One feels sympathy for U.S. President Barack Obama. Whatever he does in Syria, he is doomed. Had he intervened a year ago, as many pundits demanded, he might presently be in the midst of a quagmire with even more pundits angry athim, and with his approval ratings far lower than they are. If he intervenes now, the results might be even worse. Journalists often demand action for action’s sake, seemingly unaware that many international problems have no solution, given the limits of U.S. power. The United States can topple regimes; it cannot even modestly remake societies unless, perhaps, it commits itself to the level of time and expense it did in post-war Germany and Japan.
Indeed, Obama has onerous calculations: If I intervene, which group do I arm? Am I assured the weapons won’t fall into the wrong hands? Am I assured the group or groups I choose to help really are acceptable to the West, and even if they are, will they matter in Damascus in the long run? And, by the way, what if toppling Syrian leader Bashar al Assad through the establishment of a no-fly zone leads to even more chaos, and therefore results in an even worse human rights situation? Do I really want to own that mess? And even were I to come out of it successfully, do I want to devote my entire second term to Syria? Because that’s what getting more deeply involved militarily there might entail.
In the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, intervention did not provoke other powers in the region such as Russia, because Russia in the first decade after the Cold War was a weak and chaotic state unable to project its usual historical influence in the Balkans. But intervention in Syria could get the United States into a proxy war with a strengthened Russia and with Iran.
In a media-driven world, holding power is truly thankless. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel will have his term in office defined by three things: a withdrawal from Afghanistan, a serious reduction in the defense budget and responses to any overseas emergencies that crop up. There is no good way to accomplish the first two, and the third usually presents the same sort of awful choices the administration now faces in Syria. Secretary of State John Kerry energetically engages in negotiations with Iran and Afghanistan, and with Israel and the Palestinian territories, not because he necessarily wants to, but because he must. Anything less would indicate an abdication of America’s responsibility as a great power. And yet the chances of good outcomes in all of those cases are slim.
The overarching theme here is that the media assumes American policymakers have significant control over events overseas, whereas in truth they often have very little. The complex, messy realities of ground-level war and politics in Syria, Iran and Afghanistan – short of aerial and naval bombardments or tens of thousands of boots on the ground – are probably not going to be pivotally shaped by American officials.
During the Cold War, when chaos was relatively limited and much of the globe was divided up into two ideological camps, it was at least possible to formulate creative diplomatic strategies through the mechanical manipulation of this or that country or group of countries against others. But in a world of weak and fragmented democracies, considerable anarchy and anemic alliance systems, it is much harder to manipulate reality. There is no night watchman. No one is in control, even as the media is more relentless than ever. (Indeed, could one imagine in today’s media climate a Henry Kissinger or a James Baker constructively and sternly pressuring Israel as they once did?)
A relentless media means policies have little time to mature before they are declared failures. It means there is less secrecy because of so many leaks. And because so much is leaked, government officials themselves have less incentive to be candid, even in private meetings, on account of the assumption that no transcript stays secret forever, whatever the security classification given it. So the quality of discussion inside government deteriorates, even as the public policy climate outside also worsens. In sum, the semi-anarchic, post-Cold War world narrows the space for foreign policy success at the same time that the quality of foreign policy itself wanes.
Adding to the dilemma are the really hard problems – the ones that even the most creative diplomacy cannot solve. Every president of either party going back decades has failed on the issue of North Korea. Meanwhile, each administration gets blamed anew for the failure.
In such a climate, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ranks as the model diplomat. She often practiced activity for activity’s sake, circling the globe nonstop before adoring cameramen while having no real diplomatic accomplishment to her credit, despite a refreshing tendency to speak boldly on occasion. The media approved of her because she was, well, a celebrity. She did promote one useful idea, though: the “pivot” away from the Middle East and toward the Asia-Pacific region. For that and maybe for that alone will she be remembered. The pivot was less a brilliant idea than a natural, organic evolution of policy intent, given the winding down of two Middle Eastern wars and the rising strategic and economic importance of the Pacific. But as noncontroversial as it should have been, the pivot was attacked in the media as being both too weak-kneed (How come we don’t have more warships dedicated to Asia?) and too belligerent (against China).
So what is an American leader to do in such circumstances? How can one be a statesman in the face of reduced American influence in a semi-anarchic world and in the face of an increasingly demanding media?
The answer may be exactly what Obama is doing now in Syria: modestly assisting some of the rebel groups, but essentially avoiding the level of involvement that would make him henceforth responsible for events on the ground. In other words, let Iran get sucked deeper and deeper into the Syrian maelstrom, not the United States. The maintenance cost for Iran in a crumbling Syria will grow, even as Iran enjoys less influence there than it did during the era of a strong al Assad regime. At the same time, intensify the economic and diplomatic aid to Jordan, which, with its relatively small population and small economy, may well be possible to save. Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and so forth are all destined to be weak, quasi-chaotic states that the United States cannot put to rights without the kind of gargantuan effort that would undermine its interests elsewhere in the world and at home.
It may be — barring some military attack on the United States or on a treaty ally that plainly justifies a commensurate military response — that successful administrations will go unloved during their tenures, even while they are granted grudging respect in the years and decades that follow. This has often been the case in American history. But owing to the nature of the media and the nature of the world overseas, it might become increasingly the norm. Remember that President George W. Bush enjoyed high public approval ratings from the very beginning of his presidency, through 9/11 and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. But it was the very military actions that he took, popular in the media at the time, that led in his second term to becoming a tragically failed president.
The lesson is this: When it comes to foreign affairs, there is usually no way to get good reviews. But once an American leader internalizes this, he might then begin to craft a strategy that is honorable and will ultimately secure his reputation.