The Syrian Challenge
The administration’s policy toward Syria is shaping up to be the greatest missed opportunity of Barack Obama’s presidency. His failure of vision and nerve, paired with an acute Republican fatigue with the Middle East and foreign policy in general, has allowed Syria to drop off Washington’s radar screen. But if Syria were to break the right way and the regime in Damascus were to fall, the most tenacious state-sponsor of terrorism in the Arab world—Tehran’s strongest ally and the lifeline to the terrorism-loving Lebanese Hezbollah—would be taken out. Alas, an administration that came into office only a little less eager to engage Damascus than Tehran seems stuck in its stillborn Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the turmoil of the Great Arab Revolt.
There is some reason to believe that the White House now knows Bashar al-Assad’s Syria is not essential for solving the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio. And clearly, President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton want to help Syrian protesters; both give the impression, however, that they don’t really think they can.
Further, the uncertainties of the Arab Spring and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s air war in Libya have spooked the administration. Its “realist” tendencies are well known, and “realism” powerfully comes to the fore when a president doesn’t know what to do—or believes that the United States can do little. The safest and easiest bet then is to do nothing—the essence of most “realist” policy.