes despite White House efforts to facilitate his departure. The Saudi-U.S. relationship is (hopefully temporarily) mired in misunderstanding and recrimination. Lebanon is being transformed by Hezbollah into a new front-line state from which Iran can orchestrate conflict with Israel.

And despite the introduction of drones yesterday, Libya, according to Adm. Mike Mullen, is descending into a stalemate. And where is the U.S. apparently focusing what little strategic attention it can muster on the Middle East? On Egypt? On Syria? On Iran? No. Apparently the Administration is burning the midnight oil debating whether to put forward a U.S. sponsored Palestine-Israeli peace plan to preempt Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's joint address to Congress next month.


Is this the best lifeline from which to refloat a Middle East policy that seems so mired in quick sand? I think not. Once upon a time, this Administration had good reason to believe that forging a Middle East peace would co-opt Arab states into cooperating with the U.S. and Israel to confront Iran's nuclear program.

That was then and this is now.

As much as progress toward a two-state solution between Palestine and Israel is essential on its own merits, it no longer will float any seaworthy boat for the U.S. in this turbulent time in the Middle East. Restoration of some credibility? Perhaps. But preoccupation with this dossier is untimely and there is nothing, I repeat, nothing that Washington can do to compel Palestinians and Israelis to achieve headway on core issues as the parties are fixated on a September UN General Assembly vote granting recognition to a Palestinian state.

Unfortunately, despite its likely approval, international recognition will do relatively little to achieve any progress on final status issues. Rather, it will likely cause both parties to hunker down further. What is more important is incubating the existing peace treaties between Israel and Jordan and Israel and Egypt from being undermined by the unfolding dramas. These are fundamental core American interests.

Where is American public diplomacy extolling to Egyptians that peace with Israel is a valuable asset to Egypt's long-term future as much as it may be to Israel's? Where is the Washington leadership to lean heavily on other Arab oil producing states to contribute to a new regional development fund to help Egypt's secular democrats take ownership of a new economic policy that will enable Egypt to withstand the loss of tourist dollars and guard against the collapse of Egypt's economy. That is a core strategic interest of the U.S.!

On balance, the Arab revolutions have crystallized how challenging American foreign policy fortunes in the region can decay by inaction or misguided action. Our allies increasingly view us with doubt and our adversaries view us as indecisive. It's time for the administration to go to the drawing board and reorganize the machinery of the U.S. government to redress the creaky pre-revolt machinery of government. President Obama deserves better ideas, better solutions and better mechanisms to do what we can, where we can, without delay or excuse.

For starters, our government is not adequately organized to promote Egypt's transition to a democracy under girded by an infusion of major public and private sector job-creating financing. Second, our public diplomacy operations have yet to develop a coherent strategy to help influence the debate inside Egypt on democratic values as it approaches its first free vote. Third, the U.S. can and should work with other Muslim states, such as Turkey, Indonesia, Malaysia and other wealthy non-Arab Muslim states to jointly develop and deploy some best practices these nations adopted to promote tolerant transitions to Islamic-oriented democratic rule.

Where are the task forces to promote joint cooperation with the European Union and international lending agencies to better organize and promote social and economic programs that would make a real difference in the forging stability in Egypt, Jordan, Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco to help realize the aspirations of those who put their lives on the line?

There is not enough room here to outline all of the possible policy innovations so many have outlined both publicly and privately to Administration officials. Yet, there is little evidence they are being heeded. In the final analysis, falling back on the tired assertion that the revolutions are beyond Washington's ability to influence is a dangerous, self-fulfilling prophecy. The United States has too much at stake to hide behind "revolt fatigue" or to dismiss any suggestion that its capacity to influence events is severely constrained. Our adversaries are hoping just for that.

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