Michael Young, the opinion editor of the Beirut Daily Star, has a fine column parsing the latest developments on Syria, Lebanon, and the Obama administration. He confirms the interpretation I made recently on this blog, that the administration is puzzled at the failure of its opening gambits and unsure of what to do next:
The problem is that Washington is of several minds over what to do about Syria…because there is no broad accord, and because the president has not provided clear guidance on resolving Mideastern problems, there is confusion in Washington. And where there is confusion there is policy bedlam, with everyone trying to fill the vacuum. That explains why the Syrians feel they can relax for now, and why the Iranians see no reason yet to fear an American riposte.
Lebanon should be worried about American uncertainty. When there is doubt in Washington, it usually means the Israelis have wide latitude to do what they see fit here. With much of the Lebanese political class openly or objectively siding with Hezbollah, rather than shaping an American approach to Lebanon that might reinforce its sovereignty, we can guess the calamitous effect of that abdication.
Young’s worry is confirmed by this remarkable report from Foreign Policy‘s Josh Rogin:
As for why Syria seems to be playing such an unhelpful role, “that’s the million-dollar question,” the [Obama administration] official said….”We do not understand Syrian intentions. No one does, and until we get to that question we can never get to the root of the problem,” the official said. “Until then it’s all damage control.”
This is quite simply amazing. The Assads, father and now son, have run the same foreign policy for decades. It is a very simple model, and one that gets discussed in detail on a regular basis: They are the arsonists who sell water to the fire department. The administration official should start his odyssey of discovery by reading Bret Stephens’s 2009 Commentary essay, “The Syrian Temptation — and Why Obama Must Resist It.”
Bashar is a promoter of a remarkable array of death and destruction in the Middle East: killing American soldiers in Iraq, murdering Lebanon’s pro-democracy community into submission, killing Israelis, arming Hezbollah, hosting Hamas, and so on. This is intended not only to make Syria into a bigger player than it would otherwise be, but allows Bashar to maintain his illegitimate police state of a regime by constantly invoking foreign threats. And it ensures that the United States and other western powers will continuously drag themselves to Syria to beg for cooperation. “The road to Damascus is a road to peace,” Nancy Pelosi famously declared on her visit in 2007, unintentionally confirming to Assad the wisdom of the mayhem he sponsors. This is like saying that the road to the brothel is a road to virginity.
In the Obama administration, there are a few people, like Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, who understand Syria. But foreign policy is run from the top. The person who doesn’t get it is the president, who seems confused by the failure of the region’s dictators and terrorists to respond constructively to his sensitive reorientation of American foreign policy. Right now he is stuck between his ideological commitments and the reality of their failure, and in the meantime the Middle East’s rogues are not waiting around for The One to figure out what level of nuance he ultimately wishes to pursue. They see naivety and irresolution, and they capitalize.