Eleanor H. Porter’s 1913 classic, Pollyanna, bequeathed to the English language a new and concise term for oblivious, overweening optimism and its dangers. Barbara Tuchman’s flawed but popular 1984 book, The March of Folly, described what happens when a political elite’s failure to B-team its own complacency leads to catastrophic violence. Put them together and one gets Follyanna—a dangerous inability to see the world and its bad actors for what they are because idealist illusions blur and color one’s metaphorical eyesight. That is possibly the best description yet of the Obama Administration’s general orientation to U.S. foreign and national security policy.
Or possibly not. Even after more than seven years we still cannot be sure how the President and his closest advisers think about the global environment and how the United States fits into it, or if their thinking has changed through experience over the past seven years. Some writers refer to an Obama Doctrine, but there is no such thing. Even short of declaring non-existent doctrines, many observers think they have the Administration figured out, but they have it figured out in mutually incompatible ways because the evidence is ambiguous. So some are led to label him a liberal internationalist (evidence: his multilateralist inclinations, his faith in the United Nations), some to label him a realist (evidence: his supposed leanings toward offshore balancing and his downplaying of democracy promotion), some to label him an idealist (evidence: his “no nukes” campaign), and some even to label him a neocon (evidence: his extensive use of Predator drones and special forces against Islamic extremists, his soft-peddling of supposed NSA enormities, and, most recently, on February 9, his all-but-strident lecture to Middle Eastern leaders at the Dubai World Government Summit that they should move toward “inclusiveness” in government).
For those who prefer the simpler biographical approach, some have likened Obama to Carter, but others have pointed instead to Nixon, FDR, Reagan, Eisenhower, Johnson, Kennedy, and even George W. Bush. That probably means either that Obama is much more nuanced and sophisticated that most people think, or that he is a strategically incoherent improviser of last resort—or that he began as the latter but has evolved into the former. Which is it?
We will probably have to await more memoirs, archives, and wise-man retrospection before we can say with any surety. But from the evidence to hand so far, it seems to me that the answer, however improbable it may seem, is “all of the above.” Let’s look at U.S. policy in the Middle East for a test case, and let’s look particularly at the current state of the Syrian civil war and the U.S. approach to it.
With your kind permission, dear reader, let me start with a story. Back in mid-December, I prepared and presented a paper on Russian motives for its major military intervention in Syria for a program of the Atlantic Council. In some 7,000 words of copious analysis, I barely mentioned the so-called Geneva process designed, in theory, to produce a political settlement to the civil war. When the chairman of the program, my former State Department colleague John Herbst, asked me why I did that, I replied that it seemed to me that the Geneva process would not produce definitive or even remotely acceptable results, anymore than an earlier UN-sponsored mediation by Kofi Annan did. In both cases the Syrian regime and its allies—especially the Russians—were merely lulling gullible Westerners to sleep, stringing them along, while they used the diplomatic show to buy time to establish friendly facts on the battlefield.
At that program, some of my fellow paper-delivering participants—notably Dennis Ross and Fred Hof, two very experienced and knowledgeable people—averred that the test of Geneva’s seriousness was the capacity of the process to achieve a widespread and stable ceasefire to ameliorate the humanitarian disaster in Syria. Only the regime and its Russian ally were in a position to declare and enforce such a ceasefire, which was an agreed outcome of November discussions in Vienna. But now the Geneva session has come and pretty much gone, and Geneva flunked the test: There is no ceasefire.
Indeed, we now see instead a sharply accelerated tempo of violence perpetrated against civilians in and around Aleppo in what is becoming the most critical battle of the war. The Russians have no intention of taking the Geneva process seriously until they have reshaped the battlefield and the atmosphere around it—using, respectively, tactics of migratory genocide and very big lies—in such a way that the outcome is foreordained: Assad stays, Russia and Iran retain their ally and forward base in the Arab world, the rebels left alive and in-country are reduced to nuisances living in the gray zones of the eastern desert, and the Islamic State is left to menace the Sunni Arab state establishments to the sheer delight of rulers in Damascus and Tehran.
This has been clear for months to those not afflicted with Follyanna tendencies. But if there were any lingering doubts about this, note that a Russian diplomat said yesterday in response to Western pressure for a ceasefire that March 1 “perhaps” might be a prospective date. The press has over- or misinterpreted this remark as “Russians propose March 1 ceasefire,” but the actual language suggests something very different: “Maybe March, I think so.” Only a Follyannish fool would take this, from a Russian, to indicate a promise or even an honest intention. The battle for Aleppo is intense and its conclusion will most likely be rapid. The Russian, with their Syrian friends, are seeking a surrender that they will then call a ceasefire. It is easy to cease firing when no one is shooting back because they are mainly dead.
And the U.S. role in all this? Well, not so long ago Secretary of State John Kerry waxed very optimistic that his efforts were bearing fruit. After November talks in Vienna, when the Russians and others agreed to negotiations in January, and agreed further that those talks would be accompanied by a ceasefire and culminate in elections after an 18-month transition process, the Secretary declared: “We’re weeks away conceivably from the possibility of a big transition in Syria.”
That obviously did not happen and it isn’t going to happen via the Geneva process, even if it reconvenes as scheduled on February 25. And one of the reasons is that a series of U.S. concessions doomed the talks before they ever got started [see here]. Most important, the U.S. position on Assad’s future softened and then effectively caved. That crushed rebel morale, or what was left of it, and made it almost impossible to persuade the moderate opposition to attend. But that concession rendered it inevitable that the opposition would interpret U.S. intentions going forward as a betrayal. It has already caused massive leakage from the Free Syrian Army toward Jabhat al-Nusra and other more effective fighting forces, at least for those who could escape the killing zone of Aleppo, which will soon begin to look a lot like Grozny after the Russian army was done its work there.
The Saudi government, meanwhile, exerted itself to organize and deliver the rebels to Geneva—but only on the entirely reasonable condition that the pledge of a ceasefire be fulfilled before earnest political dealing began. But the pledge was not fulfilled; it turned out that the Russians were less than honest back in November, just as they are being less than honest now about March 1. So the moderate opposition showed up, sort of, but refused to discuss politics until the humanitarian siege was ameliorated. It wasn’t, and Staffan de Mistura, to his credit, knew better than to press a conference forward against the grain of reality, for it would only provide a propaganda forum for the Russian defense of a regime guilty of mass murder. That is the same problem he faces if he reconvenes the farce on February 25.
The Administration not only made concessions to the Assad regime and the Russians (and by indirection, then, to the Iranians), but also to Turkey. That concession was the refusal to invite any Kurds to Geneva. Anyone can see that there is no way to achieve a political settlement in Syria without the Kurds, but one could excuse the concession as a temporary expedient if the Administration planned to lobby and enlist Turkish military help to blunt the regime and Russian surge in the Syrian north. But the Administration still refuses to buy into the idea of a humanitarian keep-out zone on the Syrian side of the Turkish border, which would obviously have to be defended at least in part by dint of Turkish military force, so it remains unclear what the concession to Ankara achieved.
After the collapse of the conference the Administration did send a senior envoy to the semi-independent Kurdish enclave of Rojava, presumably to ameliorate the snub and to make sure Washington does not get outflanked by Moscow on the Kurdish issue. Apparently, the Administration felt a need, too, to show that the Turks could not bully us, that our choice of tactical allies was ours and ours alone to make. But the Administration felt no need for a similar demonstration of backbone aimed at Moscow, Tehran, or Damascus. There’s a pattern here that we’ve gotten used to seeing over the past seven years: The Administration is willing to diss its allies, but never its adversaries. It “engages” the latter, but it enrages the former on a pretty regular basis.
In any event, that gesture set President Erdogan on fire, leading him to challenge the Administration to choose between its Turkish NATO ally and the “terrorists” of the PYD. The result was, first, an undermining of the potential for Geneva ever to achieve anything, even if it reconvenes—but that is over-determined anyway by the Russians. And, second, it sparked a mostly gratuitous public spat between the Administration and the Turkish leadership. We could not have parleyed usefully in private with the Kurds? Brett McGurk had to haul Old Glory all the way to Rojava for that purpose?
Such a spat is not entirely harmless. Since President Erdogan got more than he bargained for after the Turkish military foolishly shot down a Russian jet overflying Hatay province in November, the Turks have been rushing back into American (and Israeli!…..the Turkish leadership is very Jewcentric in all the wrong ways) arms for protection. The spat runs the risk of persuading the Russians that the Administration does not really have Turkey’s back after all, anymore than it has had the back of the Syrian rebels or, for that matter, any other ally or proxy lately. That adds to the likely Russian assessment that the Administration, given its refusal to commit American power in any serious way in Iraq or Syria, is not now and will not be over the next eleven months any obstacle to the implementation of Russian war aims—even if those aims include further efforts to intimidate the Turks.
As if to cap off a feckless and counterproductive recent America diplomacy, Secretary Kerry committed a gratuitous error not long ago that just takes one’s breath away. On February 2, Kerry described the leaders and followers of the Islamic state as “apostates.” Apostasy is a theological term, and the one thing—one of the only things, too—that everybody agrees on, and has agreed on since not long after 911, is that non-Muslims have no business making pronouncements about the character of Islam and arguments that go on inside the Muslim tent. It is wildly counterproductive for us and for our Muslim friends and allies. The President should never have said that the Islamic State is “not Islamic” in his big September 10, 2014 speech that announced the U.S. bombing campaign against ISIS, but that’s so long ago now that most people have forgotten all about it. So why did John Kerry go out of his way to remind them?
It is easy to criticize this U.S. performance, and it deserves criticism. But sometimes Presidents and Secretaries of State end up doing the right things for either the wrong reasons or for non-obvious reasons, and this may be a case in point. Let me explain.
It is fatuous, usually, to glibly compare a sitting President to any of his predecessors. By the same token, reasoning by historical analogy is a mug’s game unless excruciating care is taken to account for differences in context [see here]. Even then, it makes a lot less sense to try to analogize directly from one case in the past to a case in the present than to distill out some general themes from a lot of history and try, again very carefully and in full awareness of different contexts, to apply those themes. So, for example, while analogizing the situation that led to war in August 1914 to the present situation in the Levant is, contra Margaret Macmillan and many others, indeed fatuous, thinking about the structure of interlinked decision-making under conditions of time pressure and information deficits may not be.
One of the observations that comes out of a study of the descent into war in August 1914 is that the more actors that are entwined in a strategic competition, the more complicated it gets to look ahead in order to assess the consequences of one’s behavior. A good chess player can think ahead several moves, but he would not be able to do so readily if instead of one opponent he faced five or seven, if the fixed rules and number of pieces were not actually fixed, and if his opponents did not have to wait their turns to move—if, say, they could make three or four moves before he made any. That’s a pretty good schematic description of reality in tight strategic interactions and, depending on the stakes, it is wise to be humble about the extent to which one can predict and control outcomes.
European statesmen in 1914 screwed up. And one of the reasons, the scholars of this period tell us, was overconfidence that crises could be ended short of general war. Several such crises had preceded August 1914, and war did not break out. Too many leaders became too Follyannish at the same time to avoid the deluge.
Now let’s look at Syria, and at U.S. policy, in the same general spirit. Aside from us there are several state actors with non-trivial interests engaged in or around the war: the Assad regime, Russia, Iran, and Turkey. Just outside this inner circle are Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the Emiratis and Qataris, Jordan, Lebanon, and Israel. Because Turkey is engaged so on the margins are the Greeks and other Europeans. Because Saudi Arabia is engaged so, for different reasons, is Pakistan on the margins, and the Paks drag along the Indians. One cannot assume that all these state actors behave as a decision monolith.
There are as well external militia proxies involved in Syria either directly or indirectly, at present or potentially: Hizballah and several Iraqi Shi’a groups, for example. There are so many Arab and Islamist groups inside Syria that it almost defies description. And of course there are the Kurds, and among them there are at least three distinct decision-making foci: The Barzani leadership in the Kurdish Regional Government; the leaders of the PYD in Rojava; and the PKK inside Turkey. There are also Kurdish political forces inside Turkey that are separate from the PKK. And if things were not complicated enough, there are Turkomans, Druze, and Syria’s myriad Christian minority communities to consider as well.
Every one of these actors, on all of these levels, is capable of doing things to change the overall strategic picture. Every actor has distinct interests and looks ahead, sideways, and over its shoulder at other actors with sometimes compatible and sometimes incompatible interests. If one could present the full matrix of overlapping interests and capabilities graphically it would be extraordinarily complex to try to take in. Obviously, some actors are more powerful than others, in some cases vastly so. But the interactive nature of the strategic engagement is such that smaller powers can have outsized influence if they can identify and act on sensitive torque points. Taken all together, the result is a kind of quantum mechanical Rube Goldberg machine—a very complicated interactive system but one that nobody designed, nobody fully understands and, hence, whose kinetics no one can predict.
The upshot of all this is that the Syrian civil war is an accident-prone environment for the United States. Syria has always been a hard problem, but over time—and especially with the Russian intervention—it has gotten harder still and it has also become much more dangerous. There was a time when the situation was less complex and much less blood had been spilled, and U.S. policy could have possibly headed off the full-frontal disaster that Syria has become. President Obama was extremely sensitive to the dangers of acting—“don’t do stupid shit”—but he was regrettably insensitive to the dangers of passivity. Now all his options are worse and all the dangers are greater, including the dangers from continued passivity.
What if, just to toss out one scenario, the Assad regime with the Russians look to actually win the civil war, and what if they are then willing, for their own reasons, to empower the Kurds for use as leverage against the Turks? What if, too, it were to be revealed that the Russians were secretly aiding and arming PKK cadres inside Turkey, perhaps through both PYD and Chechen intermediaries? Under such circumstances President Erdogan might believe that he has no choice but to order the Turkish military into Syria, to prevent both the fall of the north to the regime and the consolidation of PYD control adjacent to the Syrian-Turkish border. That could spark direct Turkish-Russian hostilities, and it’s hard to think of two leaders we would less like to see in a situation like that than Putin and Erdogan.
That in turn could lead the Turks to invoke Article V of the NATO treaty. Then what? We would know that coming to the aid of the Turks under such circumstances could presage a U.S.-Russian fight, and if that occurred no one could glibly rule out escalation—either horizontal escalation that could activate a front in Europe, or vertical escalation, up to and including the use of nuclear weapons. No, the Syria crisis is not directly analogous to the pre-World War I situation in Europe. But even if it shares only a single thematic feature in common, it’s enough to give one pause.
Now folks, if I can postulate a scenario like this, so can people inside the Administration. Under such circumstances, responsible U.S. decision-makers could be expected to put a very high premium on ending the civil war before its escalatory potential gets any more real. Since we have little to no skin in the game, the only leverage we have is on allies and proxies, and it could well be that the Administration is willing to betray them all to avoid the dangers inherent in this scenario…..and a few others I can think of.
We could of course try to rectify the imbalance on the ground—and suggestions that even at this late hour we support and actively set up a “humanitarian” zone inside Syria is an example of that aim. But it may be too late if Aleppo falls this month. And even proponents of such a zone admit that it would be harder and more dangerous to do it now, with the Russians active in the nearby skies, than it would have been one, two, three, or four years ago. They also admit that they can discern no signs that the President is willing to go forward. The fear of Syria’s escalatory potential, combined with an acute absence of U.S. leverage on the ground, would explain John Kerry’s behavior over Geneva, in which case his public optimism was only a cover for genuine and justified anxiety. Maybe he’s no Follyanna after all.
If this is so, then U.S. policy toward Syria and all it encompasses bear certain similarities to U.S. policy toward Iran and the nuclear deal. The Administration’s single-minded pursuit of that deal seems to have owed much to the fear that a pell-mell Iranian breakout would lead to a disastrous multi-sided nuclear arms race in the region that could only end in blood and tears. The way the Administration went about grasping that brass ring arguably made its policy counterproductive in the longer run; that remains to be seen, but in any case that’s not the point here. The point is that the President and his advisers may believe that a coldblooded accounting of core U.S. interests required both the deal with Iran—almost any deal that promised to delay the program—and now requires a deal over Syria—almost any deal that promises to allay the escalatory potential rising from that crucible. The breakage with allies, proxies, and reputation experienced along the way can be reckoned as just the cost of doing business, so to speak.
So while the Administration, and particularly its Secretary of State, may look follyannish over Syria, it could be that it is instead very wary and extremely conservative in a situation where it believes important but not vital U.S. interests to be at stake. I have not been particularly kind to John Kerry in my writing over the past few years. But I am reconsidering his file, at least with respect to the Syria portfolio. Besides, with a President who, wisely or mistakenly, has not and will not put skin in the Syrian game, what choices does Secretary Kerry have? He might believe in the time-honored American delusion of a free-standing diplomacy divorced from power and reputation, but then again he might be trying to just do the best he can in a war zone with a quiver empty of arrows. Maybe instead of criticizing him I should be wishing him lots of luck. Perhaps I should do both.