Viktor Kotsev, in Asia Times Online, has an excellent article on the economic factors in the Syrian unrest. Besides being hit hard by rising food prices, the Syrian people have been enduring water rationing far more rigorous than California’s. Residents of Damascus are often denied water service for more than half of each day. In the rural areas water service is limited to 3 days a week; tens of thousands have left their ancestral homes for cities like Daraa, where the Assad regime has now killed dozens of protesters.
Kotsev quotes a Syrian dissident framing his nation’s economic woes in these terms:
The coming Syrian revolution will be led by two million young Syrian women unable to find economically independent husbands and forced to embrace celibacy (Ansa’a) because of rampant unemployment and economic deprivation …
Regional drought is a factor in Syria’s problems, but the Assad regime’s domestic and foreign policies are greater ones.
Much the same can be said of the other Arab nations in various states of turmoil, from Algeria and Tunisia to Yemen and Bahrain. Their problems, in fact, seem tailor-made for the application of “smart power,” as defined by Obama’s original coterie of foreign-policy advisers. At the very least, these problems must excite practical compassion. But beyond that, they are the result of regime sclerosis and corruption, and cannot be solved effectively or humanely through “kinetic military action.”
It’s not to deprecate the concept of smart power that I mention these things. It’s to ask why smart power is not being tried. In Syria’s case, it would involve all the “smartest” methods: economic incentives, political engagement, and multilateralism (e.g., with an engagement coalition comprising the U.S., EU, Turkey, and Russia, for starters). Assad is vulnerable; now would seem to be the time to force his hand as a reformer, if that’s what our administration truly thinks he is.
Peeling Syria away from Iran is the likely outcome of weakening Assad and actively fostering liberalization and consensual politics – and that would certainly be the best thing for the Syrian people. It would also be the best thing for the region and the interests of the United States. These are not even particularly “ideological” views; they’re mainstream and pragmatic.
So it’s interesting to observe how little motivated this administration seems to be to inaugurate a smart-power campaign. Perhaps the explanation lies in the absence of a strongly perceived ideological conflict, such as the one that animated the Cold War, or the clash between Islamist extremism and Western liberalism as defined during the George W. Bush years. Smart power was, in fact, a staple of the Cold War years, and was consciously applied in a number of situations by Bush 41, Bill Clinton, and Bush 43.
Events are moving fast in the Middle East, but there has been time to map out a smart-power approach – if that approach had been the Obama administration’s guiding idea for a posture of initiative and assertiveness. The initiative and assertiveness seem to be what’s lacking. And the truth may be that they are even more necessary to successful smart power than they are to successful kinetic military action. Military operations are usually a reaction or a last resort. It’s smart power that doesn’t get launched at all without premeditated determination and positive objectives.