By Robert D. Kaplan, Chief Geopolitical Analyst, STRATFOR
Review by Edward Marks, Theodore Wilkinson, William C. Harrop
(Members of the American Diplomacy Board of Directors)
WILKINSON: If anything, Robert Kaplan’s article understates the immensity of President Obama’s Syrian dilemma.
The arguments for direct assistance to the rebellion gain force daily. The humanitarian costs of Syrian government repression are escalating. Refugee flows to Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon are draining those countries’ resources and threatening spillover instability beyond Syria’s borders. A regional strategy argues for reinforcing the efforts of friendly Arab states and their proxies to help topple Assad.
In parallel the risks of not intervening grow. Will the direct involvement of Iran and Hezbollah, together with Russian arms assistance, be allowed to tip the scales definitively in Assad’s favor? What lessons would our friends in the region, not to mention our key NATO Allies, draw from the US continuing to sit in the audience watching the Syrian tragedy play out?
On the other hand, the risks of the limited step the President has chosen are just as great. Is it likely to be enough to change the dynamic? Or will it just prolong the agony, encouraging both sides to dig in for a protracted civil war?
The debate has led to an unusual phenomenon for polarized 21st Century Washington. Both parties are deeply split on what path the US should follow. To cite one example, Senator McCain’s interventionist views are well known. In contrast, his vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin told the Freedom Coalition on June 15 that the US should not intervene, but instead “let Allah sort it out.”In the circumstances, it’s hardly surprising that the president’s decision was minimalist – only small arms were guaranteed – and that he chose to deliver it through his spokesman rather than in person.
The impact may also be minimal, although it’s at least encouraging to note that the Syrian currency had declined sharply as of June 18.
As for the longer term, there may be something in the words of Israel’s wise old President Shimon Peres, when asked about the president’s decision: “If it were dependent on me, I would pursue a totally different policy. I would turn to the Arab League and say: ‘It is for you to enter Syria as a transitional government, stop the bloodshed, go to elections and do it in the name of the United Nations – all of us will support you.’”
MARKS: “Wikipedia defines a “wicked problem” as a phrase from social planning to describe a problem difficult if not impossible to solve, if only because dealing with one aspect of it is likely to produce other and possibly more difficult problems.
There is no need to define “realpolitique” for the readership of American Diplomacy, the problem of wrestling with the real world and its conflicting pressures and choices are only too familiar to us all. However it might be useful to check on the dictionary definitions of “modest” and “humble” which have not been characteristics of American foreign policy and behavior since World War II.
Yet “wicked problem”, “modest”, and “humble” are the three primary elements of Robert Kaplan’s perspective in this article on American foreign policy and the problems and choices facing President Obama. Kaplan assumes we all pretty much agree on the primary characteristics of the current unstable and multi-polar geo-political environment. He does not posit a serious decline in American absolute power but he notes a comparative decline in American influence in today’s unstable and rapidly changing world. He discusses the various options available in the hottest current issue of Syria and pretty much supports Obama’s reluctance to get too involved.
Kaplan’s argument for not doing so is two-fold: first because it is unlikely that we can do much good (for us as well as for the Syrians) and secondly because he sees no reason for us to save the Iranians from their own folly. We are not the only one who can stumble into a quagmire. The dangers that threaten imprudent involvement for the United States exist, he believes, for others as well.
Kaplan’s tone is noticeable for a kind of world-weariness, for a conscious acceptance that we cannot not always achieve our desires in the foreign affairs arena. He notes that this realization is sobering for President Obama, and for any president. Kaplan does suggest that in the long run of history, this sort of prudence will be recognized and valued.
This consolation about how history will treat him is probably of little satisfaction to the current incumbent facing severe criticism for all sides. However he will have to remember that he volunteered for the job.”
HARROP: (Ed and Ted) certainly underline the complexity of the choices Obama faces. Neither Ed nor Ted, nor Kaplan as I recall, underlined one big factor the president must be thinking about: no matter how great the pressure from humanitarian interventionists and neoconservatives, the American public is strongly opposed to American involvement in more Middle East wars.