Jennifer’s dissection of the New York Times piece on the emerging Obama Doctrine is masterful. One thing I would observe about “realpolitik,” however, is that its self-conscious practitioners tend to leave big piles of unintended consequences in their wake. In that sense, Obama is indeed in the realpolitik mold. Invoking realpolitik has, moreover, become a form of shorthand for commentators who want to express approval of an essentially weak foreign policy without going to the trouble of explaining why weak is the new strong.
On the unintended-consequences front, Syria has now requited the Obama realpolitik approach with a transfer of Scud missiles to Hezbollah. Syria’s Scuds are old but retain the effectiveness to pose a serious threat to Israel’s population. They are, in fact, a population threat and not a military one: they aren’t accurate enough for precision targeting. They were originally designed to create havoc behind an enemy’s front lines in a theater-scale war. In the hands of a terrorist organization, they will be used to amplify the anti-population threat posed by shorter-range rockets. Scuds carry a significantly bigger payload than the Katyusha rockets frequently used by Hezbollah and can deliver chemical as well as conventional warheads. Syria is known to have a chemical weapons program, but I consider it unlikely that its leadership will supply chemical warheads to Hezbollah – at least for now.
News outlets are not overstating the matter in assessing that this move changes the military balance in the Middle East. It puts state-level military might in the hands of an unaccountable sub-national terrorist group. Israel is now faced with the dilemma of what and how much to do about it. The worst option is to do too little.
A quiescent geopolitical environment – one in which he doesn’t expect to face consequences – is what enables Bashar al-Assad to do this. The Scud transfer is the first of the threatening moves augured by the Arab League summit in March, where indignation over Israeli policy in Jerusalem was the unifying theme. And among Syria’s objectives with this weapons transfer is probing the U.S. reaction. American policy has set boundaries since 1945 on what other nations consider possible in the Middle East. Assad is calculating that the implications inherent in this weapons deployment do not exceed the tolerance limits of Obama’s America.
He seems to have good reason to do so. Whether this move is the harbinger of a missile attack or a means of positioning Hezbollah to negotiate concessions from Israel, it exploits a growing sense in the Middle East that the U.S. won’t intervene to avert latent threats before they become deadly peril for our allies. Too often that is the signal realpolitik sends. Obama has only amplified it with his disdain for our allies, his urgency about withdrawing our forces from the Middle East, his ineffective attempts to get around the Russian veto on our missile defenses, and his determined pursuit of a disadvantageous and unenforceable START treaty.